Open source influence for sale? In defense of sponsors

Communities have sponsors, patrons, advisory boards, even directorships, but they don't have the influence you may fear

I've recently heard of several open source communities announcing that businesses are "joining them" in roles such as supporter, sponsor, advisory board member, and so on. At the same time, I've heard criticism of the concept from people who assume that these roles are just like their analogs in the world of business. It's been called "selling influence" by one rabble-rouser I'll not name, for example. But like so much else, these funding mechanisms for open source don't work the same way as their proprietary counterparts.

Sponsorship of some kind or another is a common device that arises under a variety of names in many open source communities: Gnome, the Document Foundation, even Apache. It allows organizations that support the goals of a community -- and are usually already engaged in it in ways that actually do provide influence -- to visibly identify with the community and, typically, to contribute funds to its upkeep.

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Take for example the advisory board, a common mechanism in more upscale projects. The term is familiar in for-profit organizations, identifying a group of people whose ideas -- and often whose well-known names -- are seen as an asset worth publicizing. In the for-profit world, members of an advisory board are usually compensated for their participation in some way.

But in the open source nonprofit world, things are different. The primary role of an advisory board is less to offer advice and more to offer a way for a company engaged in a community to provide funding. The people who engage with advisory boards -- as I did for Sun Microsystems in support of the Gnome Foundation -- understand that the board seat is largely an excuse to justify payment in support of the project.

Just sending user notes is unlikely to match any corporate fiduciary process, so instead a billable service is offered by the open source foundation that on paper offers value -- briefings, conference discounts, logo placement -- without the foundation itself surrendering any independence or control. Offering billable value in this way is a fund-raising approach that's found under different names in many communities. Apache and the Free Software Foundation offer recognition for donations to patrons, for example.

Is this selling influence? Not in the way detractors imply. No control is offered. In fact there's no hard trade of community powers of any kind in most cases. There is a sense in which influence is on offer, but it's more a matter of amplification than generation. When community participants act responsibly and contribute in ways that help the community, be that with code, documentation, administrative support, or cash, their reputational capital increases, and their ability to wield influence as a community participant grows.

If you're not a community participant, that sponsorship won't help you much, though. As a patron or advisory board member, you can only spend your reputational capital in the market of ideas. If you don't work in that market by contributing code or other collaborative input, your supposed influence will be worth nothing to you. There's certainly some value in advertising your brand, but open source communities -- at least the kind that look inward toward the code commons more than they look outward toward user needs -- have a high immunity to such tactics.

Some communities even offer governance engagement to companies that pay money. Large trade associations like the Eclipse Foundation and the Linux Foundation do indeed offer director status in exchange for payments. But even in these contexts, I don't think there's much influence on offer over the direction of the code. The technical direction of the project is driven by the programmers involved in the code rather than by decisions of the board in every case that I have seen so far. Influence as a director in these cases allows shared responsibility for the finances and administration of the organization, but it really doesn't allow influence over the actual matter at hand: the code itself.

So if you are a vendor, should you join an advisory board or become a patron or sponsor of an open source community? If it's a code base to which you contribute or from which you benefit, definitely. But don't look so much for the direct extraction of value. Although advertising, board seats, and ever directorships are on offer, the only way you will actually change the direction of the code is by hiring and directing developers.

Meanwhile, your contributions for sponsorship or advisory board status will pay the bills, keep the lights on, and keep the executive director employed to keep the ship afloat. That's actually what will win you respect: playing your part. And in open source, that's almost a fungible currency.

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