The end of the year is a period of time during which many people sit down and decide to donate some money to initiatives that pursue the public good.

I have that habit myself. At the end of 2011 I've decided to donate to Wikipedia, as I consider Wikipedia to be one of the greatest achievements of humanity and I see a lot of value in keeping it running on a purely non-profit basis. (Not to mention that it's already quite annoying to see Jimbo's banners one month per year, go figure what would happen if those banners would suddenly turn into permanent advertisement banners!)

You may wonder why I haven't donated to Debian, given my involvement in the project. In fact, that involvement is precisely why I didn't donate to Debian: there is some sort of sanity in keeping a distinction between causes to which I donate my spare time (the case of Debian) and those to which I donate money (the case of Wikipedia), and I like to keep that distinction.

As DPL, I've the luxury of being cc:-ed on Debian donation notifications that flow through SPI, and I can also check the flow of donations to other Debian trusted organizations. This year, I've been particularly impressed by the high flow of Debian donations during the end of the year. Thank you, donors, it is thanks to your generosity that we keep many Debian activities going. Using the money people like you regularly donate to Debian we:

  • buy hardware and hardware-related services that keep the Debian infrastructure running
  • sponsor sprints and other events that allow volunteer developers to get together and work on Debian in fun and productive contexts
  • support travel expenses of Debian developers that attend conferences or meetings as representatives of the Debian Project

On a more political note, I'm happy to observe that Debian incomes come almost entirely from private citizens. We do have big corporate sponsors, but their contributions tend to be concentrated as specifically earmarked donations for our annual conference. This is good for them, because they get the fancy banners on the DebConf website and at the conference. But it is also good for Debian, because a donation-based economy (as Debian's, with DebConf exception) is less likely to be influenced by the whims of a few big donors.

But with (great) donations comes (great) responsibility. In particular, it comes the need of budget transparency. You can't go out soliciting donations and simply say "thanks, your contribution is appreciated". You need to show donors how their money are used, so that they can judge whether they made the right choice in donating to you or not. Whether they will donate again in the future or not — granting long term sustainability to your project — usually depends on that.

So, if you have donated to Debian or are considering doing so in the future, here are a few of places where you can check what we have been doing with donated money:

  • Minutes of SPI monthly meetings, that come with monthly reports of incomes and expenses of all affiliated projects
  • the list of sprints, past and forthcoming
  • "Bits from the DPL" mails (indexed on the DPL "team" page), that often come with a "money" section highligthing significant expenses for the reporting period
  • the DebConf reports, that come with detailed "budgeting" sections of each DebConf edition

Albeit quite detailed, the above is not enough: we should do better on the transparency of Debian budget. For one thing, the above is too scattered: budget transparency should not depend on (potential) donors mixing and matching too many sources of information. Further more, the above is not even complete: SPI is not the only Debian trusted organization, and the accessibility of information about Debian budgets hosted at other organizations varies quite a bit.

We've been working on improving this for the past year or so: we're not there yet, but I'm positive we can have detailed and comprehensive budgets—encompassing all Debian trusted organizations—published in the coming months™.

Why has it taken so long and what could possibly be so difficult about it?

I think the cause of the delay is twofold:

  1. The disperse nature of Debian adds some difficulties to regular accounting challenges. Contrary to other FOSS projects I'm aware of, we've many different trusted organizations, each one with its own different way of reporting things. The advantage of such a setup is that we can often avoid the costs of money transfers around the world, costs in which we'd incur had we a single organization holding our assets, say, in the US. Still, having too many organizations is counterproductive. This is why for the past 1.5 years I've been working on consolidating our money assets into as few budgets as possible (avoiding, for instance, to use more than one organization per currency).

  2. We tend to be good at recruiting packaging geeks, but not so good at recruiting other kinds of geeks: budget geeks, artwork geeks, journalist geeks, management geeks, etc. But it is upon those other kinds of "geekness" that many activities of "standard" Debian geeks depend. For example: if you want to have a steady flow of new project members, you need to communicate effectively Debian values and make some buzz around them, so that you could hope they get to the right ears. If you want to organize sprints for maintainers to work together you need money donations, and to solicit donations you need a transparent budget. Etc. In the specific case of accounting, we're now lucky enough to have found "standard" Debian geeks who also have a passion for accounting and auditing; but that appaears to be, essentially, a coincidence. If we don't fix the more general problem, I believe our difficulties in recruiting "non-standard" Debian geeks might hurt us quite a bit in the long run.