Non Profit,
Non Pauper

This originally appeared as a comment I made on Reddit in February of 2022. I was responding to a criticism that donations to the Wikimedia Foundation don’t go towards site costs but rather towards staff salaries, up to $400k per year at the highest levels. I don’t think capitalism is inherently problematic, but I do think it needs to be heavily tempered with regulation and generously alloyed with non-profit organizations.

You know, I’ve thought about this, and it does kinda bother me... but in the other direction.

Wikipedia is a hugely popular and useful website. Like many such websites, it is free to access. Unlike them, it has zero ads and zero data harvesting, with great performance and a beautifully clean interface on desktop and mobile. If you want to see what Wikipedia would look like as a for-profit venture, check out any site based on the Wikia platform, the for-profit company owned by Jimmy Wales that licenses wiki technology to various fan websites (Wikipedia is open-source but I’m guessing it’s difficult to set up while Wikia has support). Site owners always bury each page in enough ads to make your machine crawl. And you don’t even have to pay for Wikipedia to remain so excellent, as it has enough donors who pay the price for you.

Do you know what $400k/year is? It’s a good salary. It’s a really good salary. That’ll provide an upper middle-class life in the heart of Silicon Valley, assuming you already own a house, because right now they’re $2-3m or more in the nicer neighborhoods. WMF (Wikimedia Foundation) is in San Francisco, which is debatably nice (gottem) but undoubtedly expensive. Employees could live in cheaper nearby cities where homes go for under a million, as long as they’re willing to deal with commuting for an hour or two. Each way. Of course, WFH is a much more accepted thing now, so maybe those managers (most employees at WMF, I’m guessing) are able to telecommute from a distant but much cheaper area. You can live like a king in a rural area on $400k/year, the caveat being that those areas are cheap for good reason.

Do you know what $400k/year isn’t? Some insane number like you make it out to be. Bobby Kotick, the abusive boss of an abusive company, made over $150 million in 2021 alone via exploitative products offering unregulated gambling to children, created by workers who by now expect to be laid off after finishing a project because payroll is a liability that looks bad to shareholders. And yet, people keep paying for that company’s products. And I don’t just mean five bucks a year here and there, I mean hundreds or sometimes even thousands of dollars. And they don’t even necessarily get what they wanted, because gambling.

A “for-profit” organization is concerned with maximizing profit at any cost. A “non-profit” organization isn’t. That doesn’t mean non-profits are trying to avoid money like some kind of contagion. A non-profit org’s employees aren’t trying to get filthy rich, but they don’t expect to starve, either. Some savings are perfectly fine, too - that’s how you make it through tough periods. I worked for a non-profit a couple years ago that had a good bit put away for a rainy day, and that rainy day was COVID. The lucrative nursery school attached to our organization suddenly had to drastically cut down its offerings while ramping up expenditures on cleaning supplies, staff hours, etc. They’re using those savings to get them through this lean time, and continuing to operate the nursery school at a loss in an attempt to retain as many clients as possible so that it can hopefully be a good source of funding again one day.

Wikipedia does need donations for site costs. Those costs include paying staff; that’s not an “other thing.” And they pay staff an appropriate salary. They don’t have to beg for food in the streets, but they’re not pressuring the Dutch to disassemble a historic bridge so their superyacht can get through. I Googled Jimmy Wales’ net worth, and some results from almost a decade ago say a little over a million dollars, but there were a few more recent results estimating closer to $12 million. And you know what? I think that’s perfectly fine. The man founded Wikipedia; I don’t have a problem with him earning $12m for that (total net worth, not annual compensation). It’s not $120m, it’s not $1.2b, it’s not $12b, it’s not $120b... $12m is a lot of money, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nowhere near an obscene amount, and Wikipedia is a huge accomplishment.

TL;DR: Non-profit doesn’t mean unfunded, and paying non-profit staff a fraction of a percent of what they could’ve earned at a comparable for-profit corporation is a real part of site costs and not some kind of embezzlement.