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Wikipedia Goes to College

November 29, 2011

(Laura Cronin is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she chatted with Karen Brown, vice president of programs at the Fairfield County Community Foundation, about the foundation's capacity-building efforts.)

Wikimedia_FdnSince 2003, the Wikimedia Foundation has been quietly going about the business of operating the fifth most visited site on the Internet without trumpeting its own story as one of the most successful volunteer organizations in the world.

With 20 million volunteer-authored articles in over 282 languages, the foundation has taken the old-fashioned volunteer effort online and achieved a scale for Wikipedia, its biggest and most successful project, that few people in traditional nonprofit circles would dare to imagine. For those in the sector focused on impact, the numbers are impressive. According to a Pew survey, 53 percent of adult American Internet users visit Wikipedia regularly, and the site boasts more than 400 million user visits a month (the strategic plan calls for topping one billion in 2012). Let's face it, is there any other nonprofit organization in the world that can help you find Lady Gaga's real name (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta ) or tell you how to properly categorize Pluto within seconds of firing up your smartphone?

While the Wikimedia Foundation has grown in recent years, it is still primarily a volunteer enterprise. Headquartered in San Francisco, the 501(c)(3) organization has only 73 full-time employees and, despite a very sophisticated technology infrastructure, an annual operating budget of under $30 million. To maintain and improve its financial position, the foundation has become more aggressive this year about raising additional funds. Like its volunteer efforts, these initial forays into the world of fundraising have been models of efficiency and innovation. Indeed, the foundation's first online fundraiser last year netted some $15 million in just fifty days.

Growing and diversifying its cadre of volunteers is now a top priority for the foundation. In theory, anyone in the world can edit a Wikipedia page. In practice, the barriers to becoming a successful volunteer (or "Wikipedian") are rather high. The editing protocols require technical skills and practice. And in order to make a lasting contribution, subject-area expertise and excellent language skills are needed as well.

With an eye to ensuring that more people become successful volunteers –- especially more women and people from the global South -- the foundation piloted its first Public Policy Initiative during the 2010-11 academic year on thirty-two university campuses across the United States. The project engaged university students and faculty in an effort to explore how volunteers could improve and increase the number of English-language articles on Wikipedia. Working with teams on campus, the foundation developed lesson plans and training materials that make it possible for faculty to incorporate the creation of high-quality entries into the curriculum. The foundation also provided the services of "campus ambassadors," who mentored students interested in becoming first-time Wikipedians. Veteran Wikipedians from the online community were instrumental in breaking down technical barriers and guiding students as they learned editing protocols and developed their online writing skills.

One notable success involved the work of a student at Georgetown University who had an interest in Egyptian politics and edited a page on the National Democratic Party of Egypt just months before the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo. There had been little information in English on the site about the group and its complex history, and as the uprising played out (eventually leading to the overthrow of the Mubarak government) there was considerable interest in the new content from English-language readers. In fact, the page soon was netting five thousand views a day and eventually began to be updated by people with direct knowledge of the subject on a regular basis.

Clearly, research, writing, and media literacy are all skills that students can sharpen by turning a college term paper into a Wikipedia entry. Indeed, during the Public Policy Initiative faculty conducted research on how this approach might improve student learning and shared it with the foundation. According to Frank Schulenburg, a veteran Wikipedian and director of the initiative:

The U.S. pilot was extremely successful in providing students an authentic learning experience and increasing the quality of articles on Wikipedia. We're excited to continue expanding the Wikipedia Education Program in the United States as well as in other countries, where students can improve content on Wikipedia in their native language.

With this new campus-based program as a launch pad for its outreach work globally, the Wikipedia Foundation is positioning itself to maintain and extend its position as a leading mobilizer of volunteer energies in the nonprofit sector -- and on campus. And that's something for which we can all be thankful.

-- Laura Cronin

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