There are a great number of funding sources for those in open source to consider. The main sources of grant funding that support open source in the research and scholarly space are federal or other government funding and private philanthropic support. This section discusses public funding and private philanthropy in detail. Venture capital backing, crowdfunding, and other revenue models will also be discussed briefly. Photo by Flickr user David Barnas.
Which one(s) you prioritize will depend on your project’s scale, goals, and the expected duration of possible grants. Any funding - taking investment or recieving a grant - comes with strings attached. Those strings may take the form of reporting requirements, being required to work with a fiscal sponsor, giving equity, or offering role in project governance to a supporter.
The OSAOS meeting in New York gathered people experienced with navigating the funding landscape and securing funding for open source projects, including scientific comupting softwares, open data initiatives, and communtity-focused projects. Below is the result of their discussion about the broad landscape of funders who help support open source scholarly initiatives.
Public funds typically come from a government source such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or National Institutes of Health (NIH). Most large grants that can be used to fund open source projects come from federal government sources, though states sometimes offer innovation grants that may apply.
If you’re exploring public sources of funding, you may feel overwhelmed. The federal agencies that offer grant funding are at least as diverse in their interests and priorities as the private foundations are, but with a substantially increased level of bureaucracy. However, remember that even if agencies seem forbidding, federal workers are people too; you can always contact a program officer (PO) to ask questions and get advice. POs influence the people above them and can influence where the program sets its priorities, usually as a collective exercise with their peers and the division directors.
Types of federal funding
- Core programs: Many agencies keep open calls for funding active on an ongoing basis. Funding can be directed to any projects that seems likely to make progress in a general area. A PO can give you advice on how to frame your work to be a responsive as possible to the agency’s priorities.
- Specific solicitations: Agencies frequently put out very specific calls for proposals that aim to fund certain types of work or achieve certain outcomes. The designated PO for the solicitation can give you an idea for what the solicitation is designed to accomplish, if your project idea can fit the solicitation, and how a proposal should be written to cater to the agency's needs.
- Self-directed approaches: You can always pitch a one-pager to a PO to see if they’re interested in what you’re doing. You can send a short, to-the-point document by email and ask if you can talk to them about it. If you happen to meet a PO, which is most likely at a conference or workshop, take the opportunity to have an initial discussion about an idea. Chances are if the idea is a good fit for the agency, the PO will direct you to apply via the open call for core program funding.
Federal agencies often provide resources to grantseekers, including workshops and webinars that teach how to effectively apply for funding. If you have other ideas to add to this list, reach out to [email protected].
- National Science Foundation proposal writing workshops happen regularly, particularly regarding proposals to the Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER).
Private philanthropic organizations are non-government sources of financial support, a category that includes everything from small foundations run by a handful of people to major research hospitals. These institutions can generally be divided into two categories: private foundations and public charities.
- Private foundations: These funders are generally financially supported by one or a small handful of sources: an individual, a family, or a corporation. Private foundations can be classified as independent, family, and corporate — categories that are not legally defined but commonly used to distinguish the different kinds of private foundations. Private foundations must pay out at least 5 percent of their assets each year in the form of grants and operating charitable activities.
- Public charities: Public charities receive their funds from multiple sources, which may include private foundations, individuals, government agencies, and fees they charge for services they provide. This category includes many types of organizations, including hospitals, schools, churches, and organizations that make grants to others. Charities that primarily make grants are commonly referred to as public foundations. Most of these foundations are publicly supported charities.
For more information, see the Council on Foundations’ Foundation Basics.
Venture capital investors (VCs) are looking to invest in companies that they think will increase in value. When a VC invests, they typically take some kind of ownership stake and provide connections and mentorship to accelerate the business.
Brendan O’Brien of qri discusses open source and VC in depth here.
Community-based funding or crowd funding
The advent of crowdfunding has changed the dynamics of how project founders can bootstrap their work. This kind of fundraising raises large sums via small amounts from a large number of donors.
Examples of projects in the open scholarship domain exist on all the major platforms including, Kickstarter (Foldscope) and Open Collective (Spyder IDE). Partnering with a nonprofit fiscal sponsor like NumFOCUS or Code for Science & Society enables projects like Juypter and Dat to accept tax-deductible individual donations.
Do you run your project with a significant contribution from community fundraising? If so, we’d like to hear your story — reach out to [email protected].
Researching sources of funding
The first step to getting funding for any project is research. In other sections of this work, we discuss how to read a funder’s website, how to write a one-pager, and what to do with a “no.”
To jump-start your research, we have initiated a list of funding opportunities that are relevant for open source projects in the realm of open scholarship. It’s a Google spreadsheet to keep it easy for anyone to add information, and it is open to contributions.
The spreadsheet can be found here.
The dataset under construction contains information about funders, size of grants, and other details about specific grants. We hope this is a useful resource as you research the funding landscape for your open source projects.
As always, you are invited to reach out to [email protected] if you would like to share your experience.