November 18, 2010

Wikipedia Puts New Fund-Raising Model to the Test

This week the Wikimedia Foundation, which raises money for the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia and related projects, announced that it was doubling the goal of its annual online fund-raising campaign. Despite tough economic times, it is seeking to raise $16-million—mostly in small gifts of about $30—from among nearly 400 million monthly readers of the online encyclopedia.

Held every November and December, the annual drive this year is breaking with previous campaign practices: Instead of hiring a consultant, who last year called the shots, the current campaign has involved about 900 individuals from around the world who edit and use the site, which now includes some 17 million entries in more than 270 languages, written by volunteer editors.

To come up with this year's campaign, volunteers participated in online planning sessions over the past five months. They submitted and tested numerous online banners and tinkered with donation amounts and other campaign messages in weekly, then daily, sessions. Campaign communications that got the best test results will be adopted.

"Group collaboration is the future of fund raising," says Philippe Beaudette, a former volunteer who is now a Wikimedia Foundation staff member overseeing the campaign.

"Organizations are going to have to work harder for donor dollars, and the ones that will be successful will be the ones that do not involve professional fund raisers," Mr. Beaudette says. "Professional fund raisers are sometimes limited by history and afraid to think outside the box. It is going to take new creative ideas, and the best way to get that is to have a huge number of people thinking."

The volunteer planners have challenged officials to adopt new ways of thinking, says Mr. Beaudette. For example, it was assumed that a message from Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, would do better than a solicitation from another spokesperson. But, says Mr. Beaudette, "we tested another banner from a young woman in Jakarta, Indonesia, and her banner did almost as well. She had one memorable line, 'If you have knowledge, you must share it,'" which proved to be compelling.

Finally, continues Mr. Beaudette, volunteers have been essential in making sure campaign messages are relevant in dozens of different countries where the encyclopedia has avid readers.

"I wouldn't know how to ask for money in Zimbabwe, but now I know where to find the volunteers who can ask for money in Zimbabwe," he says. "The cultural influence and diversity that have come together to support this fund raiser are overwhelming. There is no question in my mind that we are better off together than alone."

Despite the seemingly unwieldy number of participants, many of whom had conflicting ideas, Mr. Beaudette says, planning for the campaign was smooth, largely because the foundation set out clear rules for participation from the start, and it was understood that the fund-raising drive would adopt the ideas that were proven to be the best through testing.

Already the campaign is outpacing last year's. In just four days, it has raised close to $2-million, a total that took 29 days to achieve last year.

Says Mr. Beaudette: "We are getting smarter about how we ask."