The Open Source Funding Conundrum

Monday Apr 6th 2015 by Matt Hartley

Some tips on getting your open source project funded. Hint: lose the guilt trip.

Every time I hear of another great open source project shutting its doors, I hold my breath in hopes it will be forked. Sadly though, this isn't a great plan for all projects. Sometimes these projects are rich in users but poor in developers. In this article, I'll explore this issue and what can be done to keep open source projects funded.

Funded vs unfunded open source

Historically, open source projects that benefit businesses or education can find a means of funding. Distros such as Debian, receive funding from individuals, organizations and even businesses that have a vested interest in seeing the distro's development continue for years to come.

Smaller distros based on Debian often lack this option as they don't hold the same level of perceived importance to those in a position to help financially. These distros and related open source projects tend to rely on direct donations.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is a failed funding model for smaller projects. Unless a project is used in education or the enterprise space, odds are it's going to be labeled as a hobby project at best and go without the needed funds to help it grow.

Think about how many desktop-ready projects you've seen that ask for donations via some sort of payment button. If you look carefully, you'll notice it's more than just a few projects. The problem is that there's no incentive to contribute financially, so most people won't bother. Clearly there's a need to offer users a sense of urgency as to why they should consider contributing what they can afford for the software they use.

Patreon for funding

One of the latest efforts to fund Open Source software and community Linux distributions is Patreon. What's cool about this funding tool is that it works for anything that has a community willing to fund it. From podcasts to software, the sky's the limit. Two of my the best examples of this are Elementary OS and Ubuntu MATE.

Now I must disclose that I'm both an Ubuntu MATE user and also a financial contributor (be it a small contribution). Both projects are successfully bringing in funding for their specific projects. However, this is where Elementary OS and Ubuntu MATE separate in terms of their goals.

Elementary OS is looking to use Patreon to fund the hiring of developers for the distro's continued development. On the flip side, Ubuntu MATE wants to fund their basic server hosting costs, and if there is excess, perhaps reward their community contributors with the extra funds.

Moving beyond the project's goals according to their perspective Patreon pages, the Milestone Goals are also setup differently between the projects. Ubuntu MATE explains straight away that their Milestone Goals are centered around the project's server needs and a server for running Discourse software for community interaction.

By contrast, Elementary OS appears to be equating their Milestone Goals to that of wage earning levels. While I like and understand their pledge goals, I found their Milestone Goals to be confusing. My issue isn't with them wanting to earn money to hire developers or even to simply compensate one for their time. Since I work as a freelancer, I understand this. What I find confusing is how a Milestone Goal that equates a financial level of earning equals an incentive to contribute?

Not to be cold, but when I contribute to Ubuntu MATE, I do so because I want to make sure each month their server(s) are running. Heck, I'd like to see them even get to a point to where they're compensated for their time investment as well. But with Elementary OS, we're changing gears from their mission statement "let's accelerate our development" to "minimum wage" and "a below market salary." To be clear, if I ran Elementary OS on my PCs, I would be contributing financially. It's a simple matter of principle for me. But their Milestones Goals have me feeling quite content using other distributions instead.

If you're going to setup a funding campaign, lose the guilt trip. Explain to me as a potential funding source how my money is going to be used not what wage level it might become eventually. Frankly, no one cares about that. What they do care about is how contributed funds turn into bug fixes or new features.

Each Milestone Goal needs to reflect a positive change that comes about as each goal is realized. Alluding to wage value is both highly ineffective and a huge turn off for anyone reading it. Evolve this into something beneficial to the end user and success will surely follow.

The challenge that any Linux project or Open Source software looking for Patreon funding must juggle is how to keep people excited about contributing their hard earned money month after month. When dealing with end users outside of the enterprise space this is painfully difficult to do.

Look at what failed projects such as Linspire and Xandros did. What did they do poorly and where did they shine? By studying these examples carefully I believe projects such as Elementary OS can learn from their mistakes going forward.

Bug bounties vs exclusive benefits

Funding bug fixes is best left to those Open Source projects centered around business and education. Frankly, it's rare for home users to be very motivated to fund bug fixes outside of WINE gaming or WINE small business applications. If you want to motivate someone to make a sustainable monthly contribution, there better be clearly defined benefits outside of bug fixes.

Option 1 – Faster Development. Contribute and the developer will commit to a release cycle of [insert time period here]. In situations where speedy development isn't feasible, Patreon contributors could narrate a short behind the scenes screencast to show us what is being done each week.

Option 2 – One time funding to keep the project alive. Going with a one time funding approach, perhaps done every six months or so...depending on the frequency needed. I can think of audio and video editors that would do well with this approach. I'd contribute myself, because the idea of these projects disappearing would impact my daily work-flow.

Option 3 – Access to a special feature. Deciding on the special feature to offer is tricky, but having one available would go a long way to making a monthly contribution seem more palatable.

Funding open source: going forward

Trying to find a balance between passion for an Open Source project and being able to support oneself financially from it is tricky. I firmly believe it's more difficult for desktop specific projects as they're not as likely to garner support from businesses willing to sponsor them.

My hope is that some of the points made within this article inspire those projects out there looking to fund their continued development by offering unexpected value in addition to the project's existing features. Remember, unlike proprietary software, Open Source must position itself differently in order to realize ongoing revenue.

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