Radical transparency and funding

During the year 2021 I worked on grant applications to fund my work on Free Software and published everything in public, down to the last detail. All the drafts and discussions that led to the document submitted to the organization managing the grant, the contract that was signed after the grant was accepted, the reports submitted for milestones etc. It turns out to be unusual: one can hardly find any organization with such a radical transparency.

Examples are instrumental to successful applications

My motivation for publishing every detail of the fundraising activities of the forgefriends project was born out of frustration. In January 2021 my experience with applying for grants was non-existent and when I decided to give it a try, I looked around for examples. Only to discover there were none. The DAPSI guideline for applicants was the only help I could get to figure out how to fill the template and I was left with daunting questions such as: “Explain the relevance and socio-economic impact and benefits of your solution”.

There are a zillion ways to write down such an explanation and the guideline for applicants did not provide any hint. I reached out to people I know and some of them were kind enough to share their past experience, which helped with the first draft. I then asked them to review the first draft, which was not good at all and they showed me what was missing or not useful. Looking back, this process would have been much faster for everyone involved if only I had one example to get inspiration from.

I believe a number of Free Software projects are run by people who are as clueless as I was and did not even try to get funding because there was no example to observe. But maybe they will ,thanks to the examples that were published, because they can see for themselves how much work an application is, what followup questions to expect, what kind of oversight will be imposed on them during the period, etc.

Radical transparency

Most Free Software projects and organizations advertise their source of funding and some of them go as far as to provide financial details regarding the grants they obtained, publish their annual financial report showing how much money was spent on marketing, paid staff, etc. This is what is generally understood as a being transparent. This high level information can be summarized in a few pages and does not contain details that would can be used as an example, to conduct an audit or to check the facts.

Radical transparency is taking this a step further by publishing the documents to allow any third party to observe the facts.

It is not about invading the privacy of the people involved in the project. It is ultimately their choice to see their name and financial details revealed and doing so without their consent would be wrong. For example most names were redacted in the mails and documents related to the DAPSI grant.

Cooperatively assembling the Free Software puzzle

The most interesting side effect of radical transparency is the ability for each Free Software project to figure out where the other projects are heading.

Late 2021, I wrote a generic grant application that allows anyone interested in working to further federation in the Gitea project to independently apply for a grant by copy/pasting from it. One grant application was derived out of it, sent to NGI discovery and accepted in January 2022. Another grant application on the same topic was also sent at about the same time to prototype fund and accepted late 2021.

If those grants were prepared behind closed door, only to be revealed after they were accepted or rejected, they would likely be competing with each other: their milestones could be conflicting with each other or cover exactly the same topic. But by being prepared in public, each applicant (even when they are not in the same organization) can make sure there is no overlap. They can independently shape their piece of the puzzle so that it fits with what others are planning.

For example, knowing the details of the NGI discovery grant application, I was able to plan ahead to work on an export / import format for Gitea which is complementary to the tasks listed in the grant application.

Collecting more examples of radical transparency and funding

Fundraising is a competition: the amount of money awarded to Free Software projects is limited and helping others is ultimately a self defeating proposition. For this reason only, I suspect there will never be a large number of projects engaged in radical transparency. But I will keep doing it because it is beneficial on a larger scale. And because I like helping others, even when it means less financial gain for myself. If anyone is also interested in doing the same, they are kindly invited to add themselves to the list of radically transparent funding maintained by Arnold Schrijver.