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Sustainable Social Media Infrastructure (PDF)
Sustainable Public Media Infrastructure
July 2, 2008. Successful non-profit technology organizations and what they can teach the foundation world.
A new type of non-profit organization is emerging, one that has never been possible in an offline world. These new organizations are creating permanent, sustainable public knowledge and communications infrastructure that is designed for public benefit.
The foundation world, largely absent from these success stories, should seize the opportunity to create new funding models for the next generation of long-term, public interest technology projects. Support for these types of organizations advances not only the public interest of an open and independent media, but also directly benefits many of the organizations and issues that foundations already fund. The potential social return on investment is enormous.
Two brief case studies are presented: the Mozilla Foundation (Firefox) and the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia). Both organizations have built powerful social infrastructure and vibrant volunteer communities that serve millions of people every day.
Nicholas Reville (nicholas – at – pculture.org)
Co-Founder, Executive Director, Participatory Culture Foundation
Holmes Wilson (hw – at – pculture.org)
Co-Founder, Development Director, Participatory Culture Foundation
Firefox / Mozilla Case Study
The Mozilla Foundation spun out of AOL in 2003 with a few million dollars in seed funding and an open codebase from what had been the Netscape web browser. Starting with just a few percent of global marketshare and facing Microsoftâ€™s entrenched monopoly, Mozilla’s Firefox browser has steadily grown, now reaching over 20% marketshare for one of the most fundamental communication tools of our time, the web browser.
With savvy earned revenue partnerships, Mozilla now generates income of more than $65 million a year without compromising its 501c3 charitable mission. In just a few years, the organization has grown from being a grant recipient to becoming a granting organization. More importantly, it has become a wholly self-funded organization that is a staunch public defender of free and open communication and is built for the long-term.
Mozilla’s mission is to promote open communication standards on the web. It accomplishes this goal by building open-source technology based on shared publicly-defined standards. Just as more traditional media openness advocacy projects focused on obscure FCC rules about media ownership and consolidation, the technical details of Mozillaâ€™s work can be complex and hard to penetrate. However, the goals of the work are the same: protect free speech and enable equal access and a level playing field online. Mozilla is defining the future of communication; they are contributing to a new infrastructure for sharing thoughts and ideas thatâ€™s more open and inclusive than any the world has ever seen.
In addition to their public service, Mozilla is a uniquely open and transparent organization that capitalizes on the efforts of tens of thousands of people around the world. Volunteers write code, translate Firefox into dozens of languages, and do beta testing. Mozilla is able to have impact far beyond their own staff and resources because they have created a structure that leverages a huge community of contributors.
Mozillaâ€™s achieves their mission in part through the marketplace: theyâ€™ve built a product that people love to use and which preserves freedom simply by being used. The remarkable success of Firefox means that for-profit companies have been forced to compete by making their products more open. This means that Mozillaâ€™s work serves the entire internet, far beyond the 200 million active users of Firefox.
Their work to promote openness, web standards, and user empowerment almost singlehandedly saved the web from being controlled by proprietary Microsoft technology, a fate that appeared to be a near-inevitability just a few years ago. They have moved an entire industry.
Mozilla demonstrates that a modest one-time investment can create a permanent public institution that will protect free speech and support other organizations for the foreseeable future. The strategic one-time philanthropic support of AOL and Mitch Kapor has generated an incredible social return on investment. The foundation world should be hunting to find and build the next Mozilla.
Mozilla Key Takeaways
- Online, a small amount of resources can serve millions of people.
- Web-based organizations can become self-sustaining in a way that has never been possible offline. When creating a website or building software, costs do not rise linearly with the number of people served.
- Successful social tech projects can quickly transition from being grant recipients to granting organizations.
- Non-profits have competitive advantages in the marketplace: high levels of trust and credibility and volunteer communities can multiply the reach of the paid staff. Open-source software can create a better product than the proprietary competition.
Wikipedia / Wikimedia Case Study
The Wikipedia website began as a small spin-off of an online encyclopedia project. Itâ€™s open contribution model helped it grow so quickly that an organization was eventually formed to support the project, the Wikimedia Foundation. The Foundation has been funded by individual donations of users as well as small foundation grants.
With a tiny staff of about 10 people (now growing to 20), Wikimedia built one of the world’s most popular websites, more visited than Facebook, eBay and Microsoft.com, to name just a few examples. Wikipedia has– by a huge margin– the smallest paid staff of any top 10 global website.
The organization has also managed one of the most remarkable volunteer efforts the world has even seen. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers have come together on the Wikipedia site to build the largest encyclopedia in human history with quality standards that, in tests, match or surpass Encyclopedia Britannica. Furthermore, Wikimedia has accomplished this feat in dozens of languages.
The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to bring people together to create and freely share information. Their volunteer community is meritocratic and very open. The Wikipedia website is, of course, free to anyone, and has become an essential source of knowledge for people around the world. The project is not something that for-profit companies have been able to duplicate, despite many expensive efforts.
The success of Wikipedia is simply stunning. It is an incredibly deep, broad, and well curated source of free public information. The community of volunteers that creates the site is active, vibrant, and devoted to their cause.
With very little initial investment and an extremely small staff to this day, Wikipedia has blossomed into one of the most remarkable institutions for free public knowledge that the world has ever seen.
The Wikimedia Foundation takes a different approach to sustainability than Mozilla, but has a similarly compelling long-term model. Wikimedia has very publicly stated that they will only accept paid advertising on their site as a last resort, even though it could easily fund their organization. For them, the mission must come first: unbiased, non-commercial information free to the world. But with such an incredible ratio of costs to services provided, Wikipedia can live forever as an institution support by individual and foundation donors.
It may be tempting to see Wikipedia as just another website. But by any broad measure, Wikipedia is playing a historic role in the development of humanity (both by organizing such tremendous quantities of human knowledge, and by demonstrating the potential of collaboration and collective understanding that the digital age contains). It offers one of the highest social returns on investment available in the philanthropy world today, but did not emerge from traditional foundation funding sources.
Wikimedia Key Takeaways
- Non-profit projects online can build vibrant collaborative communities of volunteers and evangelists that would have been extremely difficult and very expensive to organize offline.
- Tiny amounts of money can let smart projects reach enormous audiences.
- Avoiding some types of revenue can help protect the credibility and therefore success of certain non-profit tech projects. Revenue requirements relative to people served may be so small that perpetual grant support is the best long-term strategy.
Lessons for Philanthropy
The Social Good Opportunity
Public-interest organizations can create innovative and central pieces of the global communications infrastructure. When they do so, they are able to build freedom and openness into the entire system.
There are opportunities to permanently protect communication rights and resources by creating sustainable organizations that will survive for the long-term.
Social returns on investment (impact per philanthropic dollar) can vastly exceed almost any traditional grant funding projects, by even traditional metrics.
The internet is quickly becoming the most powerful communication medium the world has ever seen. For the public interest to be protected and represented, we must build sustainable internet-oriented organizations.
What needs to happen in the foundation world to seize these opportunities?
- Foundations need venture-style funding teams that have capacity to quickly evaluate non-profit tech proposals. These teams should be staffed with individuals with backgrounds in successful tech projects.
- General staffing criteria at foundations must recognize the importance of new media. Professional development around tech and media should also be offered.
- Funding of social tech projects must have an outcome-based perspective and an appreciation of scale. Is a proposed project capable of reaching a mass-scale? Can the project realistically become self-funding? How many people are being reached per dollar invested?
- Seeking out scalable, high-impact projects will naturally mean addressing needs that for-profit companies are actively trying to address. If the project adds compelling value to the public interest (e.g. Mozilla Firefox vs. Microsoft Internet Explorer), this competition should be seen as indicative of high potential impact, not as a duplication of effort.
Appendix A: Mozilla and Firefox Supporting Materials
the open web is a social movement
by David Eaves
“This social movement is different in that, so far, it has been able to derive its power from a narrow set of people â€“ mostly coders â€“ who by volunteering their labour, have given the movement neither political power, nor economic power, but hard consumer power. This power has enabled projects like Mozilla to out-create, out-innovate, and out-perform the largest, best financed, and most successful software and IT companies in the world. As such, it does not need to rely on persuading government to create structural changes the way past social movements have. It has simply been able to force change though its market position.”
“The Mozilla project is a global community of people who believe that openness, innovation, and opportunity are key to the continued health of the Internet. We have worked together since 1998 to ensure that the Internet is developed in a way that benefits everyone.”
Appendix B: Wikimedia and Wikipedia Supporting Materials
Gin, Television, and Social Surplus
by Clay Shirky
“If you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.”
“The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.”
About the Participatory Culture Foundation
The Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF) is a 501c3 non-profit organization that builds the open internet television distribution tool Miro (getmiro.com).
Miro is used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world to connect to creators of internet video. The mission of PCF is to build a television system that is more open than ever before. We strive to eliminate gatekeepers, corporate control, and centralization as we work towards a new vision of open media where everyone can create, curate and participate.
This paper is released into the public domain.