Who Pays For This

Where the Money Comes from

Though we bear the name of Cornell Law School, it funds only around 10% of our annual operating costs. The rest comes from:

Why this mixture

Our donors and our parent institution have been very generous throughout our 20-year history, but they cannot carry all the weight by themselves. In 2007, we realized that if we wanted to break new ground while continuing to offer and improve the services that our audience depends on, we were going to have to find ways to expand our funding base. It made sense to us to take an entrepreneurial approach, and that has proven successful. We hope that by diversifying our revenue sources in this way we will be able to continue to operate existing services indefinitely while substantially increasing our ability to innovate. This diversified approach to funding is becoming more and more common among public services that wish to provide the public with free and open access to information that is expensive to gather and disseminate.

People often ask us why we have this dual approach (and, particularly, why we ask them to donate when we carry advertising). A simple answer is that no single approach can -- at least for now -- provide sufficient funds to sustain us indefinitely. Viewed from another perspective, though, such a mixed approach is nothing new. Symphony orchestras have always put ads in their programs, sold recordings on CD, and asked for donations from those who believe that music should be available as widely as possible. Like a wide variety of nonprofits, we use the means we have available to do as much as we can to leverage our most valuable asset: the goodwill and support of those among our audience who support us through contributions.

How we use funds

The main expense in running a website like ours is not technology, even on a site that offers nearly 500,000 pages to tens of millions of visitors every year. Instead, more than 90% of our budget pays for talent: salaries for our small staff, stipends for some of the more than 60 law and computer science students who work with us every year, and a few paid summer internships. Almost all the remainder is spent on computing facilities, which we manage carefully, using on-demand cloud-computing technology to provide speedy, highly-reliable service at minimal cost. Less than 5% goes to administrative overhead.

We often get questions about the cost of particular collections or services. Because we are a small organization, they can be surprisingly hard to answer. We have a very small staff, all of whom work on a number of collections and services that share facilities and resources. In the course of a day, any given staffer will work on a variety of things, and whenever possible we try to build infrastructure that's usable across a number of different collections; also, most of our work represents investment in research and development activity that can span years. All that makes it very hard to say which dollar goes exactly where -- but it does allow us to operate very efficiently. You can be sure that every dollar you donate goes to helping us find new and better ways to present the law to the public, free of charge.