Wikipedia's new plea for donations stirs skepticism
By Jacqui Cheng | Published: December 30, 2008 - 01:30PM CT
Regular visitors of Wikipedia have become so familiar with the standard fundraising banner at the top of the page that they've practically become blind to it, but Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has mixed things up by replacing it recently with a personal plea for donations. Wales' appeal has triggered renewed discussion about the site and its ability to sustain itself without advertising, while many remain skeptical about the severity of the situation. In his letter to Wikipedia readers, Wales notes that the Wikimedia Foundation has a relatively small staff (23 members) and that all of its content is free. He says that donations help the organization cover the increasing cost of bandwidth and help improve the site's software. "Like a national park or a school, we don't believe advertising should have a place in Wikipedia. We want to keep it free and strong, but we need the support of thousands of people like you," reads the letter. Wales' appeal has been compared to a PBS pledge drive—annoying at best, unnecessary at worst. Critics have long suggested that Wikipedia simply give up harassing its members with endless donation requests and turn to the ad-based revenue model that supports many other sites that offer free content to users, but Wikipedia has so far been adamantly against this option.
Not that an ad model would somehow automatically solve Wikipedia's funding issues. Companies like YouTube have had serious trouble trying to monetize user-generated content through advertising, and it's not hard to see why; what big-time brand wants to take a chance on appearing above unvetted and potentially libelous entries that could, at any moment, have key words replaced by terms for genitalia?
Former Wikimedia employee Danny Wool publicly criticized Wikipedia's constant donation drive on his blog last month by saying the organization is incredibly bloated and inefficient. He points out that Wikipedia once accepted numerous tiny donations (á la the Obama campaign—every little bit counts) but now has a suggested minimum of $30. "As for Administrative expenses, should a charity that lives on $6 million be paying bloated salaries to the ED and her office, i.e., 8 percent of the budget?" Wool wrote. "Is that what people should be donating to support? Please donate to Wikipedia, so that [executive director] Sue Gardner can be among the elite few whom Obama admits he will raise their taxes? No wonder the WMF doesn't want the small donations any more."