At the end of 2015 I was honoured to be elected to serve as a director of The Document Foundation — the charity that develops LibreOffice — for two years. The new Board commenced yesterday, February 18 and immediately started conducting business by selecting a Chair – Marina Latini from the LibreItalia community – and a vice-chair, the redoubtable Michael Meeks of Collabora.
While some doubted when it was formed, with a few even mounting campaigns to undermine it for reasons I still don’t understand, The Document Foundation has quickly developed into a model for new open source community charities.
Code: There are regular, predictable releases — the “release train” model that defuses the control politics of release management. The contributors have invested in code refactoring, automated testing and code improvement as well as in new features. As a consequence LibreOffice has become dramatically better since it started, with a smaller footprint and faster start-up, broad file import and export capabilities, much better interoperability, cloud drive support, a cleaner, more functional yet familiar UI and (for me at least) much greater stability. All this is delivered regularly as clockwork on Linux, Mac OS and Windows. It’s all held together by an egalitarian Engineering Steering Committee.
Funding: You may remember at its inception TDF raising a large sum of cash in a short time to get started. That money wasn’t spent; it was used to satisfy the legal requirements of becoming a charitable trust in Germany, and remains safely invested to generate steady background income for TDF. But on top of that, there is a substantial income stream generated almost entirely by small donations from individual end-users. There is an advisory board comprising both non-profit mentors and commercial contributors, who also pay their way towards the project’s costs. The project spends its money carefully and strategically, both on staffing and infrastructure as you’d expect but also on grants and tenders. The grants fund global community activity such as conference attendance and local outreach, and any member of the community can apply for them.
Growth: Spending money on code is a very hard problem for open source projects. The tenders pay skilled developers to work on strategically important technical work for which there are no community volunteers but which can be expected to unlock future contribution. That’s the way the LIbreOffice port to Android started — which in turn was an input to the web port. More importantly, by tendering regularly TDF has carefully nurtured a commercial ecosystem around LibreOffice, bringing new investment into its community and consequently growing the contributor base. LibreOffice consequently has a good balance of independent contributors and employees from its commercial ecosystem.
Governance: Holding this all together is thoughtfully-constructed governance that gives contributors confidence to participate. TDF is inoculated against capture by special interests by three mechanisms. The charity is in the hands of its Trustees, and they comprise all TDF’s actual, current contributors. They in turn elect a Board which conducts the business of the charity on their behalf, and a Membership Committee that decides who objectively qualifies as a Trustee. This three-way control means it’s unlikely any special interest will be able to gain long-term control of the charity.
This is not to say everything is perfect — nothing is. The project has a strong technical focus, which is good but can make non-technical contribution harder. The history of conflict at its inception has left the project cautious about transparency, which in turn has made it harder to grow new leaders. I’m hopeful on both counts, however.
I’ve had a long association with the project, having attended the OSCON in 2000 where the original code was made open source by Sun Microsystems, worked on open source strategy and practice at Sun for ten years and helped TDF’s founders weather the storms of establishing the project. To have been trusted by the community to help direct TDF’s work over the next two years is simultaneously exciting and humbling and I’d like to thank everyone who voted for me.
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