In a rare departure from use of banners soliciting donations, a Wikipedia banner condemned “misinformation & double standards” along with Israel’s implied genocide & targeting of civilians, but only on its Arabic language site. The Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., which hosts Wikipedia, is an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization headquartered in San Francisco, California & funded in part by the left-leaning Tides Foundation donor-advised fund affiliated with Tides Advocacy, is a “massive progressive incubator. The banner “in solidarity with the (rights) of the Palestinian people” is not visible on its English-language pages.

Screenshot taken April 25, 2024 11:45:32 GMT
Translation overlay: Google Lens

Is Wikipedia for sale? This may not be a question many of us have ever asked, but Jimmy Wales made himself available recently to quash the idea. In what was called a “personal appeal” on the site – in an advertising banner – Wales insisted: “Wikipedia is not for sale.”

But this is an odd proposition for two reasons. The sprawling organisation which owns the intellectual property assets including the Wikipedia name and branding, the Wikimedia Foundation, is a registered non-profit based in California. But it has no ownership of, or control over the communities worldwide that maintain the popular site – and who do all of the real work. 

The Foundation and those communities have a very fractious relationship. So declaring that Wikipedia is “not for sale” has approximately the same impact as my declaration that I won’t be available to play in the ICC World Cup this autumn, or take part in this season’s Strictly. It’s pious piffle intended to remind us of the saintliness of the cause – and to persuade us that by donating – typically £2, or “the price of a cup of coffee”, we’re told – we can save Wikipedia from some terrible fate.

Awkwardly, however, the appeal coincided with a very interesting announcement. The foundation announced some new recipients for its “knowledge equity grants”. Let me explain. Every year, the Wikimedia Foundation raises a great deal of money. As of June last year, it had $239m (£190m) in net assets. It’s expected to bank $174m in revenue, according to the latest minutes of its audit committee in this financial year. 

Much of this largesse is immediately consumed by salaries of the foundation’s back office staff, but that still leaves a great deal of money left over. So it has created a pot to gather up the overspill: an endowment, consisting of investments and cash. This is held and managed not by the Wikimedia Foundation, but by the Tides Foundation, a non-profit charity which funnels money to social justice causes and campaigns. 

The endowment intends to grow this pot to $130.4m in cash and assets in the next financial year. 

Another recipient is the knowledge equity fund, which doles out the grants. One of the latest recipients is D4BL, or Data for Black Lives, which has been given $100,000 to create what it calls a movement scientists fellowship. This promises to “match racial justice leaders with machine learning research engineers to develop data-based machine learning applications to drive change in the areas of climate, genetics, and economic justice”.

You may consider climate and economic justice – whatever that may be – to be very important causes close to your heart. You may also judge the fellowship as a worthy recipient of your cash. But this is hardly the point. As one former commenter, writing at YCombinator’s Hacker News, put it:

“Regardless of whether you support these groups or not, they have nothing to do with Wikipedia, encyclopedias, or even off-topic-but-still-sorta-relevant goals like wanting more poor people to use Wikipedia.”

As it is, peering into how Wikipedia and Wikimedia Foundation funds are administered is not easy. Several times, the Wikimedia Endowment has promised to convert the entity into a more transparent 501(c)(3) organisation. This would lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds the fund. In seven years, we still lack basic details of expenses and salaries.

It’s remarkable to see the insouciance with which the third sector now behaves. Thirty years ago, very few members of my cohort of graduates expressed a desire to work at a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or charity. And not surprisingly: the pay was dreadful, and was not compensated by influence. NGOs were invariably outside the room when policy decisions were made, their noses pressed up against the glass. 

Yet NGO staff valued their integrity; they were outside what they considered to be the corrupting spheres of government or business. 

Today, their influence is much greater: governments outsource policy to the sector, believing their approval confers some legitimacy on their decision making, and governments often fund them, too. The sector now provides highly lucrative employment opportunities. The Wikimedia Foundation simply mirrors the self-dealing now routine in the Blob.  

It defines its own priorities, and sets its own criteria for success. At some point this year, after the Christmas fundraiser has closed, the foundation will have $400m in cash and assets to play with, including the Tides’ endowment. Salary costs have also ballooned: from $7m in 2010/11 to $88m in 2021/22. A mere 2pc of the money raised goes on hosting costs. The remuneration for the hard-working contributor remains the same: zero.

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