It was established in 2003 by Jimmy Wales as a way to fund Wikipedia and its sibling projects through non-profit means. As of 2021, it employs over 550 staff and contractors, with annual revenues in excess of US$150 million.
It has the stated goal of developing and maintaining open content, wiki-based projects and providing the full contents of those projects to the public free of charge. Another objective is political advocacy.
It was granted section 501(c)(3) status by the U.S. Internal Revenue Code as a public charity in 2005. Its National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) code is B60 (Adult, Continuing education). The foundation's by-laws declare a statement of purpose of collecting and developing educational content and to disseminate it effectively and globally.
Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and online community organizer/philosophy professor Larry Sanger founded Wikipedia in 2001 as an Internet encyclopedia to supplement Nupedia. The project was originally funded by Bomis, Jimmy Wales's for-profit business. Since Wikipedia was depleting Bomis's resources, Wales and Sanger thought of a charity model to fund the project. The Wikimedia Foundation was incorporated in Florida on June 20, 2003. It applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office to trademark Wikipedia on September 14, 2004. The mark was granted registration status on January 10, 2006. Trademark protection was accorded by Japan on December 16, 2004, and, in the European Union, on January 20, 2005. There were plans to license the use of the Wikipedia trademark for some products such as books or DVDs.
The name "Wikimedia", a compound of wiki and media, was coined by American author Sheldon Rampton in a post to the English mailing list in March 2003, three months after Wiktionary became the second wiki-based project hosted on Wales' platform.
In April 2005, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service approved the foundation as an educational foundation in the category "Adult, Continuing education", meaning all contributions to the foundation are tax-deductible for U.S. federal income tax purposes.
On December 11, 2006, the foundation's board noted that the corporation could not become the membership organization initially planned but never implemented due to an inability to meet the registration requirements of Florida statutory law. Accordingly, the by-laws were amended to remove all references to membership rights and activities. The decision to change the bylaws was passed by the board unanimously.
On September 25, 2007, the foundation's board gave notice that the operations would be moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. Some considerations cited for choosing San Francisco were proximity to like-minded organizations and potential partners, a better talent pool, as well as cheaper and more convenient international travel than is available from St. Petersburg, Florida. The move from Florida was completed by January 31, 2008, with the headquarters on Stillman Street in San Francisco.
Lila Tretikov was appointed executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation in May 2014. She resigned in March 2016. Former chief communications officer Katherine Maher was appointed the interim executive director, a position made permanent in June 2016.
In September 2020, WMF's application to become an observer at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was blocked after objections from the government of China over the existence of a Wikimedia Foundation affiliate in Taiwan. In October 2021, WMF's second application was blocked by the government of China for the same reason.
On October 25, 2021, the foundation launched Wikimedia Enterprise, a commercial product designed to sell and deliver Wikipedia's content directly to Big Tech companies. WMF will also offer Wikimedia Enterprise to smaller companies.
The foundation operates eleven wikis that follow the free content model with their main goal being the dissemination of knowledge. These include, by launch date:
Certain additional projects exist to provide infrastructure or coordination of the free knowledge projects. For instance, Outreach gives guidelines for best practices on encouraging the use of Wikimedia sites. These include:
Wikimedia affiliates are "independent and formally recognized" groups of people intended to work together to support and contribute to the Wikimedia movement. The Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees has approved three active models for affiliates: chapters, thematic organizations, and user groups. Affiliates are intended to organize and engage in activities to support and contribute to the Wikimedia movement, such as regional conferences, outreach, edit-a-thons, hackathons, public relations, public policy advocacy, GLAM engagement, and Wikimania.
Recognition of a chapter and thematic organization is approved by the foundation's board. Recommendations on recognition of chapters and thematic organizations are made to the foundation's board by an Affiliations Committee, composed of Wikimedia community volunteers. The Affiliations Committee approves the recognition of individual user groups. While affiliates are formally recognized by the Wikimedia Foundation, they are independent of the Wikimedia Foundation, with no legal control of nor responsibility for the Wikimedia projects.
The foundation began recognizing chapters in 2004. In 2010, development on additional models began. In 2012, the foundation approved, finalized and adopted the thematic organization and user group recognition models. An additional model, movement partners, was also approved but as of October 27, 2015, has not yet been finalized or adopted.
Each year, an international conference called Wikimania brings the people together who are involved in the Wikimedia organizations and projects. The first Wikimania was held in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2005. Wikimania is organized by a committee supported usually by the national chapter, in collaboration with the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikimania has been held in cities such as Buenos Aires, Cambridge, Haifa, Hong Kong, and, in 2014, London. In 2015, Wikimania took place in Mexico City, in 2016 in Esino Lario, Italy, 2017 in Montreal, 2018 in Cape Town, and 2019 in Stockholm. The 2020 event was cancelled, and that of 2021 held online, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The foundation employs technology including hardware and software to run its projects.
By December 2009, Wikimedia ran on co-located servers, with 300 servers in Florida and 44 in Amsterdam. In 2008, it also switched from multiple different Linux operating system vendors to Ubuntu Linux. Since 2019, it switched to Debian.
By January 2013, Wikimedia transitioned to newer infrastructure in an Equinix facility in Ashburn, Virginia, citing reasons of "more reliable connectivity" and "fewer hurricanes". In years prior, the hurricane seasons had been a cause of distress.
In October 2013, Wikimedia Foundation started looking for a second facility that would be used side by side with the main facility in Ashburn, citing reasons of redundancy (e.g. emergency fallback) and to prepare for simultaneous multi-datacentre service. This follows the year in which a fiber cut caused the Wikimedia projects to be unavailable for one hour in August 2012.
Apart from the second facility for redundancy coming online in 2014, the number of servers needed to run the infrastructure in a single facility has been mostly stable since 2009. As of November 2015, the main facility in Ashburn hosts 520 servers in total which includes servers for newer services besides Wikimedia project wikis, such as Cloud services (Toolforge) and various services for metrics, monitoring, and other system administration.
The operation of Wikimedia depends on MediaWiki, a custom-made, free and open-source wiki software platform written in PHP and built upon the MariaDB database since 2013; previously the MySQL database was used. The software incorporates programming features such as a macro language, variables, a transclusion system for templates, and URL redirection. MediaWiki is licensed under the GNU General Public License and it is used by all Wikimedia projects.
Originally, Wikipedia ran on UseModWiki written in Perl by Clifford Adams (Phase I), which initially required CamelCase for article hyperlinks; the double bracket style was incorporated later. Starting in January 2002 (Phase II), Wikipedia began running on a PHP wiki engine with a MySQL database; this software was custom-made for Wikipedia by Magnus Manske. The Phase II software was repeatedly modified to accommodate the exponentially increasing demand. In July 2002 (Phase III), Wikipedia shifted to the third-generation software, MediaWiki, originally written by Lee Daniel Crocker.
Some MediaWiki extensions are installed to extend the functionality of MediaWiki software. In April 2005, an Apache Lucene extension was added to MediaWiki's built-in search and Wikipedia switched from MySQL to Lucene and later switched to CirrusSearch which is based on Elasticsearch for searching. The Wikimedia Foundation also uses CiviCRM and WordPress.
The foundation relies on public contributions and grants to fund its mission. It is exempt from federal income tax and from state income tax. It is not a private foundation, and contributions to it qualify as tax-deductible charitable contributions. In 2007, 2008 and 2009, Charity Navigator gave Wikimedia an overall rating of three out of four possible stars, increasing to four stars in 2010. As of January 2020, the rating was still four stars (overall score 98.14 out of 100), based on data from FY2018.
The continued technical and economic growth of each of the Wikimedia projects is dependent mostly on donations but the Wikimedia Foundation also increases its revenue by alternative means of funding such as grants, sponsorship, services and brand merchandising. The Wikimedia OAI-PMH update feed service, targeted primarily at search engines and similar bulk analysis and republishing, has been a source of revenue for a number of years, but is no longer open to new customers. DBpedia was given access to this feed free of charge.
Since the end of fiscal year ended 2004, the foundation's net assets grew from US$57,000 to US$53.5 million at the end of fiscal year ended June 30, 2014. Under the leadership of Sue Gardner who joined the Wikimedia Foundation in 2007, the foundation's staff levels, number of donors and revenue saw growth. By 2020, the Foundation reported net assets of US$180 million from donations and grants and in 2021 announced plans to charge big tech companies for preferential access to Wikipedia content.
In January 2016, the foundation announced the creation of an endowment to ensure the continuity of the project in the future. The Wikimedia Endowment was established as a collective action fund at the Tides Foundation, with a stated goal to raise US$100 million in the next 10 years. Craig Newmark was one of the initial donors, giving US$1 million to the endowment.
The Foundation provided irrevocable grants of $5 million on June 29, 2016, and $5 million on June 27, 2017, to the Tides Foundation for the purpose of the Wikimedia Endowment. Another $5 million was given in the fiscal year 2017–2018. The amounts were recorded as part of the expense for awards and grants of the foundation.
In 2018, Amazon.com and Facebook gave US$1 million each and George Soros donated $2 million to the endowment. In January 2019, Google donated $2 million to the endowment. In 2019, Peter Baldwin and his wife, Lisbet Rausing, donated $3.5 million, bringing their total Endowment giving to $8.5 million; an initial $5 million was given in 2017. In 2019, Craig Newmark Philanthropies donated an additional $2.5 million to the Endowment. In October 2019 and in September 2020, Amazon donated $1 million to the Endowment.
As of January 2021, five years after it was established, the endowment was reported to stand at more than US$90 million.
In September 2021, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that the Wikimedia Endowment had reached its initial $100 million fundraising goal, five years early.
Expenses from the 2015–2016 financial year onwards include payments to the endowment.
The Wikimedia Foundation expenses mainly concern salaries, wages and other professional operating and services. Payments to the Wikimedia Endowment are also classified as expenses in the Wikimedia Foundation's financial statements.
In 2008, the foundation received a US$40,000 grant by the Open Society Institute to create a printable version of Wikipedia. It also received a US$262,000 grant by the Stanton Foundation to purchase hardware, a US$500,000 unrestricted grant by Vinod and Neeru Khosla, who later that year joined the foundation advisory board, US$177,376 from the historians Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin foundation (Arcadia Fund), among others. In March 2008, the foundation announced, at the time, its largest donation yet: a three-year, US$3 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
In 2009, the foundation received four grants – the first grant was a US$890,000 Stanton Foundation grant which was aimed to help study and simplify user interface for first-time authors of Wikipedia. The second was a US$300,000 Ford Foundation grant, given in July 2009, for Wikimedia Commons that aimed to improve the interfaces and workflows for multimedia uploading on Wikimedia websites. In August 2009, the foundation received a US$500,000 grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In August 2009, the Omidyar Network committed up to US$2 million over two years to Wikimedia.
In 2010, Google donated US$2 million to the foundation. The Stanton Foundation granted $1.2 million to fund the Public Policy Initiative, a pilot program for what would later become the Wikipedia Education Program (and the spinoff Wiki Education Foundation).
In March 2011, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation authorized another US$3 million grant to continue to develop and maintain the foundation's mission. The grant was to be funded over three years with the first US$1 million funded in July 2011 and the remaining US$2 million was scheduled to be funded in August 2012 and 2013. As a donor, Doron Weber from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation gained Board Visitor status at the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees. In August 2011, the Stanton Foundation pledged to fund a US$3.6 million grant of which US$1.8 million was funded and the remainder was due to be funded in September 2012. As of 2011, this was the largest grant received by the Wikimedia Foundation to-date. In November 2011, the foundation received a US$500,000 donation from the Brin Wojcicki Foundation.
In 2012, the foundation was awarded a grant of US$1.25 million from the historians Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin through Charities Aid Foundation, scheduled to be funded in five equal installments. The first installment of US$250,000 was received in April 2012 and the remaining were to be funded in December 2012 through 2015. In 2014, the foundation received the largest single gift in its history, a $5 million unrestricted donation from an anonymous donor supporting $1 million worth of expenses annually for the next five years. In March 2012, The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a foundation established by Intel co-founder and his wife, awarded a US$449,636 grant to develop Wikidata.
Between 2014 and 2015, the foundation received US$500,000 from Monarch Fund, US$100,000 from Arcadia Fund and an undisclosed amount by Stavros Niarchos Foundation to support the Wikipedia Zero initiative.
In 2017, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded another US$3 million grant for a three-year period.
The following have donated a total of US$500,000 or more, each (2008–2019):
In 2004, the foundation appointed Tim Starling as developer liaison to help improve the MediaWiki software, Daniel Mayer as chief financial officer (finance, budgeting, and coordination of fund drives), and Erik Möller as content partnership coordinator. In May 2005, the foundation announced seven more official appointments.
In January 2006, the foundation created a number of committees, including the Communication Committee, in an attempt to further organize activities somewhat handled by volunteers at that time. Starling resigned that month to spend more time on his PhD program.
As of October 4, 2006, the foundation had five paid employees: two programmers, an administrative assistant, a coordinator handling fundraising and grants, and an interim executive director, Brad Patrick, previously the foundation's general counsel. Patrick ceased his activity as interim director in January 2007 and then resigned from his position as legal counsel, effective April 1, 2007. He was replaced by Mike Godwin who served as general counsel and legal coordinator from July 2007 until 2010.
In January 2007, Carolyn Doran was named chief operating officer and Sandy Ordonez joined as head of communications. Doran began working as a part-time bookkeeper in 2006 after being sent by a temporary agency. Doran, found to have had a criminal record, left the foundation in July 2007 and Sue Gardner was hired as consultant and special advisor (later CEO). Doran's departure from the organization was cited by Florence Devouard as one of the reasons the foundation took about seven months to release its fiscal 2007 financial audit.
Danny Wool, officially the grant coordinator and also involved in fundraising and business development, resigned in March 2007. He accused Wales of misusing the foundation's funds for recreational purposes and said that Wales had his Wikimedia credit card taken away in part because of his spending habits, a claim Wales denied. In February 2007, the foundation added a position, chapters coordinator, and hired Delphine Ménard who had been occupying the position as a volunteer since August 2005. Cary Bass was hired in March 2007 in the position of volunteer coordinator. Oleta McHenry was brought in as accountant in May 2007, through a temporary placement agency and made the official full-time accountant in August 2007. In January 2008, the foundation appointed Veronique Kessler as the new chief financial and operating officer, Kul Wadhwa as head of business development and Jay Walsh as head of communications.
As of October 2, 2021, the foundation had more than 550 employees and contractors.
The foundation's board of trustees has ultimate authority in all the businesses and affairs of the foundation. Since 2008 it has been composed of ten members:
Three permanent entities support the board on its mission and responsibilities: an executive director who leads and oversees the operational arm of the foundation; an advisory board composed of individuals selected by the board itself that advise the board on different matters; and standing committees to which the board delegates certain matters while retaining ultimate authority. The board has also at times created other entities to support itself, such as executive secretaries and ad hoc committees established for specific tasks.
In a decision of 2015, James Heilman was removed from the board. In January 2016, Arnnon Geshuri joined the board before stepping down amid controversy about a "no poach" agreement he executed when at Google, which violated United States antitrust law and for which the participating companies paid US$415 million in a class action suit on behalf of affected employees. María Sefidari was chairman of the board until she stepped down and became a paid consultant to the foundation in June 2021. Katherine Maher was the executive director from June 2016 to April 2021.
As of October 2021, the board comprises four community-elected trustees (Dariusz Jemielniak, Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, Victoria Doronina, and Lorenzo Losa); four Board-appointed trustees (McKinsey & Company director Raju Narisetti, Bahraini human rights activist and blogger Esra'a Al Shafei, management consulting executive Lisa Lewin, and McAfee executive Tanya Capuano); two Affiliate-selected trustees (Nataliia Tymkiv and Shani Evenstein Sigalov); as well as Jimmy Wales occupying the single "founder's seat". Tymkiv serves as chair of the board, alongside Al Shafei and Sigalov as vice chairs.
The advisory board, according to the Wikimedia Foundation, is an international network of experts who have agreed to give the foundation meaningful help on a regular basis in many different areas including law, organizational development, technology, policy, and outreach.
Appointed members for the period from June 16, 2017, to June 30, 2018, were:
Among firms regularly listed as independent contractors in the Wikimedia Foundation's Form 990 disclosures are the Jones Day law firm and the PR firm Minassian Media; the latter was founded by Craig Minassian, a full-time executive at the Clinton Foundation.
The Wikimedia Foundation has been affected by the strategic consulting services of williamsworks, a consultancy established by Whitney Williams, former Trip Director for Hillary Clinton.
A number of disputes have resulted in litigation while others have not. Attorney Matt Zimmerman stated, "Without strong liability protection, it would be difficult for Wikipedia to continue to provide a platform for user-created encyclopedia content."
In December 2011, the foundation hired Washington, D.C., lobbyist Dow Lohnes Government Strategies LLC to lobby the United States Congress with regard to "Civil Rights/Civil Liberties" and "Copyright/Patent/Trademark." At the time of the hire the Foundation was concerned specifically about a bill known as the Stop Online Piracy Act.
In October 2013, a German Court ruled that the Wikimedia Foundation can be held liable for content added to Wikipedia – however, this applies only when there has been a specific complaint; otherwise, the Wikimedia Foundation does not check any of the content published on Wikipedia and has no duty to do so.
In June 2014, a copyright infringement lawsuit was filed by Bildkonst Upphovsrätt i Sverige against Wikimedia Sweden.
On June 20, 2014, a defamation lawsuit (Law Division civil case No. L-1400-14) involving Wikipedia editors was filed with the Mercer County Superior Court in New Jersey seeking, inter alia, compensatory and punitive damages.
In a March 10, 2015, op-ed for The New York Times, Wales and Tretikov announced the foundation was filing a lawsuit against the National Security Agency and five other government agencies and officials, including DOJ, calling into question its practice of mass surveillance which they argued infringed the constitutional rights of the foundation's readers, editors and staff. They were joined in the suit by eight additional plaintiffs, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. On October 23, 2015, the dismissed the suit Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA on grounds of standing. U.S. District Judge T. S. Ellis III ruled that the plaintiffs could not plausibly prove they were subject to upstream surveillance, and that their argument is "riddled with assumptions", "speculations" and "mathematical gymnastics". The plaintiffs filed an appeal with the on February 17, 2016.
During the 2015 fundraising campaign, some members of the community voiced their concerns about the fundraising banners. They argued that they were obtrusive for users and that they could be deceiving potential donors by giving the perception that Wikipedia had immediate financial issues, which was not the case. The Wikimedia Foundation vowed to improve wording on further fundraising campaigns to avoid these issues.
In June 2015, James Heilman was elected by the community to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees. In December 2015, the board removed Heilman from his position as a trustee, a decision that generated dispute amongst some members of the Wikipedia community. A statement released by the board declared the lack of confidence of his fellow trustees in him as the reasons for his ouster. Heilman later stated that he "was given the option of resigning [by the Board] over the last few weeks. As a community elected member I see my mandate as coming from the community which elected me and thus declined to do so. I saw such a move as letting down those who elected me." He subsequently pointed out that while on the Board, he had pushed for greater transparency regarding the Wikimedia Foundation's Knowledge Engine project and its financing, and indicated that his attempts to make public the Knight Foundation grant for the engine had been a factor in his dismissal.
The volunteer community re-elected Heilman to the Wikimedia Foundation board in 2017.
Knowledge Engine was a search engine project initiated in 2015 by WMF to locate and display verifiable and trustworthy information on the Internet. The goal of the KE was to be less reliant on traditional search engines and it was funded with a US$250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. The project was perceived by some as a scandal, mainly because it was conceived in secrecy, which was perceived by some as a conflict with the Wikimedia community's transparency. In fact, some of the information available to the community was received through leaked documents published by The Signpost in 2016.
Wales was confronted with allegations that WMF had "a miserable cost/benefit ratio and for years now has spent millions on software development without producing anything that actually works". Wales acknowledged in 2014 that he had "been frustrated as well about the endless controversies about the rollout of inadequate software not developed with sufficient community consultation and without proper incremental rollout to catch show-stopping bugs".
In February 2017, an op-ed published by The Signpost, the English Wikipedia's online newspaper, titled Wikipedia has Cancer produced a debate both in the Wikipedian community and the wider public. The author criticized the Wikimedia Foundation for its ever-increasing annual spending which, he argued, could put the project at financial risk should an unexpected event happen. The author proposed to put a cap on spending, build up its existing endowment, and restructure the endowment so that WMF cannot dip into the principal when times get bad. Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director, Katherine Maher, responded by pointing out that such an endowment was already created in 2016, confusing creating an endowment with building up an existing endowment.