Learning from Wikipedia

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Oct 26, 2012 | Blog

In 1994, world-renowned Encyclopedia Britannica released Encarta, the first internet-based version of their encyclopedia, accessible for a fee. Built with a team of paid researchers, and with the support of expensive retrieval software, Encyclopedia Britannica amassed over 300 million characters of text and 2,000 illustrations.

In 2001, Wikipedia was founded as a not-for-profit organization with a mandate to provide a free, open-source, collaborative encyclopedia. The creators invited any user who visited the site to contribute their knowledge as editors of its entries. By June 2012, Wikipedia was rated the world’s sixth-most popular website, with a combination of over 22 million articles across 284 languages.

Over 11 years, this community of tens of thousands of voluntary contributors yielded a reference that is hundreds of times larger than any other encyclopedia with over 10 billion page views each month.  Meanwhile, in 2009, Microsoft abandoned Encarta, citing that it could no longer compete with Wikipedia. In 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica also announced that it was discontinuing its print version after 244 years.

Are there lessons here that we can apply to the not-for-profit sector?


This story is a wonderful metaphor for the possibilities that exist when not-for-profits recognize there is an abundance of engaged, generous and intelligent people in the community. When given the opportunity, they can combine to create the world’s biggest mosaic of skills.

What if, instead of a volunteer to stuff envelopes with our monthly newsletter, we engaged a volunteer skilled in marketing to build a strategy that aligns our newsletter with our strategic priorities? Or, instead of someone who comes in once a week to do filing, we engaged a records management expert to develop a more effective filing system?

Wikipedia has been successful because it embraces that expertise is everywhere and people want to contribute it, without expecting to be paid with money.

What are some creative ways you’re currently engaging skilled volunteers?

Check out A People Lens: 101 Ways to Move your Organization Forward for more examples of skilled volunteer opportunities your organization can create today. Download the PDF, or from Amazon for your e-reader.

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Vantage Point

Our mission is to transform not-for-profit organizations by convening, connecting, and equipping leaders to lift organizational capacity. Every client leaves our programs with resources to excel in their role and grow the impact of their organization.

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