Raising Money for Open Source Projects: How Can We Improve?

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 04, 2010

One of the things I admire about the FLOSS community is the willingness to dig in and tackle problems facing a project, whether they're technical, structural (hosting, etc.), governance, licensing, and so on. But it would occasionally be a better idea to try to recruit expertise from the outside than to try to re-invent the wheel inside each project.

Dave Neary writes about efforts in the GNOME project to raise money. Neary focuses on fund-raising in particular, something that community projects often struggle with.

As developers, we’ve invented our own brand of everything, from scratch. Figuring out how to run conferences, or raise money from people who like what we do, when these are not new problems. The entire learned history of typography gets thrown out the window more or less, because now everyone has complete tool of their authoring tools and Comic Sans is shipped by default, and if I need to reduce the margins to get the letter to fit on one page then by golly I will.

...One example of a place where there is a wealth of experience out there is convincing people to give money to a cause they believe in. There are dozens of organisations that do this well – humanitarian organisations, political lobbyists, political parties, universities – the list goes on.

Can we figure out how GNOME is like them, and learn the lessons from their fundraising campaigns?

Learning from non-profits is a good idea, but even better would be to recruit some of the expertise from non-profits to help with FLOSS projects as contributors or perhaps even have umbrella organizations like the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) hire one or more experts to help organizations raise funds instead of doing the work themselves. The SFC doesn't do this (fundraising) today, but it does do a lot of the work that comes with non-profit organizations so that the projects themselves don't need to do it.

Why? Because it's a waste of time for developers and other contributors who already have skills that a project needs to evolve to spend time doing things they're not so good at. I've seen too many contributors get sucked into things like managing finances or raising money and being miserable at it.

Why couldn't an umbrella organization do fund-raising and other related work for a bunch of projects like GNOME? I'm thinking in particular of things like the Linuxfests and FLOSS events that happen every year, and projects like GNOME that have a continued and sustained need to raise funds. While a lot of organizations have done an adequate job of fund-raising, it's usually quite a lot of work for volunteers and it's very hit-or-miss in some cases. When I was managing the budget for community relations at Novell, I had a lot of contact with volunteer event organizers and others raising money for projects.

The better organized the project, the more likely they were to get funds, all things being equal. (And assuming it's something that should be sponsored in the first place.) Not because they did a better job of pitching, but because they did the basics: ask early, target the right people, show value, be realistic, and know how to negotiate. How you ask is often less important than when you ask and who you ask. It takes a lot of work to coordinate with corporate sponsors (and GNOME has done well here by hiring Stormy Peters) but ramping up beyond that to reach out to a larger community is even more work.

Learning from other organizations is a good start. Even better would be for the FLOSS community to do more to recruit experts on fund-raising and let contributors with skills in other areas get on with running projects. Neary talks about taking the first steps of "building and maintaining a list of GNOME fans and supporters, by any means possible, and ensuring they are made aware of what we're up to" to touch them for funds. GNOME is a powerful project with a lot of dedicated users and contributors, but finding bodies to do that sort of grunt work is going to be a steep challenge. Much better if GNOME and other projects had professionals to fall back on.

But, failing that, it would be a good idea to study other groups carefully and realize that this is a solved problem that doesn't need a new approach. The steps to rasing money successfully for projects that people care about aren't a mystery. It just requires coordination and a lot of legwork.