- Open source projects sometimes raise funds to sustain their work through crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Patreon.
- Tools like Open Collective and Github Sponsors use a similar model of direct donation/crowdfunding for projects, and are designed in a way to meet open source projects where they are.
- Benefits of these newer tools include tracking dependencies, donating and invoicing openly and transparently, and receiving funds without being a registered non-profit.
A handful of organizations have experimented with a new approach to funding FOSS digital infrastructure - by building tools for direct collective, project or individual developer support. For some time, many open source developers and projects have raised funds through popular crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Patreon. Some newer platforms have been built that specialize in funding to open source projects, most notably Github Sponsors and Open Collective (through Open Source Collective, a fiscal host). Both provide infrastructure that makes it easy for individuals and companies to directly fund FOSS work, while experimenting with new models and mechanisms of funding for the ecosystem.
The chief benefit of an OS developer or project leveraging an individual-based donation or crowdfunding platform is the direct receipt of funds. This is appealing to many because it is faster and requires less skill and resources than applying to traditional grants. Plus, there are fewer ‘strings attached’. Depending on what platform is leveraged, there are different scales of fees and options toward sustainability. The goal of some developers seeking funding on these platforms, as stated on some profiles, is to raise enough monthly support to be able to contribute to open source full time.
Patreon + Kickstarter: OS making crowdfunding platforms work for them
Patreon, founded in 2013, is built around a model of recurring payments from ‘members’ who can support projects at different tiers. Typically higher tiers provide the donor with ‘special’ or ‘early’ access to code or other content. Although monthly payments allow for a certain level of sustainability, to support the ‘special access’ perks of different tiers requires a level of coordination and marketing savvy that may not be the priority for a lot of OS projects. Kickstarter, founded in 2009, is typically used for projects getting off the ground. Its ‘campaigns’ set a time limit and goal amount to be raised, so is a less sustainable option for established digital infrastructure projects or those looking for reliable funding. Since Patreon and Kickstarter are geared toward individual ‘creatives,’and aren’t always the best fit for open source projects with more than one contributor. Projects can also be buried on these platforms, so an individual or project would typically need to share their page among social media or other communication channels.
Open Collective + Github Sponsors: Designing platforms to support open source
A couple of newer fundraising platforms that are tailored specifically to sustaining open source projects and developers have entered the scene. Open Collective (OC), founded in 2015, is one of the more prevalent and most accessible among them. OC leverages a powerful open source engine, and pairs radical financial transparency with money management services through a nonprofit fiscal host (Open Source Collective). (See our study on Fiscal Hosting for more information on that mechanism.)
Funding amounts and frequency are flexible; there is an option for recurring funds at different tiers (like Patreon) or one-time donations. On the funder side, funds can be donated by individuals, organizations, foundations, companies, events, and other collectives - all equally transparent. OC typically partners with organizations in a model that makes grant disbursement much easier, and cuts through red tape by maintaining a single contract (between funder and OSC) and keeping things easy and efficient for the projects receiving the funds.
Recently launched Github Sponsors is another direct funding platform for developers and projects. Many in the open source community already use Github to keep their code public, and Sponsors has made it easy for companies and individuals to ‘sponsor’ profiles on Github. Modeled after Patreon, there are monthly donations at different tiers, but also options for one-time donations and goal-based fundraising. Sponsors integrates with Patreon and Open Collective too, to make it as fluid and easy as possible for projects to fundraise where it makes the most sense for their purposes.
Crowdfunding is a direct and impactful method of fundraising for open source projects of all sizes. Managing finances and fundraising in open source has a complicated history and culture attached to it (see Roads and Bridges and Roadwork Ahead for more context on the cultural nuances of open source communities). New mechanisms such as Open Collective and Github Sponsors make it easier, more transparent, and sustainable to fundraise for the critical digital infrastructure that we all depend on. For instance, to receive funding on the OC platform, a project must generate a ‘collective’ which fundamentally maps to entities that can receive funds, such as the OSC fiscal host. This is helpful for many, as for open source projects it is often the case that donations go into a single maintainers’ account, which requires a lot of trust from the community, is not sustainable long term, and does not leverage the tax benefits of donations. Since a key part of sustainability is community development, having a transparent place to host, fundraise for, and spend community funds is extremely important for the future of digital infrastructure. OC also embraces forward looking methods of payment, including newly accepting cryptocurrencies, accepting public stock shares making it easier for companies and executives to share more of their wealth directly, and piloting experiments such as quadratic funding which aims to democratize funding.
An additional benefit of having an open-source specific donation platform is the ability to highlight dependencies. OC has a project called “Back Your Stack” which “scans your organization’s code and find out which of your dependencies are seeking funding.” In Github Sponsors, users can track dependencies in their repositories; which uplifts some of the most critical projects needing support. For companies and other funders looking to support open source and not sure where to begin, they are able to see what OS projects they depend on and directly give back. This not only makes it easier to donate where there will be the most impact for the projects, but also provides a paper trail which companies and organizations can cite when they advocate for giving back and supporting open source.