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'We never made a promise we wouldn't run ads' - Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales on being ad-free in an ad-crazy world

Jimmy Wales says there are lots of things Wikipedia will do to raise funds before it ever takes on advertising.

Online encyclopedia Wikipedia says it reached its December 2016 fundraising goal of $25 million in “record time.”

The campaign is the biggest of the year and supports the operating budget for projects, community efforts and the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that says it is dedicated to encouraging the growth, development and distribution of free, multilingual, educational content. The Wikimedia Foundation operates a number of collaboratively edited reference projects, including Wikipedia.

This particular fundraiser prompted messages from Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales, noting, “Time is running out in 2016,” and, echoing Sally Struthers and the Christian Children’s Fund, “The price of a coffee is all we need.”

Since it was founded in 2001, Wikimedia has opted for fundraisers and messaging like this instead of advertising, which it said marks a commitment to never run ads – and to preserve its independence.

Indeed, unlike sites that support themselves with ad revenue, Wales said there is no incentive for Wikimedia to drive traffic to more profitable parts of its sites. It also means readers are not prioritized based on where they are located.

“It’s important to me that as a foundation that we realize the next million readers coming in from Sub-Saharan Africa are as important as the next million from California,” Wales said. “I don’t want to see a model that says California is more important because of the ad market in the US.”

But it also means users are subjected to Struthers-like appeals for cash. In a recent interview, however, Wales said Wikimedia has improved over time.

“The fundraiser used to be much longer and took much more time and was more intrusive with ads on every page of the site that you couldn’t dismiss,” Wales said. “That has gotten a lot gentler.”

Indeed, according to a Wikimedia rep, the organization has adapted its approach, including the introduction of mobile fundraising banners in earnest in 2014, as well as email fundraising in 2011, and newsletters in 2015 to “engage our donors and share updates of the Foundation’s work.”

And even though his plea noted “only a tiny portion of our readers give,” Wales told The Drum the organization has raised quite a lot from its email campaign from loyal donors who contribute in large numbers.

“It is important for us that in the pursuit of that ideal of neutrality and objectivity that the money comes from the general public,” Wales added. “The vast majority of the money [comes from] small donors rather than three or four major philanthropic donors because then we run into the question about how independent we can stay if one person is paying the bills.”

Wikimedia’s annual fundraising target is $63 million, the rep said. The online donations it receives from July 2016 to June 2017 will support its operating budget for July 2017 to June 2018. Per a Fundraising Report, more than 5 million readers donated $77 million in the 2015–2016 fiscal year.

But even if Wikimedia was struggling to reach its goal, Wales insisted it is unlikely its ad-free stance would change.

“We never made a promise we’ll never run ads, but we don’t want to run ads,” Wales said. “So we have no plans to run ads. At the board level, when we discuss the future and the budget and fundraising, [ads are] never even a topic of discussion, nor do we think it will ever be necessary. We’ve been doing this for a long time now and we have never had ads. We do alright. We take fundraising very seriously and it seems sustainable.”

Instead, Wales said the organization might simply extend its fundraising period if it found itself short.

“We…try to…sort of budget in a very cautious way and be conservative [and we] try to be very careful – we have the right recommended level of reserve,” Wales said. “If we saw a problem developing, there are several things we would look to do, but advertising would be way, way on the bottom of the list.”

Higher up: Increasing its major donor program – even though Wales himself said taking money from a few major donors starts to raise questions about objectivity.

“We’ve never done a lot of work pursuing larger donors,” Wales said. “We try to be super transparent with the public.”

Wales said Wikimedia might also make additional pleas, letting the public know the organization might have to dip into its reserves if it doesn’t raise more money, before it resorts to ads.

The issue of biased content has been of particular interest lately as Facebook and Google grapple with fake news.

According to Wales, the Wikipedia community works hard to think about bias, to seek out quality sources and to fairly represent all sides in disputed areas.

“The work goes on intensely every day all day long,” he said.

And when it comes to sponsored content elsewhere, Wales said it’s incredibly important readers get full disclosure.

“It should be very obvious to the reader that they are reading ad-supported content that has been influenced directly by the money of the advertiser, and I want to know the parameters,” Wales said.

And while he conceded the Wikipedia model may not be right for every organization, Wales pointed to the community control within Wikipedia – not unlike Facebook enlisting a faction of fact checkers – as a means of ensuring accuracy and combating the fake news problem.

“People see an exciting headline or story that is something they are hopeful for or afraid of and they immediately share it [with] their friends – ‘OMG this news story says Hillary will be arrested next week’…and they forward to their friends who forward on to their friends and suddenly [it has been shared] millions of times whereas Wikipedia recognizes…that newspaper…is not a real one and that’s the end of it,” Wales said. “So that kind of level of community control of what we’re doing, the level of vetting that goes on is important…I can’t give Facebook any answers [for the problems] they face, but I do think if I was looking for a solution, I should look at a community-based mechanism like Wikipedia – we do a good job of determining whether it’s good to link from.”

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Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is a senior reporter for The Drum, covering digital and search marketing. Based in New York, she writes about how brands use technology to connect with consumers, particularly as innovations like voice search, digital assistants and the Internet of Things change consumers’ lives forever – not to mention the data these platforms increasingly collect and the security and privacy issues therein. She is a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism. Her bucket list includes riding in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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