Dear potential donor, small or big, individual or corporate,

I am hoping that through this long post (I promise, I tried to trim it down) I can make light on one of the intriguing (at least to me) aspects of this fundraiser and tackle the purpose of this blog, i.e. “why give?”. I was wondering if all of you out there felt comfortable donating, if we had achieved our goal of talking to you.

I am French. Now, this is a trivial piece of information, but it is important for this post. I live in Germany, and work for an American organisation. As chapters coordinator of the Wikimedia Foundation, I get to meet and talk to people who have very different viewpoints from mine, especially when it comes to organisational matters. Which in a way, makes a lot of sense, because I work in a realm where culture (that of association, that of non-profit) plays an immense role.

So when looking at the message the organisation I work for is sending out there to ask for money, I look at it with my French-living-in-Germany-working-for-an-American-organisation glasses. And I’m sorry, but I have to ask myself whether we are delivering the right message for all. I mean, what about you, dear potential donor, does that message speak to you? What would make you give?

If I look at the reasons to give that we find on the donation web-page, they’re the following:

If you and 99 other people donate…

* $200 – We can make Wikipedia available in developing countries through DVDs, books and pamphlets.
* $100 – We can pay for two Wikipedia Academy events in Africa.
* $60 – We can send three students to our annual Wikimania conference.
* $40 – We can deliver 100 million pageviews of free information!

So let’s go and look at what your options are.

Wikipedia in developing countries: where and when do we start, when and where do we stop?

Now, these are all correct statements. With $20 000, the Foundation could make sure that projects are run which aim at developing offline solutions to distribute Wikipedia in countries where surfing the internet is not an easy thing. Trick is, I am personally not a big fan of shoving Wikipedia at the head of people who have hardly surfed before and therefore have no idea what the process behind Wikipedia is. Do the “poor children in developing countries” really need to know everything about Pokemon or every single Harry Potter character in English? And more important, do they need that before they actually get their hands on a really NPOV (Neutral Point of View) article about the history of their country in the language they speak everyday? I am really not sure about this.

I am French remember? We French have a long history of colonization. And probably some kind of a guilt feeling about it. Colonization=BadPeopleTramplingOnGoodPeoplesTerritory (™). Now, it’s a simplistic way of putting it, but fact is, I don’t like the idea that anyone imposes their way of thinking, living, eating or surfing the web to anyone else. So I’m not a big fan of exporting Wikipedia just like that to developing countries. It takes teachers, it takes time. It should not happen overnight. And if it does happen, it should happen through people who have experience with that kind of stuff, actually, it already does. As for Wikimedia, my take is that we will be ready to do this in 5 years. And do it well, because we will have developed the right partnerships. Today, we’re just starting. I believe it’s a long term goal, not a today thing.

Pay for Wikipedia Academies: right, but why in Africa?

That's your second option. Wikipedia Academy is a cool concept developped by Wikimedia Deutschland, and now spreading in many different circles (a colloque organized by Wikimedia France this year, Wikipedia Days by Wikimedia CH, Wikimedia Conferentie NL by Wikimedia Nederland, and the newly born Wikipedia Academy in South Africa). To make a long story short, it aims to help students, academics, and pretty much whoever is interested, to learn how to edit and use Wikipedia in the best possible way (you know, tips about quality, checking your sources, using Wikipedia as a trempoline to other kind of knowledge sources etc.).

Now, here’s an event that I would support, because I believe that is definitely one of the most important responsibilities we have (and this is a very general “we” including editors in the projects, the Wikimedia organisations, and all supporters of the Wikimedia projects). So let’s make Wikipedia Academies. But again, I have to ask myself, why in Africa? I mean, in Africa, sure, we need the African Wikimedia Projects to take off so people can actually write their own history (and not have it written by others, as I pointed out above) but I think that our Western societies are at least as needy in terms of learning how to use the Wikimedia projects and further than that, the net. Wikipedia is among the 10 most visited websites in the world, it comes up first as soon as you type anything in search engines, so we have a huge responsibility to teach people how to use its content, as well as teach them to contribute to its overal quality.

This is all about (and although I don’t like the buzzword) media competence. Yes, you find errors in Wikipedia. But then, other sources have errors too. And there is so much information. So let’s teach people how to digest the information they’re fed and make sure they realize that they don't just have to digest it, but the can also participate in gathering it and bettering it. Not just in Africa, but everywhere. Let’s have Wikipedia Academies in the neighbour university, in Timbuktu, at your local Rotary Club, at the retirement home across the street. Everywhere.

Send students to Wikimania: Which students? Wikima…what?

That’s your third option. Well, errr, first and foremost, what on Earth is Wikimania? Well, it’s Wikimedia’s international annual conference. You’ll find everything about it on the official website. This year we had it in Taipei, next year we’ll have it in Alexandria. I love Wikimania. It’s like a little miniature world recreating in one place. But do our readers really care about it? I mean, it is an important event for the maintenance of the Wikimedia websites, for their reliability, their sane development, because editors and scholars and passers-by meet and discuss the future of Wikimedia projects. But I’m not sure you, our individual donor (the one who gives 60 dollars), are ready to support sending students there. Actually, I would say, keep your money and join us there. However, Wikimania is a great sponsorship opportunity. I mean this year, we’re having it in Alexandria, Egypt, home of the Library of Alexandria, no less. Sooo, dear corporate donor, contact me if you want to be part of this fantastic adventure. Dear individual donor, if you’ve come thus far, please continue to the next paragraph.

Deliver 100 millions page-views: the core idea, keep Wikipedia running

And we finally come to the real thing. Well, it’s kind of phrased awkwardly (what are pageviews? Aren’t they a measure used for getting money out of ads? Oh but wait, Wikimedia projects don’t do ads!), but basically, it says “support Wikimedia so that Wikipedia stays up”.

Now we’re talking! I mean, how many of our friends out there don’t even know that Wikipedia is hosted by a non-profit? How many of you out there are ready to give $20 (actually, make that 20 euros these days) or $20 000 (well, maybe fewer of you, but it does not hurt to try) to make sure that they can use Wikipedia further (or that others can use WIkipedia further)? Because that is also what, in the much longer run, is at stake. Whether Wikipedia continues to run, or not. The Wikimedia Foundation needs the money to make the sites go on.

Put your money where your mind (and your heart) is

In the end, the important message is that Wikipedia and the Wikimedia projects can achieve great things. In Africa, in developping countries, or in your neighborhood. But they will only be able to do so if they stay up, and free, out there for everyone to use. Mind you, I am one of the strongest advocates that the Wikimedia organisations worldwide need to focus on education, free knowledge for all and that in the long run, our budget should reflect clearly that. Running the websites in 3 years should not be our main worry (I can imagine an operational budget that has something like 10% devoted to server maintenance and 90% devoted to cool educational projects all over the world). But frankly, today, it is our main focus. The sites must go on. We’re working towards diversification and sustainability, but we need your help for that.

So, if you give, and if we’ve failed to talk to you, forget about all the words on the donation pages. Just give because of why you think Wikipedia is worth it.

Wikipedia has helped you stay in touch with the fast changes in your professional field? Give for that. Wikipedia has gotten you through school? Give for that. Wikipedia has allowed you to interest your grand-children in World War II? Or your grand-father in World of Warcraft? Give for that. Wikipedia has netted you your new job because it gave you all the background info on the company you applied to? Give for that. These reasons, and all of those you care to come up with, are the reasons why you should give, not the ones *we* may think are cool.

So, dear potential donor, small or big, individual or corporate, although we’re trying hard and might not be succeeding, help us understand why you give, so we can talk to you, and even better, with you.

NB. This post has been written for the Wikimedia Foundation fundraiser blog 2007.