Lessons From Wikipedia’s Annual Donation Strategy

Each year, the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the popular Wikipedia website, puts on a series of fundraising appeals so effective that the website has tens of millions of dollars sitting in reserve at the moment. Here’s what you can learn.

It seems like the one year-end donation drive that really stands out to the public every year is Wikipedia’s.

The Wikimedia Foundation, in the decade-plus that it’s run the popular website, has ratcheted up the emotional appeals to highlight the public-service value of its user-generated encyclopedia platform. Unlike the intentionally muted website, these appeals are bold and direct. And the foundation isn’t afraid to aim high: The 2016 year-end campaign goal, announced last month, is $25 million.

It’s a bold but not impossible goal for the organization: For the 2016 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the foundation had raised an impressive $82 million, its largest total ever.

“Now, more than ever, the world needs access to reliable, neutral information,” the foundation’s executive director, Katherine Maher, said in a news release.

It’s a long way from the early days of Wikipedia, where the servers were so overloaded that the site had to launch a fundraising campaign to keep things alive, Jimmy Wales noted in comments reported by D Magazine earlier this year.

Its strategy is effective and worth studying. Below, a few takeaways from Wikimedia’s fundraising approach.


Just one of the examples of donation drives you’ll see on Wikipedia. (Wikimedia)

Play for the emotions: As Wikipedia is famously known for, it uses emotional appeals in an attempt to keep people interested in donating—and puts such appeals on the site and elsewhere about five times a year. And these appeals work impressively well. Inc. Columnist Justin Bariso, the founder of Insight, noted recently that an emotional play in one of the nonprofit’s recent emails—complete with the subject line “People warned me I’d regret it, Justin”—helped convince Bariso to donate once again. “This email effectively used emotion to inspire me to give a second thought—to reconsider a decision I had already made,” Bariso noted.

Get the community involved: Much like the articles on Wikipedia, the Wikimedia Foundation leans on the crowd to test banners and other ads. And it does so in the open— check out this page to see how it discusses the different appeals it uses on different platforms, including social media and the Wikipedia site itself. The results, of course, involved a lot of back and forth between individual users.

Save for a rainy day: One element of the foundation’s approach that’s interesting is the size of its reserves. The foundation has received criticism for having so much hanging around, as Caitlin Dewey noted in The Washington Post last year. But those heady reserves, which slightly outpace the amount it costs to run the website for a year, are by design. “If there were circumstances that affected our ability to raise those funds during that period, we could end up in an urgent situation,” Wikimedia Spokeswoman Samantha Lien told Dewey, adding that “the reserve is a safety net to protect Wikipedia against such a possibility.”

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: Despite the well-oiled machine that the foundation uses to ask for donations, it isn’t focused on just the day-to-day appeals. Earlier this year, the foundation announced a long-term endowment, designed to ensure that the website could remain active even in a a time of crisis. The foundation’s approach paid off  in June when Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark donated $1 million in support of the endowment, which hopes to raise $100 million.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of the Wikimedia Foundation. We regret the error.

(Susanne Nilsson/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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