• Some philanthropic organizations are supporting open source digital infrastructure as part of their broader mission and goals.
  • Funders such as the Ford Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, and the Mozilla Foundation are supporting open source through multi-faceted programming and funding mechanisms.
  • Funding coalitions are one mechanism for philanthropic organizations to support digital infrastructure, focusing around an identified gap (such as research around OS sustainability in the Digital Infrastructure Grants) or shared goals (such as digital development, in the case of DIAL.)

Much of the technology that global societies rely on is built on open source code. As public awareness has grown around code vulnerabilities (e.g. as shown in the Heartbleed security bug of 2014) and opportunities for improving the maintenance of open source code, philanthropic organizations and mission-driven foundations are beginning to support critical digital infrastructure, seeing open source as integral to their efforts to support social, global, and scientific causes. One entry point for some funders is by investing in research into the sustainability, security, and impact of open source. In fact, the funding for this project came from a coalition of mission-driven foundations looking to support projects focused on researching, exploring and supporting digital infrastructure maintenance.

Open Source as Strategy

Many philanthropic organizations have incorporated open source into their program strategy, as they see the importance of critical digital infrastructure increasing. One leader in this regard is the Ford Foundation, a global nonprofit foundation whose stated mission is to “reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.” In 2016, Ford supported the publication of “Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure” which highlighted how much of open source code is built and maintained by volunteers. Partnering with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ford built on this groundbreaking report by launching the first round of Digital Infrastructure Grants in 2018 - intended to “fill gaps in understanding of how digital infrastructure is built, maintained, and sustained.” In 2020, Ford and Sloan teamed up with Open Society, Omidyar, and Mozilla to expand on the research of the first round, and translate findings into action.

Ford supports open source through a variety of other channels, including the popular Outreachy internship program, which connects historically underrepresented technologists with open source projects; through Sustain, a “community of individuals and organizations concerned with the fragile state and the future of open source infrastructure;” and CHAOSS, a community aimed at developing metrics and practices in open source and open data. Community building is one the chief mechanisms that Ford leverages to maximize impact and socialize the importance of sustaining critical digital infrastructure. The Sloan Foundation, with a mission to “support original research and education related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics,” supports open source and open data through their “Better Software for Science” program.

The Mozilla Foundation is a technology-focused organization with a mission “to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all.” They do this through advocacy, community convening via the annual Mozilla Festival, and through fellowship and grantmaking programs. Mozilla Open Source Support (MOSS) is a program of the Mozilla Corporation (owned by the nonprofit) that directly supports open source projects that their products rely on or are mission-aligned. Many Mozilla fellowships, such as Common Voice and Senior Fellows, include open source research as part of the program. Mozilla also supports open source projects and initiatives through the Data Futures Lab Prototype Fund and the newly launched Mozilla Technology Fund (MTF). Although each of these mechanisms and programs have different goals, supporting open source is seen as foundational to Mozilla’s overarching goal of an ‘open and accessible’ internet.

In Conclusion

There are many ways large and small foundations support open source as part of their mission. One impactful way is the creation of or participation in funding coalitions, such as the Digital Infrastructure Fund. Coalition funders gather around a common, recognized need - in this case, to support projects working towards sustainability of critical digital infrastructure. The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is another example of funders coming together with a common goal, to support the technical needs of global development organizations through the fostering of free and open source software development tools. DIAL is an initiative of the United Nations Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and USAID. By consolidating efforts toward a common goal, these funders are able to direct resources where they will have the most impact, build a community of support, and increase awareness of digital infrastructure sustainability. Coming together as a community of funders also echoes the ethos of open source being community-run. As Nadia Eghbal states in Roads and Bridges, “Any support strategy needs to accept and work with the decentralized, community-centric qualities of open source code.”