Nonprofit Branding: What I Learned From Wikipedia

The extent of my geekery was measured over Thanksgiving vacation when I found myself with some rare and precious time to read. What did I read? The book I'd brought along expressly for this purpose? No. I read Wikipedia.

Yes, I read Wikipedia. Frequently. In fact, I've fallen into daylong Wiki holes. (Take it from me: All roads lead to the Roman Empire).

Thanksgiving saw me perusing the entry on Sherman's March to the Sea, which meant visiting the Battle of Atlanta and revisiting the Siege of Petersburg. I leavened my Civil War scholarship with a dose of Montgomery Clift and a separate entry on his film "Suddenly, Last Summer." Even at the Thanksgiving meal, there was the now-traditional reading of the Wikipedia entry on Turducken.

I read Wikipedia throughout Thanksgiving week. Much of that otherwise enjoyable endeavor was marred by a cloud of guilt, because Thanksgiving week corresponded with one of Wikipedia's fundraising drives. These had served in the past to alert me to the existence of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia's parent organization, and thus its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status (I'd never really noticed it was a dot-org).

So every time I returned to Monty Clift after having wandered down another Wiki path, I was confronted by a yellow banner that read, in part: "We are the small non-profit that runs the #5 website in the world. We have only 150 staff but serve 450 million users, and have costs like any other top site ... [We] never run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations averaging about $30. If Wikipedia is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year."

That banner presented itself to me repeatedly during my holiday reading. I ignored it. Just as I'd ignored it after the site went dark in protest of SOPA and PIPA and I realized just how much I depend on Wikipedia for fact-checking (and, as you can see, my Editorializing articles). I ignored it ... until I couldn't — I mean, it was Thanksgiving, for chrissakes; I was sitting around thinking about what I'm grateful for and, well, I'm grateful for Wikipedia. So I donated.

And lo, in my in-box appeared a thank-you e-mail, one of the best pieces of nonprofit communications I've ever seen.

And lo, in my in-box appeared a thank-you e-mail from one Sue Gardner, Executive Director of Wikimedia. It is one of the best pieces of nonprofit communications I've ever seen.

First of all, it's from an actual person. Secondly, some variation of "thank you" appears four times. And the second sentence reads, "You are wonderful!" From a copywriting standpoint, there's something awkward about that, but acknowledgement of my wonderfulness does tend to make me read on.

Speaking of my copywriter's spidey sense, I must next laud what is perhaps the most effective paragraph of the letter. After explaining, "The average donor is paying for his or her own use of Wikipedia, plus the costs of hundreds of other people," Sue Gardner writes: "Your donation keeps Wikipedia available for an ambitious kid in Bangalore who's teaching herself computer programming. A middle-aged homemaker in Vienna who's just been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. A novelist researching 1850s Britain. A 10-year-old in San Salvador who's just discovered Carl Sagan."

In any kind of "business" writing (writing that seeks to persuade), specificity — a concrete example, a vivid description, an explanatory illustration — is the gold standard because it forges an emotional connection to the reader, and an emotional connection is the gateway drug to donation (or purchase or voting or any other action taken in response to the writer's "call to action").

Studies have repeatedly confirmed that when faced with even the most appalling, scrupulously sourced statistics about children starving in Africa, people are less likely to give than if you tell a compelling story about a single, i.e. specific, child starving in Africa. Sue's specific (if hypothetical) examples of people benefiting from my donation tell little stories, or at least present characters whose stories are intimated. (Extra points for making that Indian would-be computer programmer a girl.)

Then there are THE BOLDFACED VALUES (boldfacing mine): "[People] trust [Wikipedia] because even though it's not perfect, they know it's written for them. Wikipedia isn't meant to advance somebody's PR agenda or push a particular ideology ... We aim to tell the truth ... The fact that you fund the site keeps us independent ... " Sue goes on to cite Wikipedia's "effort to make the sum of all human knowledge available for everyone," following up with "Your donation makes the world a better place." The stakes are high here, folks.

Finally, Sue goes in for the kill: "Most people don't know Wikipedia's run by a non-profit. Please consider sharing this e-mail with a few of your friends to encourage them to donate, too." Ultimately, the value of my donation pales in comparison to what I could bring in as one of Wikipedia's social-media-savvy brand ambassadors.

A postscript provides links to not only Wikipedia's presence on Twitter, identi.ca, Google+ and Facebook; to its blog; and to the Wikimedia Foundation's annual report, annual plan and five-year strategic plan, but also to Wikipedia's online storefront. (Yes, dear reader, you can bestow upon your loved ones Wikipedia-branded merch this holiday season.) This is how it's done.

Sue closes with: "I appreciate your trust in us, and I promise you we'll use your money well." You had me at "You are wonderful!"

If you, like me, tend to donate to worthy causes this time of year, you'll be getting "thank you" letters from the smart nonprofits. The smartest will send you a handwritten note. But if thanks must come via auto-responder, it doesn't get much smarter than Sue Gardner's.

In closing, please enjoy these seasonally appropriate Wikipedia entries on Zwarte Piet, the Krampus and, what the hell, Judah Maccabee (not as nice a man as I was led to believe but any excuse to eat latkes in a storm). Happy Crimbo!