Q: Where does the name come from?
The name of our foundation consists of the combination of two important concepts: the notion of a technological ‘Commons’ (in the form of the Free/Open Source software ecosystem) and an institutional arrangement to preserve and utilize those Commons in the best way possible — a “Conservancy”.
A well-known definition by Oakerson (1992) defines the Commons as “a resource or facility shared by a community of producers or consumers”. The collective responsibility for scarce resources does not lie with any individual but with all. When there is not enough incentive at the level of the individual to act in the common interest, this is often reffered to as “a tragedy of the commons”. Technology can be like that: there is no direct link between the broad usage of free and open source technology, and the means sometimes required to maintain and further develop this technology.
The current word conservancy stems from the Latin word conservare, which literally means “to preserve”. It first appeared in the 17th century, sometimes also spelled as “conservacy”. In the context of environment protection, conservancies are the organisations responsible for maintaining large nature reserves. They ensure that unique ecologies do not disappear. Technology is a vital and vivid part of our culture, and we want to contribute to a more diverse ecosystem.
Q: Why do you talk of Programmes instead of projects
A project is an effort that in our opinion is almost by definition finite, and is limited in scope. A Programme — at least in the context of [The Commons Conservancy] — is a more coherent and mature long term effort whose lifetime is (in principle) open-ended. Inside a Programme there can of course be many projects happening simultaneously.
Q: Why don’t you handle money?
[The Commons Conservancy] is a zero-budget organisation by design. We have no money, and no interest in acquiring it as an organisation. We have no staff, no annual budget. Our statutes actually forbid us to even open a bank account. We think there is enough value for our organisation to add without also handling the monetary dimension of work happening within Programmes.
The total absence of money throughout our operations greatly reduces cost, complexity and above all risk. Handling significant funds for projects is a specialist task that requires oversight and auditing, and there are organisations that are much better equipped than us to deal with that. The fact that we cannot have money, means that as an organisation we are not a very interesting target for lawsuits. There are additional factors (such as taxation) that come into play as soon as money starts flowing.
We strongly believe in separation of concerns, and designed [The Commons Conservancy] around this principle. In our opinion this makes it both more flexible and more robust in the long term than most other legal constructs out there. Minimising risk and maximising possiblities were explicit design goals when we created [The Commons Conservancy].
The lack of a financial dimension to our operations does not mean that our Programmes are denied any options to raise funds for their work. In fact the opposite is true: we are convinced that communities are actually better off because the financial backend is not pinned down to a single organisation. This leaves Programmes free to work with multipe backends in parallel, best tailored to the specific situations of fundraising.
Q: What will happen should [The Commons Conservancy] ever close down?
We don’t like surprises, and try to be as predictable as we can. The statutes of [The Commons Conservancy] force the Board of Directors of the foundation to publically announce any intention to close down the foundation at least twelve months in advance. Even after that, the foundation will remain in place after its dissolution to make sure everything is taken care of. That should leave you with ample time to find a proper solution.
Every Programme within [The Commons Conservancy] is free to leave and set up its own not-for-profit foundation, or join another suitable entity - unless its own statutes and regulations say otherwise. All of the legal framework of [The Commons Conservancy] is available for free as well, and anyone can reuse it to set up their own instance should they wish to do so.
Q: What does it cost to join [The Commons Conservancy]?
There is no cost attached. We don’t interact with money at all, so it would even be a problem to take your money. However, we do check the eligibility of your project to see if there is a good match between what we offer, what your project needs and the public interest.
Q: But you are handling our donations?
Actually, we are not doing that - not directly. And for a good reason. Handling of donations for Programmes of [The Commons Conservancy] happens through organisations far better equipped to do so. That keeps all financial risks outside. Currently we work with NLnet foundation, a recognised public benefit organisation (ANBI). They have been providing funding projects for decades, and offer a professional financial environment. Because they are a recognised public benefit organisation, this offers many advantages when it comes to tax and donations.[The Commons Conservancy] has an umbrella agreement (Memorandum of Understanding) with NLnet so that eligible projects can start receiving donations the minute they enter [The Commons Conservancy].
Q: Great work. How can I donate money to [The Commons Conservancy]?
You cannot donate money to us in the literal sense of the word. [The Commons Conservancy] is statutorily not able to have a bank account. And we don’t like begging.
Actually, we do have some operational costs. If you want to support our work, we have a small support fund operated by NLnet foundation you can donate money to (so we ‘dogfood’ the very procedure used by our Programmes). We don’t expect you to, but if you appreciate our work and have some money to spare - we can put it to good work to make the life of our Programmes even easier.
Q: What do you use donations to your own support fund for?
Our technical infrastructure we get for free, donated in kind by various parties. We do not have any paid staff, the Board of Directors does not receive any remuneration as well.
As a foundation we may not be writing software ourselves, but we deal with legal questions about software, licensing and copyright all the time. This is completely natural given the nature of we are doing - unburdening open communities with regards to organisational and legal (and in combination with our partners financial) aspects. We aim to resolve issues once, and propagate ‘best current practises’ to all our current and future Programmes.
We work on a ‘best effort’ basis, based on the means we have available. That means we sometimes may want to consult legal experts. Some of their work is contributed in kind too (for which we are very thankful), but when tough questions come up which are very time-consuming to deal with - we have to recognise they have households to feed too. Other recurring costs include liability insurances, promotion (e.g. stickers) and print.
Q: Can I donate infrastructure as well?
Developers are like piranha’s when it comes to infrastructure. We can pretty much always find a good use for your in kind donations. Contact us if you have anything, we’ll help you find a good use for it.
Q: Why shouldn’t I just set up my own foundation?
Perhaps you should. We did. But maybe you can learn first, in a friendly environment where other people doing similar projects are. All our legal stuff is available for copying and reuse. If you spot any issues, let us know - a foundation is a living construct that is never ’done’.
Q: Are you affiliated with Software Freedom Conservancy?
No, [The Commons Conservancy] is not in any way affiliated with Software Freedom Conservancy. SFC is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization incorporated in New York that “helps promote, improve, develop, and defend Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS) projects”. Great work, check them out.