Wikipedia: Wales brings the blubber

Wikipedia finds that the most effective fundraising tool is its founder's face.

When Jimmy Wales asks for money, the world gives. So far, as of press time, banners of the blue-eyed CEO of Wikipedia asking users to read his personal appeal and pony up have raised on average US$335,000 per day. That’s a good thing for the non-profit organization, which is trying to reach $16 million — twice as much as they made in last year’s fundraising campaign.

Last year, some of the banner ads were messages from users praising Wikipedia (“A small price to pay for the value recieved”), but when they introduced Jimmy banners about halfway through, donations spiked by 400% and stayed 200% higher for just over two weeks.

“It shows people do care and respond to passionate requests for support,” says Jay Walsh, head of Wikimedia communications, the foundation that does fundraising for Wikipedia. “Jimmy Wales doesn’t over-intellectualize what Wikipedia means to the world. He believes it’s simple and powerful, and that’s encompassed in his message.”

When Wikipedia started in 2001, it was just Wales in a small St. Petersburg, Fla., office. This year, along with the other Wikimedia sites, it became the fifth-most-visited in the world, and traffic increased by 30% since last year — bringing in 400 million visitors a month. Though Wikipedia has no official paid staff, they have 100,000 volunteer editors, and Wikimedia employs 54. Their desired operating budget has grown from just over US$9 million last year, to US$20.4 million this year.

Wikipedia currently has one data centre, meaning if a hurricane causes it to crash, the online encyclopedia goes down. “For a site with 50 million visitors a days, that would be bad,” says Walsh. The company is in the process of establishing a new centre in Virginia and is looking into creating others overseas to speed up access in places such as Mumbai.

Most of the company’s money goes toward salaries, wages and recruiting, budget items that will rise by 185% next year. Walsh says Wikipedia only has six people in their engineering department, who are backed up with thousands of user requests, and that they plan to actively recruit volunteer editors in places such as India, Brazil and the Middle East to encourage content in different languages. (English makes up 47.8% of all contributions.) Wikipedia is also looking to make the site more mobile-friendly and is more than doubling its capital expenditures, the second-biggest portion of the budget.

If donations keep coming at this rate, the company will meet its fundraising goal in about 47 days, 20 days shorter than its average campaign. Walsh says they are not worried about having to use ads to fund Wikipedia — as many media outlets have suggested — but adds a final jab that Canadians are slack on financial contributions. “I think there may be a sense that ???Well, you know, it’s an American non-profit, and I don’t really want to support that,'” he says, adding another deterrent is his inability to issue tax receipts for Canadian donations. “If 10,000 people donate $20, that’s a lot of operating capital to help the foundation out.”