Living in a state of accord.

Open Source Is The New Shareware

There has been a trend over the past few years for open source projects to routinely ask for “donations” through a donate button on the site and increasingly in the software itself. I put “donations” in quotes because in the vast majority of cases these aren’t payments to a charitable organisation — they go straight into the pocket of the one and only developer.

Now it’s important to be clear, there are quite a number of open source organisations that are set up as actual charities or at least are independent organisations where the money donated actually goes towards the open source projects supported by that organisation. For example, when you donate to the Apache Software Foundation they use that money to pay for servers, bandwidth, legal advice the projects need, subsidising conferences around the projects and so on1. These are great places to donate your money or time to — they handle donations very professionally as the funds directly benefit the projects and ecosystem around the projects.

What bothers me are the projects which ask for donations but don’t have any way to keep the donations separate from the main contributors personal funds. That money isn’t going to the project, it’s going to the person — that’s not a donation. From the New Oxford American Dictionary:

donation |dōˈnā sh ən|


something that is given to a charity, esp. a sum of money : a tax-deductible donation of $200.

  • the action of donating something.

If someone asked you to donate to the poor and then pocketed the money you gave them, you’d be pretty annoyed — even if that person themselves was poor. On the other hand, if that person asked for money because they were poor, you’d expect them to pocket it. Why should we not expect the same honesty from open source developers?

What Do You Need Money for Anyway?

For small open source projects there are so many free services available that money really isn’t an issue. If you’re asking for donations to support your project, what exactly is that money going to be used for? How is that money going to further the project’s goals?

Bottom line, it’s not.

Between Sourceforge, Google Code, GitHub and a whole suite of others, small open source projects are very unlikely to require any kind of funding. At best it might contribute to the main developer buying a faster computer so they can be more productive, but is that really for this project or something they want for themselves? Again, it comes down to honesty – if the only computer they can afford hampers their productivity then upfront ask for donations towards a faster computer, it’s not only more honest, it’s also more compelling.

A More Honest Term

I have no problem with people asking for money as reward for their efforts developing software, that’s how I make my living. It doesn’t matter if the payment is optional or compulsory, what matters is that there’s honesty about what the payment is for.

The New Oxford American Dictionary can come to our aid here, since it includes a section under the term present about choosing the right word:


What's the difference between a birthday present and a Christmas gift ? Both words refer to something given as an expression of friendship, affection, esteem, etc.

But gift is a more formal term, often suggesting something of monetary value that is formally bestowed on an individual, group, or institution (: a gift to the university).

Present, on the other hand, implies something of less value that is an expression of goodwill (: a housewarming present; a present for the teacher).

Largesse is a somewhat pompous term for a very generous gift that is conferred in an ostentatious or condescending way, often on many recipients (: the king's largesse; the largesse of our government).

A gratuity is associated with tipping and other forms of voluntary compensation for special attention or service above and beyond what is included in a charge (: known for her generous gratuities, the duchess enjoyed watching the waiters compete with each other to serve her), while a lagniappe is a Southern word, used chiefly in Louisiana and southeast Texas, for either a gratuity or a small gift given to a customer along with a purchase.

If you give money or anything else as a gift to a philanthropic, charitable, or religious organization, it is known as a donation (: donations for the poor).

But if your employer gives you money at the end of the year in addition to your regular salary, it isn't a Christmas gift; it's a Christmas bonus.

Since we’re not giving to a philanthropic, charitable or religious organization, donation isn’t the word we want. Gift or present might be since mostly the monetary contribution is an expression of esteem. Importantly both terms imply that the receiver can do whatever they like with it, it’s not earmarked for a project in any way.

The best term in there however seems to be gratuity or the more colloquial tip. It’s recognition that someone has done something for you above and beyond what they charged you for. It also seems to be really getting at the heart of what I believe most people are after: encouragement. Having someone part with even a small amount of money is a very strong sign of appreciation, especially when it’s combined with a well-worded note rather than just money turning up in a PayPal account.

So perhaps going forward if you need money to support your open source project, provide some information about what the money will be used for and why it’s important to the project. If you just want to be rewarded for your hard work or encouraged, put out a virtual tip jar rather than a donation button.

1 – actually many of those types of services and even server hardware may be donated as well

Category: OpenSource
  • gonfi says:

    i completely agree with the transparency.

    just changing the word ‘donation’ to something else like ‘tip’ won’t change that.

    i personally (as a non english native speaker) have no problem with the word ‘donation’. to me, and i believe to most, it is very clear where the money goes.

    languages are a living thing, and to my understanding ‘donation’ got a new additional meaning when used on the web in relation to open source projects long time ago. so dictionaries need to be updated.

    charities are spending a high % of the income on salaries and ads. most employees don’t work for free or for less to help. only a part of the donation goes to the poor and needy, a big part goes to the surrounding charity economy. i have never seen an ad like “pay a salary” or “finance an advertisement campaign”. ads with starving children and the word ‘donate’ work better. how about forcing charities to publish transparency on all advertising material?

    so i personally see no reason why that word should be reserved for traditional charities.

    the “tax-deductible”, as the apache software foundation has it, clearly is a quick transparency qualifier.

    January 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm
  • Adrian Sutton says:

    In terms of charities being transparent – all good charities (all charities by law in some countries) will publish the percentage overhead for their administration and advertising costs. Importantly though, the admin and advertising costs are a key piece of accomplishing the work of the charity – they aren’t just pocketing the cash or buying unrelated items with it, the salaries that are paid are in exchange for people doing work to further the mission of the charity. That’s not the case with these open source developer donations.

    Also, I generally agree with the fact that English is a living language and the meaning of words has changed, but I don’t agree that’s happened for “donation”. Perhaps more importantly though, it’s not just the word “donation” being used, it’s the entire approach, for example using the phrase “Fund the development by donating below” is completely dishonest in most cases since the donation is not used to pay a salary for a developer or contract in extra resources. Exactly what extra development gets done for that donation? Nothing that can be accounted for, so let’s be honest and call it a tip jar to encourage more work rather than to fund it.

    January 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm
  • Don H. says:

    The word donation has nagged at me somewhat as well. I like your distinction, but I think gift or gratuity misses the mark. A gift is something given freely, without condition. Since a transaction is occurring, that does not seem to fit well. If the recipient does not compensate, then they have received a gift. If they do compensate, then they have purchased the item in question. A gratuity implies a base price, as you point out, but that does not apply either. What about one of the other phrases you used in your discussion? “Optional payment” or how about “Suggested Fee” or “Ancillary Payment” or “complementary fees”? Ancillary in two senses: something that is extra and something that helps. complementary as in “Supplying mutual needs or offsetting mutual lacks.” (Houghton Mifflin via Onelook via Yahoo.) On second thought, I think I would steer away from complementary, because it is too easily confused with “complimentary” (free)! Perhaps a new acronym: Requested Non-Obligatory Fee (RNOF). Although we are inundated with abbreviations, the shorthand does facilitate getting some ideas across more quickly.

    October 31, 2011 at 4:42 pm

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