Wikipedia: Learning from one of the world’s most successful volunteer collaborations

stevie-bentonStevie Benton is head of external relations for Wikimedia UK, the national charity that supports and promotes Wikipedia. He is responsible for communications, policy and advocacy at the charity. Stevie is a volunteer member of the NCVO digital steering group, co-founder of the Open Coalition. He is passionate about access to knowledge for all and is currently exploring the potential of digital democracy to change the way that we engage with civic society.

Wikipedia is a volunteering success story. Every month, around 100,000 people contribute to the online encyclopaedia. Let’s take a look at how this works, and what parts of that your organisation might be able to adapt and use in your own work.

When you think of Wikipedia, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Settling arguments in the pub? A quick way to check information? It might be that you curse silently because the page about your charity or your CEO is often out of date.

You probably don’t think of it as the largest volunteer collaboration in history – but that’s what it just might be.

The numbers are astonishing:

  • The English-language version of the free encyclopaedia is very quickly approaching five million articles.
  • Twelve separate language editions have more than a million articles each.
  • Across 288 languages there are 35 million articles.
  • Across all languages there have been almost two billion separate edits.
  • The most amazing thing? Almost all of this content is written, edited, curated, and managed by volunteers.

What we can learn from this

Effective volunteer engagement is more important than ever for our sector

An active community of volunteers can offer you many things, including diversity, skills, knowledge, and passion. They remind you of your mission and help you to work towards it. Few things bring charitable objectives into sharper focus than spending time with your volunteers.

Successful engagement is difficult

It’s a challenge that the sector as a whole faces, and one that has seen lots of pixels poured forth and lots of ink spilled in attempts to understand how to be more effective. A look at Wikipedia’s volunteer community can tell us many things.

There’s no magic method for mass engagement

Every contributor has her own motivation for taking part. For some, it’s the knowledge that they are making a contribution. For others, it’s about learning a new skill or sharpening an existing one. Yet more enjoy the feeling of being part of a large and engaged community. Some just like to show off their knowledge of a particular subject.
The common thread is people bringing skills and expertise to a unified cause. Wikipedia has volunteers who focus on the tech side of things, others write content. Some patrol the site fixing typos, while yet more work behind the scenes on the policies and guidelines that give Wikipedia a coherence and structure.

Low barriers to entry

There is one other feature that jumps out. Taking that initial step to becoming a volunteer Wikipedia editor is easy – you just have to click the edit button and you’re on your way. You don’t need permission, you don’t need to know the right people, you don’t need any qualifications – you just click edit.
The Wikipedia community does have its own rules, norms and values – and these can take some time to learn – but at the most fundamental level, the only barrier to entry is being able to access the website.

No commitment required

Wikipedia’s has no minimum time commitment. Whether you make one edit a month or hundreds, it doesn’t matter. You have direct control over what you do and what contribution you make. Sometimes expectations of volunteers can be weighty and off-putting. By giving volunteers direct control over what they do, how they do it, and for how long, volunteering becomes a much more enticing prospect. This is a critical point. More than ever, volunteers want to feel in control of what they are doing. Think about the benefits this sense of ownership brings and how it deepens connection to your mission. You can tap in to the energy and motivation of volunteers to benefit your cause.

Want to find out more?

Of course, there is much more to community engagement than the simple points above. There’s all kinds of nuance behind the culture of volunteering that makes Wikipedia tick. I’ll be exploring this community ethos in more depth at the workshop ‘Building communities: how to get the most from your supporters’ at the NCVO Evolve conference this June, together with the excellent Megan Griffith Gray of NCVO and Steve Bridger, a community management expert.

Our session will be very hands-on, explaining why volunteer engagement is so important for your charity and giving useful advice on how to do this more effectively. Come prepared to challenge your preconceptions, and be ready to leave enthused and excited to reconnect with your volunteer communities.

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