How we started to donate to Open Source at work

Pitching the idea

As you might have seen in the news, there have been a lot of articles over the years that Open Source software doesnt receive enough support, especially financially.

At my employer Contria GmbH we use a lot of Open Source software or freely available tools:

  • Ubuntu as the base OS for our VMs
  • Ansible to deploy the VMs
  • Nginx, PHP and MariaDB to run the applications
  • Vagrant and Virtualbox to set up a development environment

Just to name a few.

I would consider myself a Free Software enthusiast and read a lot of those articles mentioned in the first paragraph. So a few years ago I decided, I would try and ask if Contria would be willing to donate to the various Open Source projects we use to build and run our products.

When I spoke with the manager of the company about it, I wasnt actually met with a lot of resistance. I mentioned the funding problems a lot of Open Source projects had and asked if we as Contria might be wiling to support them in this regard. He quickly saw the reasoning behind the idea and was willing to continue with the project.

Just like that?
Yes just like that. Personally I expected more resistance and hope that it will be this easy for everyone who tries to do something similar.

Getting started

After the initial pitch it took a few years, due to our workload, before we actually started with the project. But in 2021 I was able to officially dedicate some of my time to the project.

I started to create a short list with software and projects we used and seemed worth to donate to. I focused mainly on non-profit organisations and individuals. For example, while we use Ubuntu it makes more sense to me to donate to Debian. Ubuntu is based on Debian, and Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) is already profitable.

In addition to the larger and more system related projects, I would like to start curating a list of essential packages and libraries we use in our products. So far we only donated to about two or three, but I expect this to be something to grow each year anyway.

After I created the list I assigned a percentage of a potential budget to each project. Currently, these are just 5 and 10% per project. The percentages are roughly weighed by importance to our work and to a lesser extent by the size of the project. This way the distribution wasnt based on the actual budget because when I created the list I didnt know yet how much money was available for donations. It then turned out that the budget would be a few thousand Swiss Francs, I could freely allocate.

That doesnt sound like much for a Swiss company with over 20 employees.
Compared to the licenses we pay for proprietary software its indeed not that much. But then again, its still a substantial amount and Im quite happy with it. Who knows maybe it will grow in the future.

Last year we had about 40% left which werent allocated to a specific project. However, we didnt just want to keep the money and were sure that there were very important but “hidden” projects we didnt think of. Think OpenSSL for example which was one of the most prominent examples in recent years.
We first thought about giving the money to the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) or a similar foundation. A lot of them do great work, but we felt that some of them are too political for a company to donate to. We then found the Open Source Collective which was exactly what we were looking for. Projects can apply for funding at the Open Source Collective, and they distribute the donations between the projects. So any leftover budget we have goes fully to the Open Source Collective now.

Problems when donating

For most projects it was very easy to donate to. Especially when they are on Donating through PayPal works as well, but we prefer Open Collective.

Some projects use regular bank accounts for donations, while this worked well for most projects, it was more labour intensive on our part as the donations had to be processed by the financial department. In the case of the Drupal foundation however, we werent able to donate at all because something was wrong with the address of their bank. Luckily they are now on Open Collective.

One project we quite like and use a lot didnt collect its donation, and it looks like the project might have become unmaintained. Im not sure yet of we donate to it again this year. I really appreciate their work but if the money doesnt get used we rather give it to a project which does use it.

Final thoughts

Im very happy with the outcome of our donating project. I feel that the amount we donate is sustainable, and it shows that we as a company care about these projects.
Since its my employer Im writing here about I cant make any predictions, but I will keep advocating for the use and support of Open Source and especially Free Software inside our company.

For other people who think their employer might be able to contribute to Open Source projects, I give the following advice:
The main reason why we didnt do it before, was that we didnt have someone who carried the idea forward. So go ahead and give it a try :).

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