Problems and Strategies in Financing Voluntary Free Software Projects

Benjamin Mako Hill wrote an interesting article about the problems and benefits of funding Free Software projects. This is an outline of the main points made in the original essay. The outline follows the structure of the original text so it should be easy to find the respective points explained there.

See Discussion for some comments

See Links for related material


  • Getting funds can be easy for a voluntary Free Software project
  • Using funds (well) may be more difficult

Volunteerism in Free Software Projects

  • Free Software started with voluntary labor
  • Nowadays some Free Software projects incorporate paid labor
    • In nearly all cases the payment does not come from the project itself
  • There are also corporate Free Software projects
    • Based on paid labor
    • E.g. JBoss
  • Some Free Software projects went back and forth between non-voluntary and voluntary mode
    • E.g. X

Benefits of Volunteerism

  • Much of the success of Free Software products is inherent to the voluntary labor
    • The bazaar model can be done only by voluntary labor
  • Major benefit of voluntary labor: Institutional independence
    • Users and developers determine the way of the project
    • Institutional independence attracts (paid labor from) corporations
      • An institutionally independent project is not suspected to lock others in
      • Provides a common ground for "coopertition"
      • Results in higher general quality
  • Funding is often not necessary

Problems with Funding Volunteerism

  • Payment can help meeting deadlines and accomplish given goals
    • However, there are less obvious but serious drawbacks
  • Voluntary and paid labor are mutual exclusive
    • Shown by empirical studies
    • Voluntary labor is "crowded out"
    • May be because motivation to voluntary work drops if others are paid for the same task
  • Transparency of a project can drop through paid structures
    • Happens when paid laborers build a closely knitted group
      • Moving forward at a higher pace leaving volunteers behind
      • Communication by talking which is intransparent to outsiders
  • Direction of a project is strongly influenced by funders
    • This can be to the disliking of the users and volunteers
  • Impact of such problems can be bigger or smaller

Creative Solutions

Low Risk Solutions

  • Not paying for labor
    • Money can be used to buy hardware, bandwidth, etc.
  • Funding infrastructure not central to the project
    • Examples:
      • Day to day support infrastructure outside the project's main goal
      • Conferences
      • Sprints
    • Selecting receivers for such benefits needs to be transparent and fair

Funding Labor Strategically

  • Fund labor only in mature projects
    • Having a grown volunteer base
  • Fund labor on support infrastructure
  • Fund labor no volunteer can do
  • Fund jobs limited in time
  • Fund labor no volunteer likes to do
    • Risk is, that people don't do it because they speculate for getting paid
  • Important: This must be the opinion of the volunteers - not the funder
  • Selection must be fair and transparent

Outside Organizations

  • Laborers are paid by organizations outside the project
    • Project needs to maintain its independence


  • For example by open mailing lists
  • Enforce public communication by everyone even when some people could talk to each other directly
  • Trancpareny is especially important when decision-making is involved


  • Funding voluntary projects can be ok
  • But must be done very carefully or the volunteerism is destroyed easily
  • Especially funding the core activities of volunteers invites disaster


  • A posting on [ox-en] contained a nice list of points why you should not pay Wiki contributors.

Oekonux/Research/FundingVolunteers (last edited 2007-11-14 19:11:22 by StefanMerten)

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