8 lessons for online fundraising
Lessons from the Wikipedia year end fundraiser
We have read a few blog posts so far, in which the issue was raised whether online fundraising is just a hype. Some remarks were quite skeptical. In this blog post I want to tell the story of one major online fundraising success: the 2010 Wikimedia campaign. What lessons can be learned from this success about requirements for online fundraising success?
Wikipedia , Wikimedia Foundation and why fundraising?
Wikipedia is one of the best used websites in the world (and it is, it is in the top 5 of best used websites). As we speak Wikipedia contains over 3,5 million articles in English. There are many other language Wikipedia’s. It is mainly written and edited by volunteers. Volunteers come to Wikipedia to write lemmas and edit others, on their own time. It is this element of Wikipedia that I find interesting, that it is a largely volunteer based organization.
Wikipedia is supported financially by the Wikimedia Foundation. The Wikimedia Foundation receives private donations, sometimes large gifts and grants. From time to time it runs a major fundraising campaign online. It is recognized by the American tax department as a non-profit organization. It has been campaigning online in recent years , especially at the year end, and with success.
The Foundation states as its mission:
“to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.” 
The Foundation was started with a view to raising money to keep Wikipedia up, allow it to grow, and to add other projects. All fundraising results go into these projects, of which most are meant to be in the general interest.
The service may be freely available (for anyone who can go online), but cannot be run without cost. For instance, there are servers around the world ensuring easy access to the website. Apart from that there is a small paid staff of Wikimedia Foundation ( 54 people in November 2010).
The community – a special volunteer work force, working in a high tech environment
Wikipedia is maintained largely by unpaid, well-informed volunteers. This makes Wikipedia a special organization. Maybe the type of volunteer is the most important reason. To my mind at least, what is very important is that many volunteers are actively involved in Wikipedia as a social movement. They are committed to the idea of freely available information. For this reason they are part of it anyway, and many are willing to make the extra effort for making the year end fundraiser work. Wikipedia is not just a fountain of information, for many it is part of their daily lives. They spend a lot of time on it, to make it grow, and to make work on improving the quality of the encyclopedia.
In the years behind us a kind of procedure has developed in which local ‘wikipedians’ (as Wikipedia volunteers are sometimes called) will help out on all kinds of issues around Wikipedia. There is a structure (hardware and software ) and procedure for many things (translating; checking for errors; publishing translations). This allows most of the work to be done rather smoothly. Though people are constantly working on that too. A similar system was developed to run a fundraising campaign. Work on the campaign is largely done by volunteers as well.
The fundraising effort of 2010: raising 16 million dollars
Wikipedia is freely accessible and neutral, and this can only stay true if enough donors, sponsors and institutional donors are willing to pay a contribution frequently. In 2009 the end-of-year fundraising effort delivered about 8 million dollars worldwide. To make this happen, banners were placed at the top of every Wikipedia page. After clicking on that the visitor could read a letter (with a clear ASK) and they could pay. Many did. And so 8 million dollars were raised.
The challenge in 2010 was to double that amount of money setting the target of 16 million dollars to be raised. For 2010 the Wikimedia Foundation decided that a major investment was necessary to be able to keep Wikipedia going, among other things to pay for new server space. There were other projects that needed funding to get it going, but this was the major reason for the big rise of fundraising needs in 2010. Wikipedia/Wikimedia raised 16 million dollar in about 6 weeks. A major league success. To make this success happen many people worked together, most of them volunteers.
But is this success , a success any organization could reproduce? Is it a success anyone would want to reproduce? What does it take to copy this success?
Here are some of the reasons why this campaign worked so well:
- Wikipedia (the set of different language Wikipedias taken together) is already among the 5 best visited websites worldwide; there is enough traffic to the site. At the time of the fundraiser 340 million people visited Wikipedia every month.
- Wikipedia being a movement, having a large body of volunteers, all working to make both Wikipedia itself and the year-end fundraiser a success; around the world about a 100.000 volunteers are active;
- Both visitors and volunteers are well adapted to the internet, using it often.
- To put it differently: the fundraising method fitted the donor population. To put it simply: people will ‘give where they live’, it is sometimes said among fundraisers. So one should meet the donor ‘where they are’, in this case they were: online.
- Wikimedia foundation had a pretty good idea of what makes the (intended) donors tick. The visitors to the website mostly think Wikipedia is helpful when they look for information; fundraising among the website visitors would give a good result; having had the opportunity to use Wikipedia for
almost 10 years, enjoying its uses, many of them would empathize with its philosophy of freely available knowledge and information;
- Paying was easy and kept in line with what donors want. There were several ways to donate. Visitors were asked to pay online, using secured paying services; but it was also possible to transfer money to either a national or a Wikimedia foundation bank account.
- The Wikimedia Foundation had a support staff and technical possibilities drawn up to make this success possible. There were many possibilities to do tests, to change the banners for instance. A lot of work and communication was going on all the time.
- Keep in mind that the actual campaign may have taken only 6 weeks; almost all of 2010 was used to plan it, to think about the fundraising strategy and to put everything in place. This included involving the ‘chapters’ from around the world.
To my mind the year end fundraising success was only possible because of the reasons mentioned, all taken together.
Is there a reason to change our fundraising ways?
As I said at the start, I wanted to draw out lessons for fundraisers from other organizations. Can anyone copy this kind of success? The simple answer is: ‘Of course you can, if you are able to put a similar kind of system in place, including well trained staff, to run the campaign.’ What does it take?
For an online campaign to be successful your potential donors should be online already, have an idea of what you are doing and empathize with your work; they should be willing to spend time on the internet showing their support (for instance attracting attention to your online effort using social media); and – this is not a small thing – be willing to pay online. You’ll want to organize the campaign well in advance; make sure that the technical support is in place, that your staff is well trained for this. Keep in mind that it took about 10 years to develop the Wikipedia community. So ask yourself: can you copy all that? If the answer is yes, then go for it!
My conclusion is: online fundraising is a possibility that is out there, but shouldn’t be taken up lightly.
More about Wikipedia (a lemma on Wikipedia)
PS I haven’t talked about using e-mail or using social media to attract attention to the website. In this case these methods were used sparingly, so were probably (a small) part of the success. These methods are part of online fundraising and deserve a blog post of their own.
(Corinne Bekker worked for Wikimedia Netherlands in the year end fundraiser of 2010.)
Quote from the Wikimedia foundation annual report 2008-2009, page 1.