I'm writing you with an idea. Perhaps this has been thought of before; if so, I'd like to be pointed to the originator to learn more. However, I've been following the open-source movement under its various guises for many years now, and I've not heard of anything similar (if it exists, it needs to be better advertised). Maybe it's a bad idea, in which case you'll no doubt inform me so, and quickly. But I think it's a good idea.
What I'm wondering is whether there is an established mechanism for donating money to open-source projects. I don't mean simply that I want to throw money at any random project, because I know I could always mail my cash to Richard Stallman for the GNU project. What I mean is, if I know of some specific project I want to support, something that doesn't fall under RMS's aegis, is there some established agency or foundation to which I can donate money? Someplace that will both ensure that my money is either used for its intended purpose, or returned to me?
If such an agency doesn't exist, I think it's high time somebody started one.
Many open-source projects get along fine simply with the time and equipment of their authors, which usually means spare time and a home PC. Other projects need special equipment or sponsorship. If you go to Freshmeat and read the home pages of the active projects, many openly request donations of money and/or equipment. Just the other day, I visited the home page of BurnIT, a CD-Recorder project and read that its author's CD-R had broken. The author would continue writing code, but couldn't test it directly. Anyone wanting to donate a CD-R would, the author noted, be welcome to do so.
More recently I read an interview with Dag Brattli, the man behind the Linux/IR project to bring support for IrDA to linux. In the interview Mr. Brattli mentioned that he would like his project to be a member of the IrDA standards organization, so he could have access to its documentation, name, and other benefits. But he couldn't afford the fifteen hundred dollar membership fee.
Upon reading this I remember thinking that $1500 is a paltry sum compared to the vast resources of those who follow, use, and benefit from open-source projects. This is the economic parallel to the principle that, "With enough eyes, all bugs are shallow". With enough wallets, all costs are trivial.
Now, I am not a wealthy man; I have a wife, two daughters, and a mortgage, so I can't afford to buy the guy a $1500 IrDA membership by myself. But I could easily afford to donate, say, $100 toward the membership. And I would gladly do so provided that fourteen other people could be found to do the same. But here's the rub: if those fourteen others can not be found, or the project folds before they are, I expect to have my C-note returned to me. I want my money used for the intended purpose or returned.
So what? That's my problem, right? If I want to ensure that my money is well-used, then I should e-mail the guy, get to know him, build some confidence and then, *maybe*, I send the money.
But maybe it's not just my problem. What about those fourteen others who might also want to donate $100: are they also expected to go through their own evaluation of the project author and whether he's trustworthy? Maybe fourteen other people aren't willing to go through that process. Maybe the Linux/IR project never gets its $1500 because fifteen people can't be found who are willing to send their money to somebody they've never heard of.
Maybe it's more general than than. Maybe there are other projects that lose donors for the same reason. Maybe it's more than just my problem.
What I want to propose is that the open-source movement needs its own fundraising arm. Something like a United Way for geeks: an escrow agency that will collect money from people like me and distribute it to projects in need of support.
This agency will provide donors like me and J. Random Benefactor with some peace of mind that our money is being used for its intended purpose. There are several ways the agency could do this. For example, to raise the $1500 for the Linux/IR project, the agency will take my $100 and hold it in escrow. It will stay there until either the remaining $1400 is raised, or some predefined period of time has passed. At that time my money will be returned (or, at my option, used for some other deserving project).
Of course, even if Linux/IR gets its IrDA membership, that's no guarantee that the project will succeed. I'm not expecting an escrow agency to attempt to provide such a guarantee. The agency would have to provide such "caveat emptors" to each its donors.
Will the existence of an escrow agency increase donations to open-source projects? There's probably no way to know for sure because no one's keeping statistics on such things, but I believe an agency *would* increase donations. I believe that people are far more likely to send money to an established, trusted agency than to send money to some random person in the Internet.
The key words there are "establish, trusted". How does a new agency become instantly established and trusted, especially in such a new and dynamic area as open-source software? One way would be to build such an agency on a reputation that's already been established.
Opensource.org has such a reputation. So does Red Hat Software. So does O'Reilly and Associates. A few people on the 'net have their own individual reputations; Eric S. Raymond comes first to mind. I believe that some such organizations or people will have to sponsor or collaborate on a fund-raising/escrow agency for it to succeed.
I could ramble on about the additional benefits an escrow agency could provide to open-source projects, but I want to leave the focus on what I believe to be the main benefit of such an agency: to promote donations to open-source projects by increasing the degree of trust donors feel for the effectiveness of their donations. That benefit alone justifies the establishment of an escrow agency.
So there you have it. If it Loses, shoot it down.
Finally, to put my money where my mouth is, I will write a check for $100 the instant I learn of someone willing to escrow my money and collect the other $1400 for Linux/IR. It doesn't even have to be a formally established agency -- if ESR, or Red Hat, O'Reilly, or OpenSource.org wants to "alpha test" the idea by taking collections for Linux/IR, *and* is willing to actively promote the fund-raising, I will send my $100 check to them.
A couple of other notes: first, I want to stress that none of the above discussion of Dag Brattli and the Linux/IR project is meant in any way to impugn Mr. Battli's reputation. I'm sure he's a nice and trustworthy young man; I simply chose him as an example.
Second, although I have a small amount of money to donate, I have no time to donate. Even the short time I've taken to write this note is time I should have spent working on my Real Job. I will leave it to the leaders of the open-source movement to implement this idea, if it is worthy. But I will support it with my dollars.
Thanks for your time.