What’s *really* wrong with the free and open internet — and how we could win it

A few days ago Sue Gardner, ED of the Wikimedia Foundation, posted What’s *really* wrong with nonprofits — and how we can fix it. Judging by seeing the the link sent around, it has been read to confirm various conflicting biases different people in the SF bay area/internet/nonprofit space and adjacent already had. May I? Excerpt-based-summary:

A major structural flaw of many nonprofits is that their revenue is decoupled from mission work, which pushes them to focus on providing a positive donor experience often at the expense of doing their core work.

WMF makes about 95% of its money from the many-small-donors model

I spend practically zero time fundraising. We at the WMF get to focus on our core work of supporting and developing Wikipedia, and when donors talk with us we want to hear what they say, because they are Wikipedia readers

I think the usefulness of the many-small-donors model, ultimately, will extend far beyond the small number of nonprofits currently funded by it.

[Because Internet.]

For organizations that can cover their costs with the many-small-donors model I believe there’s the potential to heal the disconnect between fundraising and core mission work, in a way that supports nonprofits being, overall, much more effective.

I agree concerning extended potential. I thought (here comes confirmation of biases) that Creative Commons should make growing its small donor base its number one fundraising effort, with the goal of having small donors provide the majority of funding as soon as possible — realistically, after several years of hard work on that model. While nowhere close to that goal, I recall that about 2006-2009 individual giving grew rapidly, in numbers and diversity (started out almost exclusively US-based), even though it was never the number one fundraising priority. I don’t think many, perhaps zero, people other than me believed individual giving could become CC’s main source of support. Wikimedia’s success in that, already very evident, and its unique circumstance, was almost taken as proof that CC couldn’t. I thought instead Wikimedia’s methods should be taken as inspiration. The “model” had already been proven by nearby organizations without Wikimedia’s eyeballs; e.g., the Free Software Foundation.

An organization that wants to rely on small donors will have to work insanely hard at it. And, if it had been lucky enough to be in a network affording it access to large foundation grants, it needs to be prepared to shrink if the foundations tire of the organization before individual giving supplants them, and it may never fully do so. (But foundations might tire of the organization anyway, resulting in collapse without individual donors.) This should not be feared. If an organization has a clear vision and operating mission, increased focus on core work by a leaner team, less distracted by fundraising, ought be more effective than a larger, distracted team.

But most organizations don’t have a clear vision and operating mission (I don’t mean words found in vision and mission statements; rather the shared and deep knowing-what-we’re-trying-to-do-and-how that allows all to work effectively, from governance to program delivery). This makes any coherent strategic change more difficult, including transitioning to small donor support. It also gives me pause concerning some of the bits of Gardner’s post that I didn’t excerpt above. For most organizations I’d bet that real implementation of nonprofit “best practices” regarding compliance, governance, management, reporting, etc, though boring and conservative, would be a big step up. Even trying to increase the much-maligned program/(admin+fundraising) ratio is probably still a good general rule. I’d like to hear better ones. Perhaps near realtime reporting of much more data than can be gleaned from the likes of a Form 990 will help “big data scientists” find better rules.

It also has to be said that online small donor fundraising can be just as distracting and warping (causing organization to focus on appearing appealing to donors) as other models. We (collectively) have a lot of work to do on practices, institutions, and intermediaries that will make the extended potential of small donor support possible (read Gardner’s post for the part I lazily summarized as [Because Internet.]) in order for the outcome to be good. What passes as savvy advice on such fundraising (usually centered around “social media”) has for years been appalling and unrealistic. And crowdfunding has thus far been disappointing in some ways as an method of coordinating public benefit.

About 7 months ago Gardner announced she would be stepping down as ED after finding a replacement (still in progress), because:

I’ve always aimed to make the biggest contribution I can to the general public good. Today, this is pulling me towards a new and different role, one very much aligned with Wikimedia values and informed by my experiences here, and with the purpose of amplifying the voices of people advocating for the free and open internet. I don’t know exactly what this will look like — I might write a book, or start a non-profit, or work in partnership with something that already exists.

My immediate reaction to this was exactly what Виктория wrote in reply to the announcement:

I cannot help but wonder what other position can be better for fighting consumerisation, walling-in and freedom curtailment of the Internet than the position of executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

I could take this as confirming another of my beliefs: that the Wikimedia movement (and other constructive free/open movements and organizations) do not realize their potential political potency — for changing the policy narrative and environment, not only taking rear guard actions against the likes of SOPA. Of course then, the Wikimedia ED wouldn’t think Wikimedia the most effective place from which to work for a free and open internet. But, my beliefs are not widely held, and likely incorrect. So I was and am mostly intrigued, and eager to see what Gardner does next.

After reading the What’s *really* wrong with nonprofits post above, I noticed that 4 months ago Gardner had posted The war for the free and open internet — and how we are losing it, which I eagerly read:

[non-profit] Wikipedia is pretty much alone. It’s NOT the general rule: it’s the exception that proves the rule.

The internet is evolving into a private-sector space that is primarily accountable to corporate shareholders rather than citizens. It’s constantly trying to sell you stuff. It does whatever it wants with your personal information. And as it begins to be regulated or to regulate itself, it often happens in a clumsy and harmful way, hurting the internet’s ability to function for the benefit of the public. That for example was the story of SOPA.

[Stories of how Wikipedia can fight censorship because it is both non-profit and very popular]

Aside from Wikipedia, there is no large, popular space being carved out for the public good. There are a billion tiny experiments, some of them great. But we should be honest: we are not gaining ground.

The internet needs serious help if it is to remain free and open, a powerful contributor to the public good.

Final exercise in confirming my biases (this post): yes, what the internet needs is more spaces carved our for the public good — more Wikipedias — categories other than encyclopedia in which a commons-based product out-competes proprietary incumbents, increasing equality and freedom powerfully in both the short and long (capitalization aligned with rent seeking demolished) term. Wikipedia is unique in being wildly successful and first and foremost a website, but not alone (free software collectively must many times more liberating by any metric, some of it very high profile, eg Firefox; Open Access is making tremendous progress, and I believe PLOS may have one of the strongest claims to operating not just to make something free, but to compete directly with and eventually displace incumbents).

A free and open internet, and society, needs intense competition from commons-based initiatives in many more categories, including those considered the commanding heights of culture and commerce, eg premium video, advertising, social networking, and many others. Competition does not mean just building stuff, but making it culturally relevant, meaning making it massively popular (which Wikipedia lucked into, being the world’s greatest keyword search goldmine). Nor does it necessarily mean recapitulating proprietary products exactly, eg some product expectations might moved to ones more favorable to mass collaboration.

Perhaps Gardner’s next venture will aim to carve out a new, popular space for the public good on the internet. Perhaps it will be to incubate other projects with exactly that aim (there are many experiments, as her post notes, but not many with “take overliberate the world” vision or resources; meanwhile there is a massive ecosystem churning out and funding attempts to take over the world new proprietary products). Perhaps it will be to build something which helps non-profits leverage the extended potential of the small donor model, in a way that maximizes public good. Most likely, something not designed to confirm my biases. ☺ But, many others should do just that!

6 Responses

  1. “Perhaps near realtime reporting of much more data than can be gleaned from the likes of a Form 990 will help “big data scientists” find better rules.”

    What kinds of data where you imagining here? I’m coming up uncreative.

    Basically, my mind immediately thinks: “What data do funding orgs want to see? I know they spend a lot of money (heh) working and thinking about this issue…” And then I get scared. Because foundations.

  2. Greg, the whole point of tossing it to “big data scientists” is I don’t know. Discovery needed. You’re backing away from your “secrecy is power over others” line because some of those others are foundations? Not impressed. ;-)

    I’m happy for foundations to do research on better metrics for non-profit effectiveness. Sure, they’ll bring their biases, but if they don’t have privileged access to data, others can develop other metrics reflecting other biases. And it goes without saying that foundations should also do their own realtime and in depth data reporting. (On the topic of foundations, I have an old idea/draft post about crowdvetting of funding proposals; foundations have inadequate expertise internally; “democratizing” counterpart to crowdfunding.)

    Prediction markets, especially decision markets, could complement all of the above, but I’m much more skeptical these days about practicality, as they haven’t caught on at all, if nothing else. But I’d love to see a foundation make a big bet (ahem) on them.

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