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Is Money Useless to Open Source Projects?

In April I donated $5,000 of the ad revenue from this website to an open source .NET project. It was exciting to be able to inject some of the energy from this blog into the often-neglected .NET open source ecosystem.

As I mentioned at the time, I used a very hands off approach. While I did have some up-front criteria for the award (open source license, public source control, accepts outside source contributions) it's basically a no-strings grant.

The real money is being sent via wire transfer to Dario Solera, the ScrewTurn Wiki project coordinator. What's Dario going to do with this money? You'll have to ask him. That's not for me to decide. There are no strings attached to this money of any kind. I trust the judgment of a fellow programmer to run their project as they see fit.

When I said the project could do whatever they saw fit with the money, I meant it. Buy liquor and cigarettes, throw a huge party, play it on the ponies. I'm not kidding. As long as the project team believes it's a valid way to move their project forward, whatever they say goes. It's their project, and their grant.

I hadn't heard anything from Dario, and I was curious, so I followed up with him via email. He sent back this response:

The grant money is still untouched. It's not easy to use it. Website hosting fees are fully covered by ads and donations, and there are no other direct expenses to cover. I thought it would be cool to launch a small contest with prizes for the best plugins and/or themes, but that is not easy because of some laws we have here in Italy that render the handling of a contest quite complex.

What would you suggest?

I was crushingly disappointed to find out the $5,000 in grant money has been sitting in the bank for the last four months, totally unused. That's painful to hear, possibly the most painful of all outcomes. Why did we bother doing this if nothing changes?

My friend Jon Galloway warned me this might happen. I didn't believe him. But what other conclusion can I draw at this point? He was right:

Open Source is to Traditional Software as Terror Cells are to Large Standing Armies – if you gave a terrorist group a fighter jet, they wouldn't know what to do with it. Open source teams, and culture, have been developed such that they're almost money-agnostic. Open source projects run on time, not money. So, the way to convert that currency is through bounties and funded internships. Unfortunately, setting those up takes time, and since that's the element that's in short supply, we're back to square one.

I had hoped that $5,000 grant money would be converted into something that furthered an open source project -- perhaps something involving the community and garnering more code contributions. But apparently that's more difficult than anyone realized.

Jon offered these ideas:

  1. Can they turn the money over to a company or organization who is familiar with this kind of thing, like the Google Summer of Code, etc.?
  2. Often times, documentation and marketing are in really short supply. Could they just hire a technical writer and / or marketing expert with the $5k?
  3. SourceForge has a donations program in which people can make donations to pay developers. Maybe he can run the money through there?

I must admit I'm at a bit of a loss here. Do you have any ideas for how the Screwturn Wiki project can use their $5,000 open source grant effectively? If so, please share them in the comments here, or on the ScrewTurn forum -- in the Suggestions and Feature Requests area.

Even I'm not naive enough to suggest that money can solve every open source software problem. But I don't have a lot of time to contribute; I only have advertising revenue. I'm absolutely dumbfounded to learn that contributing money isn't an effective way to advance an open source project. Surely money can't be totally useless to open source projects... can it?

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: