Oct 25, 2014 Reetta Heiskanen
In 2012, Sue Gardner was ranked as the 70th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine. She has been called the “Mother Teresa of the Internet”, “the librarian to the world” and “the ultimate media game-changer”.
According to Gardner, her work is motivated by the desire to ensure that people have access to the information they want and need in order to “make the best possible decisions about their lives.”
Gardner started her career as a journalist, mostly in radio and TV. In 2000 she became the director of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website and online news outlets and in 2007 Gardner became the executive director of Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit operating Wikipedia.
In the years since, Wikipedia’s credibility has increased, readership has doubled, and number of articles has tripled.
Revenues at the Wikimedia Foundation have grown from $2 million to $60 million, making it the fastest-growing nonprofit in the United States as measured by revenue growth.
Sue Gardner told Slush News all about the long trip to this point and what has helped, inspired and driven her along the way.
Well, our first challenge was to get people to take Wikipedia seriously.
Back in 2007, everybody used Wikipedia, but it was considered mildly shameful. We wanted to accelerate the process, and so we deliberately formed a number of partnerships with very credible, very established institutions like the Sloan Foundation and Harvard and the BBC. Things get the brand they deserve and Wikipedians have earned the trust of readers by writing good articles day after day after day. But I do believe the WMF accelerated the acceptance process.
The hardest problem we had to solve though, and the area where we made the least progress, was diversifying the community of Wikipedia editors. Editing Wikipedia is a very niche pursuit, and tends to attract people who are male, young, highly tech-centric, and who live in rich northern countries. That’s a problem because Wikipedia aspires to contain the sum of all human knowledge, and we can’t be successful in that if only a tiny sliver of society is contributing what they know. It’s a hard problem to solve though, because there are real impediments to editing for many people.
That was actually a lot of fun!
For two years, we experimented with four revenue sources: we solicited grants from foundations; we asked for donations from rich people; we put up fundraising banners on the website asking readers for money, and we sold services to companies, such as live feeds. All the avenues were successful and so we had the luxury of choice. But it was really obvious to us what we should and wanted to do, which was the many-small-donors model. We liked it best, and use it today, because making money from our readers was the best way to ensure that the entire organisation was focused on the core mission of providing information to people around the world. Most nonprofits have a tension inside their organizations where their mission work is decoupled from revenue generation. Sometimes that’s unavoidable but it’s never ideal, and so we were thrilled that we were able to find a path towards sustainable revenue generation that focused our attention on the people we were designed to serve.
I think maybe I have three.
1) I work really, really, really hard. I listen a lot, I read a lot, I pay attention.
2) I like working with people who are better than me.
3) By nature, I’m logical and intentional. It’s weird to me how often smart, capable people will make a decision to do X, and then wander off and do Y instead. I don’t do that. I think about things, I decide what to do and then importantly, I actually do it.
I think a good leader is a person who will do, and can do, whatever it takes to ensure the group succeeds. Sometimes that means making a big rousing speech. Sometimes it means ordering pizza, or thanking somebody, or helping them in some small way. Sometimes it means firing somebody. Sometimes it means shutting up. Whatever it is that’s necessary, a good leader does it: they are thinking about what the group needs to succeed, not about themselves.
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