Here’s $5,000: Let Me Help You Spend It

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To be honest, I’m not much of a Dave Matthews fan.

Consequently, I had little familiarity with the etiquette of the band’s bootleg trading community; or any bootleg trading community, actually. My sole experience with bootlegs came with the unofficial Pearl Jam ones of questionable quality I bought all through college.

But there was one Dave Matthews show I really did want: his sole appearance (that I’m aware of) at my alma mater, Williams College. The story of why I missed this show is long and boring and weather related, but suffice it to say that most of the school wasn’t there. Dave played to a crowd that reportedly measured in the dozens in the dining hall of the Mission dorms. And played a really good show, I was told.

So after finding someone who had a bootleg of the show maybe ten years ago, I attempted to secure a copy via the only mechanism I knew: cash. Which was a serious tactical error, as it turned out. Little did I know that cash is anathema to most of the communities: it’s a point of pride, bordering on religion, that shows are only exchanged for shows, never cash.

Eventually, it was determined that I had a bootleg of a live Van Morrison show from 1979 that this guy wanted and a trade was effected, and I got my Dave Matthews Williamstown bootleg. Which was every bit as good as I expected.

The lesson the experience left behind, however, was an important one: money is not the object of every community. Quite the opposite, in some cases.

Which isn’t precisely the lesson that Jeff Atwood learned via his donation to the ScrewTurn Wiki project – an open source project from the .NET ecosystem. But it’s pretty close.

As Jeff relates, he wired them $5,000 dollars, to be used as they saw fit. Literally.

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.

Very generous indeed. Naturally, he was curious as to what became of his donation, and pinged the project coordinator. What he discovered was not what he’d expected:

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?

And perhaps not what many would suggest. But it is a behavior that we see in many smaller projects. Atwood’s friend Jon Galloway explained the situation to him thusly:

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.

While I cringe at the analogy for obvious reasons – equating open source to terrorist cells is rarely a good idea – the point is taken.

Larger projects tend to have very little difficulty absorbing cash. Microsoft’s hundred grand, I suspect, will be put to immediate and good use by the Apache Software Foundation, as but one example. But smaller projects, typically populated by heads down developers, can be overwhelmed by the sudden availability of capital. Because unlike within, say, a startup, cash is not the fundamental currency. Time, or its primary product, code, is.

But does this mean that cash should never be directed at an open source project? No. My advice to those that wish to contribute to open source projects is to do so, but in a manner that won’t trigger the analysis paralysis common to those suddenly assaulted with choice. Try and direct the donation in as much as you’re able.

Rather than offer straight up cash, propose the funding of something specific: an event, a feature, accounting, advertising, administration, documentation, an intern, legal work, website redesign, infrastructure setup and maintenance, security vetting, new desktop monitors or laptops, and so on. Something concrete, which removes the burden of choice from the recipient.

Chances are excellent that any given smaller project could benefit from one of the above. If the project, as in the case of ScrewTurn, can’t run a contest for legal or other reasons, consider funding the work yourself directly. Hire five designers to design five themes at a grand a pop, or five developers five plugins. Yes, this takes overhead, but it can be as simple as a blog entry in some cases; particularly if you leverage the community around a project.

Likewise, if you’re going to donate hardware, don’t just have it show up: donate either hosting/cloud time, or determine an appropriate colo in advance of shipping the gear. For some projects, nothing is more daunting than having a massive, powerful box show up on their doorstep with no obvious home for it.

To answer Jeff’s question, yes, most projects could use $5,000. What they could use more, however, is some advice on how to spend it.


  1. Interesting experience.

    One thing I’ve learned in my professional career is that it is always a good investment to make new contacts. So why not spend those 5000$ to go to some Open Source conference! It is fun to travel, you meet a lot of inspiring people and it is kind of useful too, not like just drinking the five grand (although drinking may occur, at least if you go to a Maria (the storage engine) lecture 🙂

  2. I try to only donate to orgs that seem to want it: MusicBrainz [it’s the only way they stay afloat] and Wikipedia [ditto] chief among them. I’m an avid WordPress user and have been for years, but I think the only time I ever donated was after the WordPress SEO scandal when Matt hid a bunch of crap articles on wordpress.org and it was clear that the project needed some cash to survive. Now, given Automattic’s success, I’ve not seen any rationale for donating to WP directly; instead, I support theme plugin competitions and the like that benefit the community [first Alex’s original theme competition, and now WLTC’s comp].

    But your point is taken that many projects need advice on spending funds as much as anything.

    [Also, I love that bootleg trading has now moved into the P2P age—I contribute bandwidth and some of my own recordings and reap the benefits ten-fold.]

  3. Can anyone please donate me $5000 so that I can my education loan please help me am ready to any job which I can work from home.

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