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Finding #1: About half of maintainers get paid nothing for their work

Chris Grams
by Chris Grams
on June 3, 2021

Updated on November 15, 2022

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In early 2021, Tidelift fielded its first-ever comprehensive survey of open source maintainers. Nearly 400 maintainers responded with thoughts about how they fund their work, what they enjoy about being a maintainer, what they don’t like so much, along with a host of other interesting insights. In this post, we share the first of nine key findings. If you don’t want to wait for the rest of the results, you can download the full survey report right now here.

One of the hottest topics in open source today is the relationship between money and maintainers. The most pressing questions surround how open source maintainers should be compensated for their work and whether they are being paid for it today. So we made the issue of maintainer compensation a core part of our first maintainer survey.

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 1.1Historically, some have made the case that a good percentage of open source maintenance work is already being funded by companies employing maintainers. Others have speculated about whether maintainers would rather work independently and autonomously. And many believe that today most maintainers are volunteers, and are paid little—if at all—for the work they do. 

So what’s the truth?

Some clear answers emerged from our survey. We found that slightly less than half (46% percent) of maintainers report that they aren’t paid at all for their open source work. Nothing. Not a dime.

Thankfully, our data also shows that Tidelift is changing this trend. Once you remove the maintainers partnered with Tidelift (which made up 27% of our survey respondents) the percentage of maintainers not being paid at all for their work jumps to 57%, which means Tidelift is having an outsized impact in terms of increasing the percentage of maintainers getting paid.

Some people assume that many maintainers get paid to work on their projects by benevolent bosses who allow them to work on their projects as part of their day jobs. The data from our survey does not support this as the normal state of affairs. Only 27% of the maintainers in our sample get paid by their employer to maintain some or all of their projects. 

In fact, more maintainers receive income from a third-party (like Tidelift, donation programs, or foundations) than from an employer (32% vs 27%). 

Tidelift-partnered maintainers are entrepreneurial and busy

Only 18% of Tidelift-partnered maintainers say their employer pays them to maintain their project, yet 71% have full-time jobs. That means a vast swath of maintainers are doing maintenance outside of working hours, which tracks with conversations we’ve had with maintainers, like Claudiu Popa, who maintains Pylint. 

Claudiu tries to make Pylint part of his day job, but he can only work on it as it pertains to his employer. “We have all sorts of checks specific to an organization, specific to my company, and we wrote our own checks finding particularities specific to our project,” he said. “So I work on it at my job only as it pertains to my job.”

Sixty percent of Tidelift-partnered maintainers handle six or more projects, while on average only 38% of the full survey sample maintain that many. 

While our survey found that just under half of maintainers are unpaid volunteers, the good news is that means just over half are being paid. But how much? Is it a meaningful amount of money? And who is paying them today? We explore these questions and answers in detail in our next post.

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