Rethinking fundraising (1): SWOT & more

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Rethinking fundraising (1): SWOT & more

Erik Moeller-4
Past fundraisers have, in essence, followed a rather simple pattern:
Use a certain amount of screen real estate on WMF websites to hammer
in a very basic message: "We need more money for servers or the sites
will go down." While there have been some first attempts at more
emotional personal appeals, the core of our message has remained dry,
rational, basic.

We haven't involved our volunteer community as effectively as we
could. We haven't networked with like-minded organizations as much as
we should. We haven't always followed through on existing donor
relations, even when we promised to ourselves that we would.

This series of posts will try to bring into a public forum some ideas
for future fundraisers. Please note that the organizer of the upcoming
year-end fundraiser is Sabine Cretella, not me, and these posts aren't
practical in nature; they are intended to produce useful debates and
to inspire future fundraisers, not necessarily the one that is around
the corner.

The first post in the series is an attempt at a "Strengths /
Opportunities / Weaknesses / Threats" (SWOT) analysis specifically
with regard to fundraising. I use this analysis as a foundation for
some proposed criteria and methods, which I will comment on in more
detail in future posts.

=== Strengths and opportunities ===

The collective of websites operated by the Wikimedia Foundation
receives more than 30,000 hits per second at peak times. [1]
Wikimedia's flagship (Wikipedia) is among the 10 most trafficked
websites world-wide. It is the largest general reference work in human
history, referred to and accessed more frequently than any other. The
"Wikipedia" brand is a global household name like Google, MySpace, and
YouTube. In the United States, 36% of adult Internet users use it. [2]

With the exception of the Mozilla Foundation, no other non-profit
organization shares our level of Internet exposure to a global
audience. Most non-profits struggle to be perceived online at all,
whereas the Wikimedia Foundation is an Internet giant.

Our message is entirely uncontroversial and beautiful in its
simplicity: ''free knowledge for the planet.'' We do not need to
convince people of a complex moral position, or raise awareness of an
underreported problem; we only need to appeal to the fundamental human
desire, shared across ideological boundaries, to collect and
disseminate knowledge. Our message is socially anchored because
education is the driving force of progress in any society. Our Neutral
Point of View policy, low administrative overhead and unquestionable
integrity further broaden the spectrum of likely donors.

Our community of volunteers is global, diverse, and intelligent. It
can be motivated to participate in fundraising campaigns on all
levels, from grassroots events over storytelling to long term
strategy. In addition to the Foundation, it is supported by a network
of chapter organizations which can strengthen bonds between
volunteers, provide local fundraising infrastructure, add to the
corpus of success stories told in campaigns, establish a lasting media
presence, and generally increase sustainability.

Our Board of Trustees is unusually diverse and committed and, with the
help of an eclectic Advisory Board, can help with networking,
targeting, and messaging. Our founder, Jimmy Wales, has become an
international celebrity with a large number of useful contacts in
businesses, media, and culture.

== Weaknesses and threats ==

The reputation of the WMF is constantly in danger: as a provider of
volunteer written reference materials, it is often identified with the
quality of website content as well as the general actions of its
community of editors. What if a frequent contributor to one of its
websites is revealed to be a serial killer or rapist? What if highly
libelous information remains undetected for months, or is even
reproduced by other websites or print publications? What if a user
turns out to have plagiarized many of his or her contributions from
copyrighted scholarly sources?

Due to the Foundation's exposure as one of the most established global
brands, these and other scenarios, when played out, tend to lead to
sustained negative media campaigns. Once a negative story makes it
into the "echo chamber" of global media, it becomes difficult even for
the most proficient communications director to bring the message back
on track. Any fundraising campaign is at risk if it happens in the eye
of a storm of controversy.

As of September 2007, the organization is in a transitional stage. It
has had to weather disruptive changes in its small staff, and the
rapid growth of its online properties has often exceeded its
operational capacities. As a consequence, ambitious fundraising goals
may be met with harsh daily realities of overworked staff, legal
threats, and technical difficulties.

There are many other known risks as we go forward: Volunteers may have
to prioritize their professional or family life over organizational
matters and can become unavailable unexpectedly, even in the middle of
a campaign. At any given time, many of the theoretically available
volunteers are not yet sufficiently trusted or known to be tasked with
issues of confidentiality or financial responsibility.

As a value-driven community, Wikimedians can react strongly and
unpredictably to fundraising strategies that are commonly accepted
within the wider non-profit sector, especially if the use of Wikimedia
website properties is involved. Any strategy, however well-intended,
can backfire and even lead to uncontrolled communications by community
members to the outside world or to fundraising partners. Controversial
Foundation actions may become catalysts for power struggles in project

The free content license used in the projects and the availability of
database copies makes it possible for angered community members to
campaign for the creation of a separate project ("fork"). Such a
scenario is especially likely if the value systems of the
organizational leadership and that of a large subset of the community
do not align. The intentionally heightened attention to organizational
activities caused by fundraising campaigns increases the likelihood of
a worst case scenario to occur.

The fiercely independent community, combined with a significant number
of external individuals who wish to harm the Foundation and its
projects in every possible way (banned editors, crackpots, vandals,
and so on), leave little room for mistakes: Every public action by the
WMF is scrutinized in detail.

== Core elements of a successful fundraising strategy ==

Any successful strategy must fulfill these three key requirements:

# '''sustainable''': the strategy ensures a high frequency, volume,
and recurrence of donations.
# '''minimally disruptive''': the strategy is in line with the
established values and principles of the community.
# '''implementable''': the strategy matches the organization's
operational preparedness and capacities.

In order to leverage the aforementioned strengths and address
weaknesses, we propose that our strategies should additionally
incorporate the following elements:

* '''Storytelling.''' Messaging structured in narratives is more
likely to evoke a positive response.
* '''Volunteer management.''' Wikimedia is a small organization with a
vast supply of potential helpers.
* '''Networking.''' We are part of a broader free culture movement and
benefit from identifying commonalities with other groups.
* '''Technological innovation.''' Given the nature of Internet
communities, implementations have a highly significant impact on the
ability and willingness of supporters to donate.
* '''Reducing vulnerability.''' Every fundraising campaign should
increase the overall resilience of the organization.
* '''Multi-phase deployment.''' Rolling out a new strategy in stages
allows us to adapt as we learn and collect data.

These elements will be explored in more detail in future posts.


Toward Peace, Love & Progress:

DISCLAIMER: This message does not represent an official position of
the Wikimedia Foundation or its Board of Trustees.

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