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Hewlett Foundation ponies up cash for Wikipedia

Someone has to pay for free content

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The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which handles the cash donated to various charities and good causes by one of the co-founders of Hewlett-Packard and his wife, has given Wikimedia, the non-profit behind the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, a $500,000 grant to improve itself.

Wikipedia is in no position to turn down cash from anyone, considering that Wikimedia is dedicated to open source and open content and relies on the kindness of strangers for not only its content, but also for the money to keep the Wikipedia project and numerous related projects afloat. But they must have been hoping for more help from the Hewlett Foundation, especially when you consider that Hewlett and his partner, Dave Packard, were engineers from Stanford University, created the original Silicon Valley IT startup, and had a lifelong dedication to education and the dissemination of news and information.

The Alfred P Sloan Foundation, created by a former president and chief executive officer of General Motors and which has an asset base of $1.8bn (sadly, much larger than GM itself), kicked in $3m this past March to Wikimedia to help it improve its operations and to expand its educational programs. The Sloan Foundation has a project called the Encyclopedia of Life, which is trying to create a web page dedicated to every known species on Earth. This effort is sponsored in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation (which has $5.3bn in assets and which was created by the founder of Bankers Life and Casualty Company, John MacArthur, and his wife, Catherine), and is separate from the funds given to Wikipedia.

The Hewlett Foundation, which has $6.9bn in assets under management, has been making grants since 1967 and is dedicated to educational and environmental issues. In 2008, the foundation made 667 grants totaling $784.5m, nearly twice the amount of funds it distributed in the prior year. Since 2001, the Hewlett Foundation has distributed more than $100m to promote and support open educational resources. That probably rivals open source investments by IT vendor Hewlett-Packard (yes, HP, I am just baiting you here so you will indignantly email me and tell me the actual amount of money you spend promoting and supporting open source projects).

In a statement, Wikimedia said that Hewlett Foundation's money "comes at a critical time" in that the non-profit was just planning how "to maximize our impact around the world".

Wikipedia has more than 12 million articles, and the site is maintained by more than 100,000 volunteers, who create articles and translate them into over 265 languages. Wikipedia gets over 300 million unique visitors per month, according to rankings by comScore Media Metrix, making it the fifth most popular place on the internet.

As El Reg reported in January, Wikipedia estimated that it needed just under $6m to fund its operations through June 30, the end of its fiscal 2008/2009 year. Nearly half of that ($2.7m) was allocated for technology expenses. After a fundraising drive that ran from November 2008 through January 2009, the non-profit had raised $6.2m.

And the most amazing thing about Wikipedia is that Google has not yet bought it and tried to bend it to its ad-serving will. The company does have its own encyclopedia effort, called Knol, which was launched in December 2007 and which is still in beta.

In January, the last time Google gave out numbers, Knol had 100,000 articles. It would be easy to laugh this off as a nice start but a ridiculous showing, but remember, Google doesn't have to beg for money and rely on volunteers. All it has to do is create a little something called KnolSense and pay people a slice of the ad serving action on a revamped Knol site. You would be amazed at how quickly contributors will start lining up to create content on a Google site.

Or, maybe you wouldn't, now that I think of it. This is human nature. ®

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