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The 2021 Tidelift open source maintainer survey. Get the results.

Finding #2: Most maintainers aren’t paid well today, but Tidelift is having an impact

Chris Grams
by Chris Grams
on June 10, 2021

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 second 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.

In our first post we learned that almost half of maintainers are volunteers, and an even smaller percentage (27%) are paid for their maintenance work by their employer. 

So, for the slightly less than half of maintainers who are getting paid, how much money are they making, and who is paying them? Are they making a living from their maintenance work or is it more of a secondary source of income?

We asked the 54% of maintainers who are getting paid for their open source maintenance work to break down the amount of money they receive each year from all sources. The most striking finding? Just over a quarter of maintainers (26%), earn more than $1,000 a year for their work today.

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_11_Figure 2.1

What’s more, half of maintainers receive less than $100 US per year, while only 5% earn over $100,000 US a year for their project maintenance work. 

Looking at these top earners a bit more, it is also important to note that most if not all of them are being paid for their work as part of their day job. The full-time employed maintainers, representing 64% of the study, were asked if open source maintenance work is an explicit part of their job responsibilities. Only a third said yes, but 20% of this group makes over $100,000 a year from being a maintainer. In contrast, no one without this core responsibility claimed over $100,000 a year in income from maintenance work.

Tidelift is having an impact

While not yet “quit your job” money for most maintainers, Tidelift is beginning to have a significant and noticeable impact on how much maintainers get paid. Over half (52%) of Tidelift-partnered maintainers who responded to the survey earn more than $1,000 a year for their maintenance work as compared to only 17% of the maintainers not partnered with Tidelift.

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_13-Figure-2.2

Thirty-three percent of Tidelift-partnered maintainers earn between $1,001 and $10,000 per year for their maintenance work, as opposed to a paltry 5% of non Tidelift-partnered maintainers. And 15% of Tidelift-partnered maintainers earn between $10,001 - $50,000 for their maintenance work—which definitely enters the realm of “making the mortgage payment” money—while only 4% of non Tidelift-partnered maintainers earn that much.

Who’s paying the maintainers today?

We dug deeper to learn more about other income sources beyond those earning income from their employers. According to our respondents—again skewed by the large percentage of the total sample (27%) receiving income from Tidelift—by far the most common sources of non-employer income were Tidelift (76%) and donation programs (71%).

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 2.3In addition, 31% of maintainers have received money via direct payments or donations from an individual, while payments from foundations were the least likely source of income, with only 15% of respondents reporting income from these sources. 

Which leads us to an important point: although donation programs are popular, when you look at the amount of money maintainers earn from them, it is quite a bit smaller. While Tidelift makes up the largest percentage of non-employer income (46%), donations account for only 33% of maintainers’ non-employer maintenance income. 

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 2.4One interesting note on foundations: of the 10% of individuals that did report income from foundations, it made up a large percentage (60%) of their maintenance earnings.

When it comes to paying maintainers for their important work, the data shows that there is progress… but still so much more work to do. A small minority of maintainers are getting paid a living wage by their employers to maintain their projects. And Tidelift is helping many maintainers make a dent in their bills, but not yet to the scale where the majority of maintainers can afford to work on their projects full time.

If maintainers aren’t yet able to earn a living from project maintenance alone, why do they continue to do the work? We answer this question by exploring the motivations of maintainers in our next post.

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