What's a Free Software Non-Profit For?
byon November 28, 2011
Much was written last week that speculated about the role of foundations and the always-changing ways that developers write Free Software. I must respectfully point out that I believe this discussion doesn't address the key purpose of doing Free Software work as part of a non-profit organization.
Conservancy always avoids making any technical recommendations. Indeed, Conservancy counts among its members Darcs, Git and Mercurial, all of whom likely disagree on the preferred distributed version control system. Conservancy, for its part, doesn't have a recommended version control system, nor a recommended hosting site, nor anything else like that. I even grit my teeth and just live with it when Conservancy's member projects choose Github over Gitorious (since the latter is Free Software itself and the former is not — an issue that concerns me deeply).
In short, Conservancy's job isn't to tell projects how to do what they do best: write and develop Free Software. Of course, our members must license their software under a license that's both FSF- and OSI-approved, and all official project activities (including development) must fit Conservancy's not-for-profit mission. But beyond oversight on that issue, Conservancy doesn't interfere with the development of our projects' software.
Instead, Conservancy handles all the aspects of running a non-profit software project that don't involve actually developing software. Conservancy's service plan includes many things, from handling donations, reimbursing developers for conference travel, to holding domain names, copyrights, and trademarks, to enforcing those copyrights and trademarks, to basic legal services. These items are the role for the non-profit organization in the life of a Free Software project. Conservancy's goal is to ensure that the software project continues to improve and benefit the public good, and to handle all the mundane aspects of non-profit activity.
Nevertheless, Conservancy's way of operating doesn't fit every project's culture. In the past, I've even recommended to Conservancy applicants that Apache Software Foundation, Free Software Foundation or Software in the Public Interest was a better home for their project, merely because the project seemed to have a culture that fit better with those organizations.
Upon finding the right cultural fit, a non-profit home can promote the
advancement of a Free Software project in ways the project can't do
merely as a band of part-time volunteer developers. By contrast to
those who are asking whether these non-profits
still make sense,
I argue that more than ever, developers need as much time as they
can spare to keep up with the rapid changes in technology and community
development methodologies. A non-profit home can take care of the
other, non-software-development tasks, leaving the projects' volunteers
to focus on what they do best.
As for adherence to the rules, while Conservancy is liberal on rules related to development methodologies, we remain somewhat conservative on the areas of the organization's expertise. Namely, Conservancy carefully oversees the financial spending and asset management of Conservancy's projects to ensure they continue to operate in a not-for-profit way to advance the public good. This is the most important standing agenda item on my daily schedule, and I believe that's the center of my job in providing services to our member projects. While I once was a software developer (and I sometimes can't resist giving my technical opinion to one of Conservancy's member projects), I constantly focus my role on the stuff that developers hate doing, so that they keep doing the work the love that helps the whole community.
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