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Why would someone toss $1.35m at Wikipedia?

Jimbo Wales catches VC from Bono on Mexico City rooftop

Updated There's little doubt that anyone with the time and the inclination can overhaul at least a few Wikipedia entries to suit their personal ambitions. All they need is the right friends. Or a little pillow talk. The question is, could someone overhaul the entire encyclopedia?

Over the past two years, one man has donated or "lined up" donations totaling more than $1.35m to the charitable organization that runs Wikipedia, dwarfing the contributions of any other donor. And this man is among Silicon Valley's most conspicuous venture capitalists.

His name is Roger McNamee, and he runs Elevation Partners, a San Francisco-based VC firm whose partners include Bono, the U2 frontman more famous for pop records than venture capital. In fact, Bono played a significant role in the mysterious pas de deux between Elevation and the Wikimedia Foundation, making nice with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales and his wife Christine before a U2 concert in Mexico City more than two years ago.

In the beginning, McNamee's donations were made anonymously - at least on official records. But the Elevation Partners connection has long been an open secret among Wikimedia insiders, and last week the secret spilled out onto the web when former Foundation executive Danny Wool posted a few details to his well-read blog.

After Jimmy Wales dumped his lover on the "free encyclopedia anyone can edit", and Danny Wool accused the site's Spiritual Leader of mismanaging Foundation funds, many assumed that the The Great Wikipedia Soap Opera had reached its climax. But there's more to come.

At the very least, McNamee's involvement with Wikimedia is a puzzle that needs solving. Considering the Foundation's status as a tax-exempt non-profit, a VC would need more than a little sleight of hand to turn it into a personal moneymaker. And if he did, this would surely raise the ire of more than few Wikipedians. Remember: Wikipedia was built almost entirely with free labor.

When Bono met Jimbo

According to Danny Wool, Elevation Partners - named for the U2 song - first approached the Wikimedia Foundation in late 2005. Wool took a phone call from a partner named Marc Bodnick.

"There was a period of time where everybody was trying to get in on the Wikipedia action," Wool told us. "Bodnick was really intriguing. He gave me the whole Bono thing, and I thought that was really cool. So I told Jimmy."

Wales soon met with Bodnick at Wikimedia's St Petersburg, Florida, headquarters, and later chatted with Roger McNamee in San Francisco. Then, several weeks later, Wales and his wife Christine had dinner with Bodnick and his personal assistant at a steakhouse in nearby Tampa. According to Wool, this was the $1,300 meal that Wales famously asked the Foundation to pay for.

In the end, the Foundation did not reimburse Wales for the steakhouse tab. But a few weeks later, on February 15, 2006, Wales and his wife flew to Mexico for that U2 concert, together with Danny Wool and another Wikimedia staffer. And this tab was on Elevation. "They paid for all the expenses," Wool told us. "All of them."

That night, the four of them joined Bono for drinks on the roof of their hotel, and at one point the pop icon suggested that Wales dump Wikipedia's volunteer editors and hire professionals.

Bono also suggested the Wikimedia foursome meet him for lunch the next afternoon before attending the concert. But in the end, that meeting included only Wales and his wife. "I was all dressed for the lunch with Bono and I was told that Bono only wanted to meet with Jimmy and Christine," Wool said.

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