Funding the Future of Free Knowledge

Zach Brooke
Marketing News, Nonprofit
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Key Takeaways

​​What? The Wikimedia Foundation is the parent nonprofit of online encyclopedia Wikipedia and 12 other free knowledge projects.

So what? It is one of the most well-funded free knowledge projects in the world, despite its adamant refusal to allow ads on its sites.

Now what? Listen to your donors, do research, ask what messages resonate and conduct A/B testing on messaging used in e-mail and site banners.​ 

July 1, 2017

The communications director for the Wikimedia Foundation shares her encyclopedic knowledge of the nonprofit’s brand and fundraising practices 

The Wikimedia Foundation is the parent nonprofit of online encyclopedia Wikipedia and 12 other free knowledge projects. 

As the overseer of the fifth-most-visited website in the world, the temptation to allow advertisements must, at times, be enormous. Yet, the refusal to permit outside advertisements is a fundamental component of the foundation’s culture, which means money must be made elsewhere to keep the lights on.  

Heading up the foundation’s media and PR effort is communications director Juliet Barbara. She spoke to Marketing News about the mechanics of her organization’s increasingly successful fundraising efforts.

Q: In Wikipedia’s 2016-2017 plan, there is a program to make the brand more consistent, relatable and easily understood. How did you decide that this was something you wanted to address? 

A: For most of its history, the Wikipedia brand was completely organic. For most of the early history of the foundation, we did not have a significant communications presence and definitely not any marketing. Even today we don’t have a traditional marketing team. We have something closer to a communications and audience development team with marketing expertise. It’s also a complicated brand. A lot of people don’t know that in addition to Wikipedia there are 12 other Wikimedia projects that the Wikimedia Foundation supports. Those are projects like Wikimedia Commons, which is our free image repository, and Wikiversity, which has educational content, and Wikispecies, which focuses on information about species and biology. All of these brands have different logos. 

We want to understand what Wikimedia and Wikipedia mean to people—from our community to our readers to our donors to our partners—and make sure that we can clearly communicate the values that we stand for and why people love Wikipedia. 

Q: The Wikimedia solicitation that most people are familiar with is if everybody gave $3, your fundraising would be over in hours. How did you decide to approach fundraising with that specific messaging? 

A: We listen to our donors and our readers, and we do research. We ask them what messages resonate most, and we do A/B testing on the messages that we use in our banners. We know that people really value Wikipedia, and they will contribute the value that they ascribe to Wikipedia. Much like you would go and get a cup of coffee for $3, is Wikipedia worth at least that much to you?

Q: How many times a year do you hold fundraisers?

A: We hope to create an online fundraising campaign every year in different languages in different parts of the world. But at any given time in one language you will only see banners for a certain period of time. For example, in December, we do our big English-language fundraiser, and that only lasts for as long as we need to reach our goal. This year we were able to reach our goal in a record amount of time and were able to turn off the banner in a matter of a couple weeks. 

Q: How much do you spend on marketing overall? 

A: Our communication budget is a relatively smaller portion of our overall budget. It comprises 3.7% of our overall budget.

Q: This year, you were hoping to raise $63 million. Your mid-year check-in says you’ve already surpassed that number. Where are you now, and how does that figure compare to past years? 

A: We reached our English-language fundraiser in record time, and that was in the $20 to $25 million space. We are pacing really well, and typically we go above that fundraising target because we have other sources of funding that we need to be investing in, including our endowment that we launched in January 2016, which has a goal of ensuring that Wikipedia remains in perpetuity. It’s a rainy day fund to make sure that no matter what’s happening in the world, we still have the money to sustain this incredible resource. And since January 2016, for that fund in particular, we’ve raised $12 million in donations and pledges. 

Q: To what do you owe the fundraising success that you have achieved this year already? 

A: Over the years we’ve become more sophisticated in our fundraising approaches. We’re always testing our banner messaging to resonate more with our readers and donors. We’ve also gotten more sophisticated with our e-mail asks. We make sure that messaging resonates with people. We have a really high open rate on our e-mails, which means that people want to hear from us, but we don’t overcommunicate with them because we want to respect their time. I think it’s a combination of us getting better at this kind of outreach but also the world recognizing that right now we need free, reliable knowledge more than ever. There are debates around fake news and the availability of reliable information online that remind people how important Wikipedia is today. 

Q: It sounds like there’s constant experimentation going on at the foundation with the language or the appearance of the fundraising. What tweaks have you found to be most successful? 

A: We found that, in a counterintuitive way, people want information in these banners. They want text. Rather than a flashy banner that has a few words on it about free knowledge, we find that people actually want to learn. They want to hear from Wikipedia. We also found that people want us to be authentic. They want the banners to reflect the Wikipedia brand, which is accessible, not overdone or over-polished. Staying true to that authentic brand has been really important to how these banners resonate with people. 

Q: The Wikimedia survey conducted by Lake Research Partners from October and November 2015 found the most frequent Wikipedia users tend to be male college graduates aged 30 to 39. These characteristics are similar to those of self-reported donors and donor targets. Would you say you tailor your fundraising outreach efforts for them specifically?

A: No. That survey was specifically of donors and donor targets and I think it was specifically in the U.S. That is one segment that we would market to, but it’s one of many. Actually, we collect very little data about our users, so we’re not able to target individuals.

Our vision is a world where every single person can freely share in the world’s knowledge. We want to serve every single person. Our communications ... are framed so they’re accessible to every person. We don’t want someone to feel excluded from the Wikipedia experience. I would say that we are targeting anyone who is a knowledge seeker and who wants to share in knowledge. That could be a man in his 30s, but it could also be a young woman training to be a doctor in India. Or it could be a grandmother in Ukraine.  

Q: Some of the Wikipedia fundraiser messaging gives the impression that the foundation is endangered when it actually looks like it’s doing quite well. How do you address claims that the Wikimedia Foundation overstates its need? 

A: In response to those claims, I would say that Wikipedia is too precious to not give it the resources that it requires to not only exist, but also to grow. We believe that it is urgent every single year to raise money for Wikipedia. We raise our operating budget every year, which is a unique funding model, and it means that the donations that we receive today will be funding our work; allowing us to run the data servers; and pay the staff that supports all of the technology, the community engagement, the legal protection [and] the fundraising. We’re raising money for the following year today. 

In addition to the data servers and all the technology that accounts for about 50% of our budget, we also need to make sure that Wikipedia continues to grow. We have certain programs that invest back into our communities, back into the awareness of Wikipedia so that people continue to know about Wikipedia in different places around the world. And these programs are important to the sustainability and future of Wikipedia. 

Q: You’re not the only nonprofit to employ this sort of language and strategy. Do you feel that Wikipedia is unfairly singled out for criticism? 

A: While we don’t agree with those criticisms, we’re a very open organization. Whenever you have a major brand—a top 10 website—there will be critics. We’re OK with that. All of the information about how we spend our money and how we raise money is available online. We know what our values are, and we welcome constructive feedback.

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Author Bio:
Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.
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