Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales: Rather than being a selfless act, giving should be selfish

"I don’t think doing something good has to be about pity or being compelled by my conscience," says the internet entrepreneur

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When I get some junk mail from a charity with a distressing photo and tragic story I, of course, feel compelled to do something. But I also feel disappointed that for me to do good in the world, my conscience and guilt have to be activated. For me the idea of “giving” has evolved, and I don’t think doing something good has to be about pity or being compelled by my conscience.

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I think there is a much more modern spirit of giving. Rather than giving being a totally selfless act I actually think it should be a selfish thing – in a good way. It can be fun and uplifting and just part of our everyday lives. When I first launched Wikipedia on 15 January 2001 there was only a very small number of people giving their time to write articles, but we had a big ambition: to give everybody in the world free access to the sum of all human knowledge through an online encyclopedia edited entirely by volunteers.

With such a big ambition, people would ask me, “Why would people give up their time to write all the articles you need? Why would they bother?” And of course there are lots of reasons, including that the hobby feels meaningful and productive. But ultimately I would say, “Well, why wouldn’t they? It’s fun, and you get to meet interesting people with similar values.”

By 25 September 2001 there were more than 13,000 articles; now, in 2015, there are more than 36 million articles, in 287 languages, with about 80,000 people regularly contributing. People have dedicated hours, months, years of their lives to documenting the world, and it is humbling to be a small part of it. It illustrates to me that people have a huge capacity to give – not necessarily out of a sense of duty or responsibility but because it’s inspiring, exciting and important.

Since moving to the UK five years ago I’ve also realised that there is a very British brand of giving that involves immense generosity and fun. This was brought home to me when I recently met up with some of the people behind Comic Relief, who live and breathe the idea that we can “do something funny for money”. Every time Red Nose Day or Sport Relief take place they grow bigger, and people do more amazing things. When it gets really interesting is when this modern day approach to giving goes online.

With the internet we go beyond asking our neighbours to sponsor a charity walk. Now we can ask the hundreds of people in our social networks, the thousands of people online who care about the cause we’re passionate about, to get involved. And of course giving doesn’t just have to be about individuals donating time or money. “Good business” is something we’re really starting to learn about. I n fact, I’m learning on the job with my latest project, The People’s Operator (TPO).

It’s a mobile phone network where customers get everything they want from their mobile service as well as directing ten per cent of what they spend to any good cause of their choice, at no extra cost. Some people use the service because they can give to charity; others because it’s the phone deal they want. Either way, for them, doing something good has become a part of everyday life. So why are businesses adopting this ethical approach?

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Critics might say that adopting socially responsible business practices is just a fig leaf. But the rise of the internet means that consumers know more about what companies are really doing, meaning that doing the right thing becomes a business opportunity – and a necessity. Giving in 2015 can be a life-changing, inspirational activity, or it can be an article you write about your favourite landmark, or it can even be a simple purchase. What it doesn’t need to be is an act of duty, or even selflessness.