Why TDF Doesn’t Do Crowd-Funding

Notice: These are my opinions as an individual, not as a member of the Board of Directors

Note: Slight updates to “accounting” section due to clarification from my good friend 🙂

From bug reporting on bugzilla, to user/QA mailing lists, all the way to the QA chat, users (and contributors) ask “why not just do a targeted crowd-funding for X,Y,Z.” X,Y,Z has been mostly large projects and/or ideas– including but not limited to Android development, revamping our UI, or even individual “pet bugs” that people have reported. So, in theory crowd-funding sounds fantastic…right? Well, here I’ll try to convince the doubters that TDF doing targeted crowd-funding is indeed, anything but a great idea 🙂

Accounting

This is perhaps the easiest one to explain. TDF is incorporated in Germany (this is not implying that it would be any easier in another Country) and with that comes of course, German laws (which are likely the same in other countries). These just add a new layer of having to track different “pools” of funding.

The next accounting related issue is what happens if we are short or over (ie. we don’t hit our #’s or we overshoot the #). Well then we’re in a pickle. On one side, if we undershoot the target, do we refund people? Do we merge the money with general funds? Do we just indefinitely hold it in case we ever hit the #? All of these sound quite tiresome/time consuming/confusing. Now if we overshoot, again the same problems arise. Do we refund the extra money? Do we put it in the general funds? Either way accounting for these can be difficult and time consuming.

When push comes to shove, this would just eat up our employee’s (or a tremendously dedicated volunteer’s) time just tracking the #’s and I don’t think anyone would be happy with these results.

Expectations

Donor expectations are another area that becomes overly complicated with targeted funds. Person X donates $100 to “make UI better”, person Y donates $10 to “make UI better.” Now the two don’t agree on what making it better means (one suggests one mock up, the other suggests a radically different mock up). Who wins? If we decide on person Y’s mock up, does person X get a refund because they actually think it’s a horrible UI? What about the difference in contributions – one gave 10x the amount of the other, should that matter at all? Perhaps it shouldn’t…but try explaining that to person X with a straight face. Do we put it to a vote? And then the losers of such a vote get the option to demand a refund?

The reality is that targeted funds come with expectations, and no matter how clear the message of the targeted funds, someone is bound to be unhappy with the result. We’d hate to offend our donors by saying “deal with it” if they get a result that they aren’t happy with and contributed funds specifically for that thing.

Funding for “Less Sexy” Things

Person X has $20, they go to the donation page and they see “general fund” (with some description of what that mean) and then they see “awesome NEW FEATURE!” . . . where do they donate? Exactly, you get the point. While it’s fun to fund new exciting and sexy things, the “non sexy” things are quite (probably a lot more) important. These include paying for infra (quite expensive), employees (who do amazing work), and events. Worst case would be to have a bank account with $50k for “awesome sexy flying monkey feature” and $0 for “general operating expenses.” The response might be “set aside some amount in advance for day to day,” in theory possible, but time consuming and when that amount runs dry – what do we do? Pull “sexy awesome flying monkey feature” from the donation page to “encourage” donors to donate for the necessities?

 

As you can see all of this is quite complicated.

So…Now What?

Well there are indeed options and the Board takes this (and similar) issues seriously. For instance with Android port – we heard, and we acted. We now have a public tender which we are using to solicit bids to start the port to Android. Beyond that:

  1. There are of course grass roots crowd sourcing sites, we don’t vouch for any of them, but we don’t discourage trying to use them. That being said, please note that the risk is on you (the founder of the campaign) and not on TDF to deliver. If you raise $100k and promise to fly everyone to the moon, it’s on you to deliver. But in all honesty, if you raise money and “think” that it might be enough to fix some pet bug or something, ask around the dev channel to see if anyone is interested in doing it for that price – but please please please be aware that if you have no background in programming, you’re likely going to underestimate the cost of development by multiple factors. Before starting a campaign, best to ask for a rough guess at cost from someone who knows the code.
    1. Options: kickstarter of course, and freedomsponsors – again I am not endorsing either, I’ve just seen both used
  2. Volunteer time
    1. Do the leg work! Our group is a meritocracy, doing the leg work tremendously pays off. For instance instead of saying “fix the UI” – build a community, get support for a concrete proposal, get documentation together for functionality, etc… etc… Too often I see a mockup with nothing more (a single image done in an hour or two) and then demands that we implement – this simply won’t work.
  3. Join our public board call – trust me, we’re happy to have the public in (that’s why it’s a public call). If you have strong feelings about something (and are willing to put in work/time/money/etc…) we’re willing to listen. This does not mean jump into the call and demand the world and not give anything in return – again this won’t get us closer to anything other than a headache.
  4. Despite the cons listed above, TDF hasn’t 100% ruled out the possibility, we’re just not ready to make the leap right now. Perhaps at some point in the future it will happen, but until then, I highly encourage our users, donors and contributors, all to find creative ways to get their projects done.

 

 

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About joelmadero

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9 responses to “Why TDF Doesn’t Do Crowd-Funding”

  1. Jay Philips (@jphilipz) says :

    With some of my brainstorming on the issue quite recently, here are my suggestions to a possible solution.

    1) The management of the crowdfunding/donation campaign will be handled by a company that will do the development work and TDF will only act as a supporter and promoter of the campaign. The campaign will be open ended and whatever funds are received each month will go towards paying developers for that amount of time each month.

    2) Users will be able to donate to three main types of things during the campaign – interoperability, new features, and bug fixes. Each of these three main types will be subdivided into more specific things, so users can be more specific with their donations, if they choose. If you look at Pitivi’s donation drive, you can see a concept of this idea – http://fundraiser.pitivi.org/

    As a separate idea, TDF could create a bountysource-type website where developers and donors could come together to fund things.

  2. horacek says :

    I highly appreciate the Android initiative, this it the right way TDF should go – I think dealing with important bugs and new features (that are not interesting for companies) should be one of its roles.

    And a small note to the donation page: I suppose that many (maybe most of) donors do not know that their donations are not used for direct funding of developers – isn’t this a bit unfair? For instance, Jay’s proposal (with a fixed portion going to infra etc.) sounds much better for me.

    • joelmadero says :

      Well – perhaps we could put a notice somewhere about no money going for development per say, but ultimately making any “this % for infra” would highly bind the Board and not give us the freedome to make important decisions that foster growth in the community. We are not going to hire a developer (that may be another post explaining why). In my opinion, so long as our donors are happy with the direction that TDF is going (which most seem to be) then I would hope they are trusting the judgment of the Board. If we say “no money goes towards development” in big fat bold writing, perhaps this sends (1) a false message as we are in fact spending some (ie. for Android); (2) lead to a similar situation where it’s not “funding sexy flying monkeys” donations might go down for no reason other than donors don’t understand how much and how important all the “boring” stuff is. But I’ll pass this along. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Beluga says :

    I’ve studied bounty sites a lot and I’ve always had this nagging feeling that they are a solution looking for a problem. However, reading your article made me realize that Freedomsponsors is actually an ideal service for TDF (I’m picking FS specifically, because it is among the truly FOSS bounty sites).

    I think it would be enough for TDF/LO social media accounts to publicize any FS sponsored issues that have a programmer with a proven track record working on them. It would also be good for TDF to interview the FS platform developer about his commitment and future plans and generally get to know him.

    If considering a self-hosted option, Bountyfunding is worth following: http://bountyfunding.org/

    • joelmadero says :

      If we publicize then we face the problem of “who is responsible if there is a failure to deliver.” Our reputation is at stake and even if we say “you took your own risk” users can respond “but you vouched for these guys.” But approaching the Freedomsponsors people and talking doesn’t seem in of itself to be a bad idea. Thanks for the suggestion

      • Beluga says :

        Yep, that is why I mentioned programmers with a proven track record of getting their patches committed. GIMP has used this tactic before with symmetry painting and GEGL sampler crowdfunding. They clearly stated these were not official funding campaigns, yet publicized them via gimp.org and their social media channels. You can still see the symmetry painting news as the last news piece on gimp.org. I haven’t heard of any negative response. I was positively surprised that there was no internal conflict in GIMP because of this.

        You can also interview LO contributor Samuel Mehrbrodt about his experiences as a user of FreedomSponsors.

  4. Sandra says :

    You’re coming up with problems, and not solutions.

    Here is a solution: If someone wants to create a crowdfund for “feature XYZ”, they can clearly define the feature and then find developers willing to implement it for a contractual price. The originator can then use an existing crowdfunding site (or create their own) to promote their agenda. If sufficient funds are raised, the originator will then hire and pay the developers as they reach milestones or upon project completion. The process and risks can be explained in the crowdfunding agreement. Simple and effective.

    • joelmadero says :

      Relatively sure I pointed out problems and solutions. Including the one that you suggested (outsiders can create their own campaigns). The risks to TDF if we do it internally are (as explained) existent and can’t just be “explained away.”

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