4. Contribute to the project
Obviously this will help! But you may be surprised by how welcome even small contributions can be. An open source project is the overlap of the interests of many participants. Not every community participant is involved to the same degree; in fact, a community has a "long tail" participation curve, with many participants making smaller contributions and only a few making large ones. Your contributions will be welcome, no matter how small.
As a user of open source software, you can contribute bug reports -- possibly through the service company you've hired -- and even patches to fix defects you've found if you're actively developing in and around the code. One great way to contribute is to offer your own internal how-to documents and implementation case studies. Of course you can make larger contributions of code and new functions.
5. Commission improvements
Perhaps there is a feature you need in the software you're using. It won't write itself, and the community is not there to meet your needs; they are mostly there to meet their own. You could complain about it, or you could invest some money in addressing it. You're probably not the only company with the need.
You might be able to use the same approach as a group of German and Swiss public administrations addressing their need for LibreOffice and OpenOffice to have better interoperability with Microsoft Office. Teamed together through the Open Source Business Alliance, they've commission community core developers to do the work they need and contribute them to the group. As a result, LibreOffice now has much better capabilities in both reading and writing Microsoft's OOXML format.
6. Engage directly
You depend on the project. Why not hire the developers who created it or who keep it running? You can make a significant contribution to a community by directly employing core developers of the software that you most need tuned or customized to your business needs. When you hire them, make sure you've left enough room in their lives to continue to meet their community commitments.
Hiring core community developers is a great way to ensure your company's needs are met. You can also participate in the governance of the community. Help with the administration, make staff available for infrastructure or marketing work, stand in board elections.
7. Make cash donations
I said not to do this -- but I meant as an only or first step. As a community member, you have a role in helping pay a share of the the bills. This might include the cost of the infrastructure and the sys admins who run it or perhaps the cost of an executive director and a small staff. It is very unlikely to pay for the actual development of the code itself -- that's the community's responsibility. You could become a sponsor, or even an advisory board member, as a way to channel funds into the shared coffers of the community.
There are other ways to support open source, but these seven steps provide a path for many companies to ensure that the software running the business remains available, debugged, and innovative over time. It needn't cost much money, and most of these steps flow directly out of your business needs and practices. Give it a try!
This article, "7 ways your company can support open source," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.