Thirteen years ago, a small community and I began Wikipedia with a simple belief that there was a real appetite to work together to deliver something to improve our world. Not everyone, of course, shared our view. No shortage of skeptics said that the idea of a free online encyclopedia created through collaboration was unworkable and naive. Thirty million articles in 285 languages — the work of hundreds of thousands of contributors across the world — is a convincing answer to this cynicism.
In hindsight, we were not taking the huge gamble that the pessimists predicted. What we were doing tapped into the same spirit through which, every day, countless people around the world volunteer their time and give money to good causes. Wikipedia’s success rested on finding a modern mechanism to harness this community spirit in a new way for wider public good. I am convinced that the same opportunity exists to unleash consumer power for positive social purposes by developing and expanding new models for business.
Confidence in the old models has rarely been lower. Trust in business has taken a battering. There is disgust at the misbehaviour and gross dishonesty exposed in the financial sector and anger at what it has cost families. This lack of trust has spread well beyond the banks. Consumers in a range of sectors increasingly feel that they, and the values they believe in, are taken for granted.
Businesses deploy a variety of defences against these complaints. They argue, correctly, that the legal requirement of for-profit companies to maximize returns to shareholders limits their behaviour. They point to their funding of corporate social responsibility activities as evidence of their determination to have a positive impact.
But consumers know that in the vast majority of cases only a fraction of profits are diverted to such activities, while the rest are swallowed up in dividends or bonuses. As technology enables information to be accessed and shared more easily, consumers are demanding more from the companies they do business with.
This has led to the rise of a new breed of enterprises that look beyond solely making profits by having social goals wired into their purpose. It’s a movement that excites me, particularly because of my experience with Wikipedia. I see enormous potential in the connectivity and community that social media can build to challenge players across consumer sectors. It is why I have agreed to lead a new and growing cellphone network business founded on the belief that consumer utilities can combine commercial success, a first-rate deal for their customers and support for the good causes they believe in.
The People’s Operator launched in Britain in November 2012. In a market this crowded and competitive, it stands out by paying 10 per cent of each customer’s monthly bill to a charity of his or her choice. It also promises to distribute 25 per cent of profits to good causes through its independently run foundation.
These charitable donations don’t come at the expense of higher bills for consumers. We still offer a very competitive deal because of our decision not to use expensive marketing campaigns to grow the business. Instead, the People’s Operator relies — as Wikipedia does — on personal recommendations and the multiplying power of social networks to spread the word.
This saves a great deal of money, and it is also highly effective. Businesses have long known that nothing is more powerful than a personal recommendation from people consumers trust. But while once consumers could tell only, say, 15 friends about something good they had discovered, through social networks people can now tell hundreds and even thousands.
I am hugely excited about the potential of this business and its model, and I will be leading its expansion globally. Wikipedia grew virally because communities worked together for the common good, and I believe this can do the same. For example, only a small percentage of the four billion cellphone subscribers estimated for 2016 would need to switch for us to make a real difference by raising huge sums for good causes.
I can already hear the cynics protest. They will argue that, particularly when family incomes are being squeezed, consumers care only about the lowest possible price for their calls. But by combining low cost with causes and communities, we can prove them wrong. And I already have 30 million reasons for ignoring the cynics.
Jimmy Wales is co-chair of the People’s Operator and founder of Wikipedia.
—The Washington Post