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How does one of the largest non-profit organizations on the web survive?

They are everywhere on Wikipedia. Whether you’re searching for a summary of the Arab Spring or trying to find out what ever happened to Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, you’ll find, located at the top of the page, a banner asking for donations with a picture of one of the hundreds of authors, technicians, or other affiliates of Wikipedia. Varying from the usual and familiar picture of Jimmy Wales is a slightly different approach Wikipedia has recently taken to raise money for its operations.

In January 2011, we took a close look at Wikipedia’s features and hosting infrastructure, and released a case study. In that case study, we discovered how expansive Wikipedia actually is and how much it continues to grow. Wikipedia, originally launched in January 2001, has now become the largest online encyclopedia with over 3.8 million articles in English alone and a total of 20 million articles in over 286 different languages. Wikipedia also operates the 5th largest web property and has data centers in the U.S. and in Europe.  Wikipedia has also just opened its first office outside of the US in India. Since its release, Wikipedia has become the 5th most visited website in 2011, according to Google.

Wikipedia runs a large organization and has gained an enormous reader base (over 455 million visits every month). To keep this project running requires a large amount of funds and resources.  Wikipedia’s content is famous, however, for being created and edited largely by unnamed and unpaid volunteers. Most of the articles are written by local experts that contribute their knowledge from practically all fields. The funding is also contributed largely by the public.  

Although Wikipedia receives some funding from foundation grants, mission-friendly businesses and agreements, and merchandise sales, the largest bulk of Wikipedia’s funding comes from public donations.

Over the years, as Wikipedia grew, so did the amount of funds needed. In 2005, one of the first Wikipedia fundraisers accumulated US$91,000. This year, Wikipedia has set the goal of reaching US$29.5 million, about 24% higher than last year’s projection of US$23.8 million.  Wikipedia breaks down where the money will go on its website: 8% is distributed to future fundraising projects, 23% goes to other programs (funding the Wikimedia’s Community and Global Development departments), 44% goes toward technology, 24% goes to employees, and 1% to Governance.  

Wikipedia attempts to receive this revenue through annual fundraising projects where readers are encouraged to donate any given amount of money. Wikipedia has vowed never to use advertising as a means of revenue. On its website, Wikipedia explains advertising would be a detriment to Wikipedia’s primary goal in providing a neutral, online educational environment.  It goes on to clarify that the current strategies of advertising use methods that would go against Wikipedia’s privacy policy, such as geo-targeted advertising. Wikipedia has then reverted to posting banners above its articles. These banners, labeled personal appeals, direct the viewer to a page which explains the fundraiser and payment options.  

Similar banners have been used before. Wikipedia has been through several different versions of fundraising banners and it was only recently that Wikipedia started to post banners with pictures, starting with founder Jimmy Wales in 2010.  Due to complaints of redundancy, Wikipedia has attempted something different and has started using other faces in attempt to not overexpose Jimmy Wales and to show some of the unknown authors that make Wikipedia possible. Jimmy Wales reportedly agrees with the complaints, calling his frequent appearances on Wikipedia pages “annoying.” He continues explaining that he doesn’t want to be a celebrity, although surveys show that his banner attracts some of the highest revenue of all the profiles.