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Displaying posts by Karen Sandler

Thoughts on the IRS Review of Free Software Nonprofits and Why I'm Not Worried for Conservancy

by Karen Sandler on July 2, 2014

At the Texas Linux Fest three weeks ago I gave a keynote called “Identity Crisis: Are we who we say we are?”. I talked about the different ways people contribute to free and open source software. I discussed how confusing it can be to understand where the for-profit interests in the software and the nonprofit ideological movement begin and end. The details of my talk were covered on LWN last week. Most importantly, we in this community all face conflicts that can impact the decisions we make and how we are perceived by others. In my talk, I specifically mentioned the IRS, because I sympathize with the difficulty the IRS faces in comprehending what makes a legitimate 501(c)(3) free software public charity. They are new to our complex field. When I was a lawyer at the Software Freedom Law Center I regularly applied for tax exemption for organizations and answered the IRS's questions. I was one of the lawyers who initially worked on Yorba's responses, though I left the work to my capable colleagues when I left to become Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation. Yorba was recently denied tax exempt status, and you can read Jim Nelson's well written post with his reaction to the news.

One point that the IRS examiners all made very clear to me on multiple occasions was that these determinations had no bearing on any existing organizations. This was a question I asked frequently as I was quite troubled by the strange questions they asked and the delays that they were introducing. As a lawyer, I can't give legal advice in a blogpost. I won't opine on what Yorba's letter means for other organizations. But I can take a step back from the rejection and worry less about existing exempt organizations knowing that the rejection does not directly impact us. While the IRS may change its rules with respect to existing nonprofits, the rejection of another organization does not impact them. And a different IRS examiner may have come to a different decision when looking at those facts.

When joining Conservancy a few months back, I looked at our tax exemption application again (the Form 1023 — which I was the primary author of all of those years ago!) and, in particular, the part that described what we intend to do. I was relieved to be reminded that we really described what we do and how we do it accurately. And that the way that we conduct our activities is true to our charitable mission.

I think it can be hard to sort out the corporate interests from the passionate work to make the work better through software freedom. A lot of for-profit companies and trade associations talk a great game about social good. Of course, for-profit companies are committed to shareholder value, and trade associations are required to prioritize a common business interest. Which is why Conservancy as a public charity has an Evaluation Committee that reviews in detail all applications we receive and a staff that oversees the way resources are used, monitoring for corporate control. We have a Conflict of Interest Policy that not only applies to our directors but also to all of our Project Leadership Committees.

We hope that projects that are genuinely working to improve society through free software think about applying to join us. As our Form 1023 says it, you:

must be exclusively devoted to the development of Open Source and Free Software, and that the project must operate in accordance with the with the Conservancy's tax exempt purposes. When projects request admission to the Conservancy, an extensive diligence review is conducted by a committee devoted to this purpose.

Conservancy was founded to be a home for nonprofit free software projects so that they don't have to have lengthy discussion with the IRS, file a lot of paperwork, or take care of a lot of nonprofit corporate minutia, at least not alone. We designed our structure and oversight processes to address many of the worries articulated by the IRS about free software organizations.

It's been nerve racking to watch IRS applications stack up — some have made it through recently and some have not. But I think that if we as a broad community understand our conflicts better (not to mention how a trade association is different from a charity) we'll do a much better job at explaining ourselves to others. If you missed my Texas Linux Fest keynote, please attend my talk at OSCON 2014 later this month, on a similar topic. I'll be sure to leave extra time in the Q&A so we can discuss some of these issues.

Tags: conservancy

New Challenge

by Karen Sandler on March 31, 2014

Working as the GNOME Foundation Executive Director has been one of the highlights of my career. It has been a pleasure to work with many wonderful people, and we have made fantastic progress over the past three years. GNOME is such an important, vibrant project, and I feel lucky to have been able to play a part in it.

I think I have made some important contributions to the project while I have been Executive Director. I've helped to recruit two new advisory board members, and we recently received a one time donation of considerable size (the donor did not want to be identified). Financially the Foundation is in good shape, and we have run the last three years in the black. We've held some successful funding campaigns, particularly around privacy and accessibility. We have a mind-blowingly fantastic Board of Directors, and the Engagement team is doing amazing work. The GNOME.Asia team is strong, and we've got an influx of people, more so than I've seen in some time.

I hope that I have helped us to get in touch with our values during my time as ED, and I think that GNOME is more aware of its guiding mission than ever before. The ongoing success of the Outreach Program for Women and positive relations with other organizations fighting for software freedom have all helped us to tell a powerful story about who we are and why we matter.

With all these achievements, I think it's time for me to hand the reins over to someone new, who can bring their own personal strengths to the role. It is time for a new challenge for me also, so today I am announcing my new position as the Software Freedom Conservancy Executive Director. As many of you know, I have been volunteering with Conservancy for some time, since I helped found it when I was a lawyer at SFLC. I also can't wait to work closer with Bradley, who has done a bang up job in the role of ED thus far (he’ll be taking on the title of Distinguished Technologist while remaining as President and on the board). It is an important organization where I think I can make a difference, and GNOME is in good hands.

Don't worry though: I'm not leaving GNOME. I will be announcing my candidacy for the board when the call comes out (this is a real exception for me as I've generally declined serving on boards). I will stay on as pro bono counsel, and of course I'll continue volunteering in other ways. The Conservancy has also agreed to partner with GNOME, so that I can help to run the Outreach Program for Women with Marina.

I'm excited for the future. GNOME is already in great hands and I look forward to what the next Foundation Executive can bring to the table. If you know of someone who would be fantastic in this position please let the GNOME board know! I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved in the past three years, and can't wait to see where we go next.

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