Wikipedia is a cause because it’s a tool.

This is a very important finding from 2010, solidly validated again in 2011. But there are two elements to this notion. One is what we’ll call the service element. I use Wikipedia every day and I should pay for it just like I pay for the other services that I use. It’s the same logic that many supporters apply to their giving to public broadcasting, a comparison that we heard quite a bit from respondents.

But the other element is more altruistic. Wikipedia has become an important resource for the free flow of information around the world, and many respondents find that just as important a reason to donate as their own use of Wikipedia.

“It’s a cause because it’s a tool. Or it’s the other way around. It’s a tool that has become a cause.” – Los Angeles

“For me it didn't feel like charity. It felt like it was more like user fees. I pay for every different thing, this site is available to me for free. Yes, I should pay for it.” – New York

“For me, if I benefited from some service or product that that thing created then I feel it’s my obligation to pay back to it. Channel 13, I call it my surrogate father, because so much of what I know came from. I contribute to them.” – New York

“At least with Wikipedia it’s more of a self-serving thing. I don’t want it to disappear as opposed to giving to Doctors Without Borders or something like that. Where it’s about other people, in that sense I want to have the certain service continued.” – Los Angeles

"I give for the same reason I give to National Public Radio.” – New York

“It’s like public television. In fact, one is actually more surprised than ever that they’re not busy banging on the, hey, donate money to us drum. Every time I turn on KCET they’re banging on that drum.” – Los Angeles

“I feel better about myself doing it and I want to help people around the world be able to get the same information that I can. Because I think that’s very important.” – New York

"Wikipedia represents the democratization of information.''

This was a powerful notion when we spoke with donors last year, and it is even more so this year. Information is power, and in a time when people are feeling pretty powerless against governments and corporations Wikipedia’s model becomes even more attractive.

When we explored this idea in 2010, much of the conversation revolved around just how cool it was that a tool like Wikipedia existed at all, but we were able to go a bit deeper this year. And what we found was that people were really invested in Wikipedia as a cause – that keeping this incredible store of information free and accessible to anyone was just as important as their own daily use.

"It’s thrilling to support something that is completely generated by people. There are the contributors. It’s not generated internally. That’s such an amazing phenomenon and I like that." – Los Angeles

“I feel like it’s a community service. I’m part of that community. I was capable of giving some money, and so it was worthy to spend my money on that because I value it.” – New York

“I think there’s two really important things in Wikipedia. One is the content itself that ideally stays broad, democratic, as open and conveys rather the various point of views of different people rather than only one way. That’s one challenge. The second one is that it is free to access to people because it’s the most fantastic egalitarian tool on the planet ever. Education cost being high in so many places and quite difficult to attain, with this, it’s a tool anyone in the world, wherever country, Afghanistan or Africa or Russia, they can educate themselves with tools like these. The States, even everyone. You can educate yourself at a cheap cost so you can better your life and better everyone’s life. I think this is the essential things of the cause.” –New York

“The last fact that I would say is that it’s something that I value beyond my own usage. I just think it’s a very valuable thing and I like having a place where I can contribute to those good things in the world, so I would contribute to it.” – New York

Wikipedia has an integrity that much of the internet lacks today.

A big part of that integrity comes from the commitment to keep Wikipedia ad free. While most acknowledge that they are not opposed to online ads, in Wikipedia’s case they fear that accepting ad revenue could lead to a degradation of the user experience, or in the worst case censorship of material. And that would negate one of Wikipedia’s core values – the free flow of information.

“Right now, it’s a knowledge tool. As soon as you have ads, then there’s something else that’s being marketed to me. It’s a different company.” – Los Angeles

“I also like the fact that they don’t have ads. I don’t feel like they’re keeping track of what I visit, so suddenly I don’t get a solicitation to some modern dance company tickets locally like on Google or Facebook.” – New York

“Wikipedia’s really valuable real estate. If you’re attempting to raise money in order to increase their capacity to do whatever it is they want to do, I can see why they would want to... I would see why all the advertisers would be interested in using that real estate when they had interest in advertising. The problem is that the only thing that Wikipedia really has is its reputation for integrity. If you take that reputation away, the brand immediately loses its value.” – Los Angeles

“If I’m on a website and I’m trying to lookup academic information. If I see and ad, I feel like that describes that website, because it’s not that they are trying to get information so much as make money. Which to me isn’t academic at all.” – New York

“It’s one or the only places on the Internet where you can go there and they don’t really ask anything of you. They’re not trying to get your money or get you to do something and trying to push you in their direction. They’re just there and if you want to contribute, you can but it’s a no pressure place on the web. It seems like it doesn’t exist anywhere else.” – Los Angeles

Wikipedia also gets points for integrity because of the nature of the content generation. Lots of different kinds of people are generating articles from different viewpoints. The community self-polices and validates the information, and the community is honest about the thoroughness of any information presented. That’s not something folks feel like they get from other information sources.

“I like how they’re not just letting it be free for all though. They’ll identify those kinds of potential issues with a particular entry.” – Los Angeles

“I like knowing that there’s a source that isn’t controlled by a big company or a media company where everybody has input. Not just one company slant on something. I think it’s really important to have a free source of information that seems to be somewhat neutral. Because you get people contributing from every viewpoint.” – New York

“You asked a minute ago if we thought it was important, and that a lot of people are involved. And I think it’s very important, because it has removed that hierarchical thing were you go to The New York Times and they’ve put their stamp of approval on it, or Wall Street Journal or what have you. And this has removed that and opened-sourced it. And I think that’s very healthy and a very positive change.” – New York

“But by its nature, the fundamental idea behind Wikipedia is that the sum of all the information, the aggregate of all the information will balance it out and so I think by its nature, it’s sort of self-vetting in that way.” – Los Angeles

“The fact that every aspect of the evolution of whatever article is traceable. You could see the entire history of all the interaction so people are forced to discuss why they’re making a point, why they want to change one word or another. It’s like the future of how really information should be discussed and shared.” – New York

“What I like about it is that also it’s sort of raw in the sense that if some topic is incompletely covered. You can see it and you can then decide for yourself how much trust you want to put in it. Some things, you can see it is much more extensively documented and some things are not. Whereas a news item will be presented to you as truth when it’s probably not.” – New York

Wikipedia is for the users.

In 2010, the donor group in New York had very strong feelings about ascribing any kind of agenda to Wikipedia, even if that agenda was designed to put Wikipedia in more hands around the world. Their sense was that Wikipedia was an organic, democratic thing and that it belonged to the users. A management body setting out some kind of growth strategy ran totally against that sense. That’s still true, but in 2011 with a larger audience we were able to get into this a bit more.

And what we found is that there is no resistance to the way people use Wikipedia or to making sure that Wikipedia is accessible to as many people as possible. Wikipedia is for the users and that’s what should be happening – but it should be happening organically with Wikipedia supporting the process, not artificially with Wikipedia dictating the direction of that progress. The resistance is around trying to shape Wikipedia – and therefore shape the flow and access to information – in a way that circumvents user demands.

There is a great interest in how people are using Wikipedia around the world, and in how Wikipedia thinks about the future of information. But there’s not a great appetite to turn Wikipedia into the next Google.

“Somebody, like in a foreign country, I guess learned most of her things for the project through Wikipedia. That there was no public library or something like that.” – Los Angeles

“I think that’s stronger, if you manage to get to really experience those people who gained from it and what do they lose if they don’t have it, the broad sense of it.” – Los Angeles

“I have a memory of seeing an appeal from another user who wasn’t interested in telling me about who they were or what they do. They were interested in telling me about how Wikipedia had been useful and important to them, which made me go, “That’s true. It's really been useful and important to me. I'd better give.” – New York

“I would be fascinated with the debates within Wikipedia about how to use the service, how they’re thinking about Wikipedia in sort of the information ecology.” – Los Angeles

Wikipedia is still growing, and the future is global growth.

Respondents believe that Wikipedia still has a lot of growing to do, though the English language market may plateau. They’re excited about the global presence of Wikipedia, and about Wikipedia reaching more people in more parts of the world. That’s really the point, that everyone should have access to information. We talked briefly with respondents about Wikimedia’s initiative to train college students to contribute in other countries, and that program received a warm reception. It wasn’t about dictating content, it was about making the service accessible.

“When I found sometimes when I was researching certain French visual artists, that there was more stuff in French than there was in English sometimes. Which I thought was interesting. It made me think of it more as a global thing.” – Los Angeles

“I think as the world population keeps on growing, people tend to specialize and there is so much knowledge that is not still registering Wikipedia that in my plateau in certain areas, but in another ones that’s going to explode.” – New York

“More of the new content will come from outside of the US and other languages.” – New York

“I think communication, increasing communication between languages, between people wherever they are is critically important. I think it’s the reason why we’re as developed as we are. Really, if you think about it. Anything that I could do to help get someone who doesn’t know something to know a little bit about that thing. Even if the information source is not perfect at the beginning, they come and find it. They can at least know that that source is out there.” – Los Angeles

We are far from reaching a saturation point in fundraising activity.

Though fundraising grows each year, Wikipedia is still in an education process with readers. Most respondents we talked to didn’t realize that Wikipedia was a nonprofit and relied on donations until they took the time to read the banners and letters. Extrapolating, that means that there are millions of users who still don’t know that and we reach a few more of them every time we launch a new banner campaign.

But even among folks who have already made a donation, there is clearly room to fundraise more aggressively. At least with this group of respondents, our banners aren’t having a negative impact on their feelings about Wikipedia or their user experience. And for most of our audience this way of funding Wikipedia is far preferable to accepting ad revenue, so they’re open to hearing about opportunities to give more often.

Many respondents noted that the only time they think of donating is when they see a banner, and if there were an easy way to donate on the site they would do it more often on their own. A majority of past donors were also open to receiving an email from Wikipedia letting them know that the campaign was underway and asking them to give again this year.

“I didn’t know that it was donation only. I thought it was a company. When I read that, I’d love to support because I have gotten so much use out of it.” – New York

“I would much rather that they just ask me for a donation more often than they put up ads.” – Los Angeles

“For me, I just remember like I was like “Oh, I had no idea that they take money. Okay. I’ll donate money. Sure.” – Los Angeles

“On a lot of non-profit organization sites, it’s like donate now, like the big bullet button you push and I’ve been using Wikipedia for years and it never occurred to me until that banner campaign came where I was like oh, well, of course so then you sort of went through. But yes, I had never even thought about it until that banner came up. “ – New York

“This is a service I use so it seemed right to pay for. I think I underpaid them.” – New York

The inclusive and transparent nature of Wikipedia’s fundraising is attractive to potential donors.

One of the things that respondents noted over and over again was how they felt respected by the way that Wikipedia was asking for money. From being very clear about how Wikipedia uses its money and showing the progress against the goals, to displaying how many people were giving and how much they were giving to not pressuring people for large contributions, the process felt like a real community effort. In today’s fundraising market, that’s a refreshing approach for donors who often feel pressured by heavy handed tactics.

“I was curious because they actually keep the record of who donates. And there’s so many. There’s literally thousands of donations listed, anonymous if you want or get your name. But a lot of them are twenty cents or a dollar or seventy-five cents. And it was you give anything you want and hundreds and thousands of people were giving quarters and saying, “That’s all I could afford. I’m sorry, but that’s all I could afford. I love you guys.” And that was encouraging, because I don’t have to give a hundred dollars. I could give a dollar or two dollars.” – New York

“I remember now that I did give and that it was appealing to me because it had a libertarian model. Here you use this thing, you get what you want and you tell me how you value it. No big government. No big anything behind it. It’s just a bunch of people contributing based on they feel they want to. Sort of a cooperative enterprise. It’s quite appealing about that.” – New York

“It’s for the servers or whatever you need infrastructure so that your page view pops up quicker.” – Los Angeles

“It’s very specific about Wikipedia’s profile versus other companies. It’s great. It’s everything I want to see in every non-profit.” – New York

The best messages hit on Wikipedia’s core values.

In this series of focus groups, we did heavy testing of banners and corresponding letters, and we got some great feedback from supporters that helped us immediately tweak the Jimmy letter between the Los Angeles and New York groups. But, as often happens in focus groups, respondents expressed some negative opinions of materials that were performing well in testing. It would be easy to dismiss the issues that respondents raised altogether in light of results, but looking at the pattern of comments actually sheds quite a bit of light on the issue.

The team went into the groups with the assumption that a personal story of sacrifice was a key to success, in part based on the 2010 focus groups and in part based on the success of Jimmy's letter and the success of staff letters like Brandon's.

But when we look more closely at what all the letters have in common, it's actually a little more complicated than that. Each of these stories communicates a core value of Wikipedia. And we believe that core value is what supporters are responding to, the story is just a vehicle to express that value.

Jimmy's story hits most of the points: vision, innovation, transparency, integrity, community and mission - not to be too flowery, but he's gifted the world with this amazing piece of technology that he could have sold for millions. He’s committed to keeping it running ad free, as a nonprofit, so that anyone anywhere can access that information. We can’t dismiss that Jimmy himself is a charismatic character; he’s a visionary and a crusader to a lot of these readers.

Brandon's story communicates Wikipedia’s mission and integrity, but it also tells readers what sets Wikipedia apart from other big sites – a commitment to efficiency. Wikipedia does more with less.

Allen’s story gives lots of back up to the efficiency values, and it’s formatted in a way that highlights that data. But it also communicates the inclusive community nature of Wikipedia – anyone can be part of shaping Wikipedia and the free flow of information.

Ryan’s story hits integrity, transparency, mission and efficiency. And at its heart, Maryana’s story was about wanting to be part of something that does good in the world. That could communicate mission and community.

All of these stories have really important elements, which partly explains why they’ve all achieved some level of success.

“I like that they’re doing so much with such little resources.” – Los Angeles

I liked it that it was the founder because I think if you found a company, that’s your vision. It’s your baby. You care about it. Here he was, representing it to the world. I like that.” – New York

“I think it’s very homey in the sense. It gives you the sense of, “Hey, we have this idea. We’re doing it. We want to keep it simple. We want to keep it pure.” – Los Angeles

“How about when he compares it to something special. It’s like library or a public park. It says a lot, it’s saying live in the free world. The information should be free.” – Los Angeles

“It’s just interesting what people latch on to. I don’t remember the stories at all. What I remember is the big banner, which was showing how much money was being raised and the other thing I remember, because when I was looking, I think they had published like what the money was going to be spent on. There are like three or four major priorities and so and so. I went and read that and so that’s the thing I remember.” – New York

“Yes, I responded to it, I didn't, as much as I can recall and I didn't make a point to articulate to myself very much of the time. I think, I thought, there’s a person who is a real visionary. He’s made a very positive impact on society.” – New York

“I think, what I like about Wikipedia, is the very low overhead. I feel like it’s a direct connection between contributors and people benefiting from it. This particular ad disrupts that story. It brings staff in the middle of it. I think a story from a user would be much more powerful, just validating what Wikipedia actually provides. I don’t care about this person. I really don’t.” – Los Angeles

“I will continue to give to Wikipedia, as far as information. If you’d like to give this, it’s because it’s not free. It divides the information from the money, which I do like. I like that they’re saying that the information is free. The website upkeep is not. I like that. ” – New York

“I love seeing this list of numbers. I love things being quantified. I love seeing a list of the other four sites.” – Los Angeles

“I really like this one. I love this one. I think it makes it personal as to why he’s involved in this. I think it really explains more than any of the others what your money goes for. I just feel like it captures something about Wikipedia, too. It is kind of a holdover from back in the early days of the Internet, before everybody jumped on-board and saw that they can make a dollar out of it.” – New York

“There are just some really nice. It’s very soothing, those words. I like that they said, but not every can or will donate. He included that not everyone can donate. That made a nice room for that reality. I also like the fact that, in the third paragraph, commerce is fine, advertising is not evil. He didn’t have an ax to grind. He’s not saying that’s bad, but this is what we are. Really a lot of good stuff here.” – Los Angeles

“Actually, that’s a very powerful phrase. Like, that can sustain...It brings to my other point. He’s making the distinction of us versus them or we versus you. Protect and sustain. He’s inviting us to protect and sustain something that belongs to us.” – New York