Skip to main content

g guillaume paumier

A revenue strategy for Wikimedia


Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

The importance of Revenue Strategy for the Wikimedia Foundation lies in two main factors: the uncertain future facing us, which might endanger existing revenue sources, and the impetus to grow, mandated by the ambitions of the Wikimedia movement. The following is a summary of my reflection on Revenue Strategy for the Foundation’s Advancement department.

Challenges to the banner fundraising model

Since the creation of the Wikimedia Foundation, most of its revenue has been raised through fundraising banners: a small portion of readers of Wikipedia are prompted by banners to donate a small amount to support the continued existence of the site.

In recent years, a few trends have emerged in internet usage and challenged the banner model. The increasing use of mobile devices has translated into fewer donations compared to desktop, only compensated by improvements and optimization of banner effectiveness, as well as the growth of our email program to past donors. A stagnation in overall readership has also threatened the banner model, with internet users accessing content from Wikipedia through intermediaries and not visiting Wikipedia directly.

The Foundation’s email fundraising program is one of the existing efforts undertaken to address those challenges. Banners are the main point of entry for first-time donors; once they have donated, they can be solicited for support over email in later fundraising campaigns. Initial work in recurring donations also aims to reduce the friction of donating and build sustainability. Cultivating major donors through event and direct outreach is another way to bring in larger donations that don’t rely on direct interaction with the website.

Building on those initiatives is the first step towards longer-term financial sustainability, but it won’t be enough. As knowledge becomes more granular, remixed by others, and served through interfaces out of our control, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain a direct line of communication with people willing to support our mission. The whole concept of “readers” might become obsolete, and banner fundraising might not prove to remain a major source of revenue by 2030.

Thinking about long-term revenue strategy in this context requires thinking about strategy in broader terms, and in particular identifying our unique strengths, both today and tomorrow.

Sustainable differentiators

The scenarios for 2031 explore possible futures for the human ecosystem and Wikimedia’s place in it. Without purposeful, drastic change, the outlook is bleak: deep adaptation is necessary, based on our differentiators of today and tomorrow. The Wikimedia societies and brand offer a path through the possible stormy futures ahead, if we are bold enough to change.

Today, Wikipedia is mainly seen as a website: one of the top-ten websites in the world, containing millions of encyclopedia articles that are mostly considered trustworthy. However, none of those characteristics can be relied upon as stable, unique strengths.

Wikipedia is a popular website. But that popularity has grown primarily out of its ranking in search engines; as search interfaces get more clever, they have an incentive to provide immediate answers that make use of Wikipedia content but don’t actually send their users to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is one of the most famous encyclopedias. But it is not the only one; the mere concept of the long-form, Enlightenment-style encyclopedia is even becoming obsolete as online usage and populations evolve.

Wikipedia is a source of reliable content. To date, content has been the cornerstone of our relationship with the rest of the knowledge ecosystem. Other actors, whether partners, allies, or foes, are primarily interested in using, expanding, protecting, or influencing Wikipedia’s content. But content is already no longer a unique strength of Wikipedia: for one thing, its free license not only allows, but encourages its use in a variety of contexts and interfaces. For another, technological progress leans towards a decreasing reliance on Wikipedia’s humans to generate and curate knowledge.

We can’t rely on Wikipedia’s position as a popular website, as a famous encyclopedia, or as a source of reliable content. What are our sustainable unique strengths, then?

One current differentiator is Wikimedia societies. While there are many online communities, those comprising the Wikimedia movement have a unique affinity and talent for collecting and curating free, reliable knowledge. Over the past 18 years, they have developed policies, processes, and social structures that are largely responsible for the reputation of Wikipedia. The uniqueness of Wikimedia communities resides in the culture and institutions that define them as societies, independent of the websites they work on and artifacts they produce.

Another current differentiator is the Wikipedia brand. Beyond just a name, the brand encompasses a complex set of components that define our relationship to the public. The brand includes the trust established through the hard work and integrity of Wikimedia contributors. The brand includes the love that donors express when they support us. The brand includes the principles that we have stood up for and we demonstrate every day.

Both the communities and the brand are likely to become stronger differentiators in the future. In a world swimming in data and overwhelmed with information, discernment and sensemaking are paramount. To use Hal Varian’s vocabulary, data and information are increasingly abundant inputs; trust and human judgment on information (determining what is accurate and important) are a scarce and therefore valuable complement to those inputs. It is where the Wikimedia movement brings unique value, and the brand is the vehicle of that value.

Building our future on the foundations of communities and brand helps us explore a future where Wikimedia societies may become the world’s foremost sensemaking engine. Where machines and algorithms may collect and assemble facts, but where Wikipedians organize, weigh, and nuance them. Where information may be omnipresent, but the Wikipedia brand is a sought-after indicator of trust, regardless of the medium or interface.

Implications for Revenue strategy

Elements of a revenue strategy for the Wikimedia Foundation have emerged organically. Some are evident: continuing to refine and improve the effectiveness of banner fundraising for as long as possible; continuing to develop email fundraising and major giving as complementary sources of donations that might one day overtake banner fundraising; encouraging recurring and seamless donation processes that reduce friction and increase predictability.

Another element of revenue strategy is to take a longer view, and build on today’s financial stability to plan for tomorrow. This includes a model of engagement with donors that takes into account the various stages of their life and interactions with Wikipedia. It includes investing today in a solid planned giving program that will only benefit us in several decades. It includes building out the Wikimedia Endowment today to mitigate uncertainties in future revenue, and provide the resources for experimentation as we transition to other funding models.

Those new funding models might not look like what we have become familiar with. The fully donative model doesn’t appear sufficient for long-term sustainability. Exploring revenue beyond donations means experimenting with models like fee-for-service, joint for-profit ventures, and other “earned income” options that must be allowed to take risks and fail, so long as we learn from them. Profitability and ease of launch must not be the only criteria: new ventures must also align with the larger mission and strengthen the brand, sustainability, and relevance in our ecosystem.

The last element of revenue strategy is one that goes beyond the Wikimedia Foundation. Increasing revenue to the level required by the strategic direction will require the whole movement to commit to its funding, taking advantage of its global reach and local presence. The Movement strategy working group on Revenue Streams is expected to offer recommendations for revenue strategy on a global scale.

All those elements combine to form a revenue strategy that is inextricably intertwined with the larger decisions we have to make as an organization and a movement. Even if revenue could flourish alongside a failing product, which it likely can’t, it wouldn’t be enough: money can’t buy readers. Money can’t buy relevance. Money can’t buy trust. At least not in the long run.

How much revenue we can access to fulfill our mission will depend on the story we can tell about who we are and who we have become. It can be the story of a once-popular website whose struggle to adapt became a struggle to survive. The story of knowledge communities whose decreasing relevance didn’t provide a continued incentive for public support. The story of a brand that slowly faded from the public’s memory. The story of a social movement starved of the resources it needed to advance.

Or it can be the story of a community that evolved to adapt to the world around it, and built on its unique strengths. The story of a society of trusted sensemakers that provides such value to the public and partners that it is in their vital interest to support it. The story of a brand that the public trusts, loves, and supports wherever they encounter it. The story of a vibrant social movement with the financial might to match its ambitious vision.

There are many elements of the story that we can’t control. The question is what we do with those we can. The story of our survival tomorrow is the story we choose to write today.