Foundations and Wikis

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Wikipedia is just one example of a wiki—a collaborative website that allows users to modify its content. First created by programmer Ward Cunningham in 1994, wikis are named after the Hawaiian word for “fast.” Since then, thousands of other wikis have proliferated, far more than just the Wikimedia Foundation’s sites.

One of the most prominent wikis is the Encyclopedia of Life, available online at eol.org. It traces its origins to the 2007 TED conference, where biologist E. O. Wilson articulated the need for a comprehensive record of life on earth. “Human-forced climate change alone—again, if unabated—could eliminate a quarter of surviving species during the next five decades,” he explained. “What will we and all future generations lose if much of the living environment is thus degraded?” Thus, Wilson argued, “We need to have the biosphere properly explored so that we can understand and competently manage it. . . . And let us call it the ‘Encyclopedia of Life.’”

Wilson proposed a wiki format for this encyclopedia, and philanthropy responded. The project was launched later in 2007 with commitments from several foundations, including $10 million initially from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and $2.5 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Encyclopedia of Life draws on dozens of partners for content and technology—including the use of social media apps like Flickr and Cooliris—and it currently boasts more than 160,000 authenticated species pages, with a goal of one million by 2013.

Many organizations use internal or targeted wikis for training and to share best practices. For example, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation experimented with using a wiki to craft its grantmaking strategy for nitrogen pollution mitigation. The foundation posted “seed content” for its strategy online (the wiki is archived at nitrogen.packard.org), and then invited experts, stakeholders, and interested individuals to edit and discuss it. Over the course of six weeks in early 2007, nearly 200 users engaged in discussion.

Walt Reid, Packard’s conservation and science program director, reported that the wiki was useful. “A new community of individuals was created,” he explained. Several wiki users drew Packard’s attention to areas its initial strategy outline had not encompassed, and it produced more clarity about the best points for philanthropic investment. However, Packard found that “the wiki did not emerge as a panacea”—many people were hesitant to contribute, and it required a great deal of staff attention to run—and that it will supplement, not replace, Packard’s in-house expertise and in-person meetings in shaping future grantmaking strategies.

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