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Finding #8: the top ways organizations contribute to open source—and where they see ROI

Chris Grams
by Chris Grams
on November 24, 2020

Tidelift's annual managed open source survey explores how technologists use open source to build applications at work. Over 600 people shared how they use open source software today, what holds them back, and what tools and strategies would help them use it even more effectively.

In this post, we share the eighth of nine key findings. If you don’t wait to wait for the rest of the results, you can download the full survey report right now at the link below.

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If your organization uses open source to build applications, it is probably also contributing to open source in some way. More than four-fifths (83%) of respondents claim their organization contributes using at least one of six different methods we asked about in this year’s survey.

Top ways organizations contribute to open source

Almost half (46%) of respondents said their organization contributes employee time to projects the organization does not manage or sponsor, and almost as many (43%) contribute employee time to projects the company does manage or sponsor. Since respondents could choose as many options as applicable, many selected both, so overall two-thirds said their organization allocates employee time for open source contributions. That is encouraging news, but there is still room for improvement as only 28% of respondents allocate employee time to both sponsored and unsponsored projects.

Almost two-fifths (39%) of respondents reported that their organization contributes by releasing code as open source, which was the third most commonly cited option.

None of the three remaining options were chosen by more than 15% of respondents—and, notably, each cost more than just employee time. They were: providing financial support via a foundation, consortium, or independently governed entity; providing in-kind contributions to a project; and providing financial support to individual developers contributing to or maintaining a project.

Sadly, only 22% of organizations currently provide financial support to the projects themselves, whether via a foundation, consortium, or independent entity (15%), or via support to individual project maintainers (12%).

Not surprisingly, respondents at organizations with more than 10,000 employees were twice as likely as the average (30% vs. 15%) to financially support a foundation, consortium, or another type of independently governed open source organization. Although it does not require cash, the largest organizations are also almost twice as likely (19% vs. 10%) to provide in-kind contributions like cloud credits.

Many organizations question the ROI of traditional contributions to open source

We next asked respondents to share their views about the effectiveness of their organizations’ contributions, and sorted by both effectiveness and popularity—since some of these methods are employed much less often than others.

The most effective ways for organizations to contribute to open source

The amount of control an organization has over a contribution appears to influence opinions about effectiveness. Thus, the overall most effective and popular method of contribution was allocating employee time for contributions to projects the organization manages or sponsors, with 33% of all respondents rating this as extremely or very effective.

The most popular response—allocating employee time for contributions to projects the organization does not manage or sponsor—was only second on the list of most effective, with 29% rating this as effective and 24% rating it as ineffective. So while more popular, respondents don’t find this approach as impactful.

Even though it is a popular contribution method, less than half of organizations that release their intellectual property into the open source commons believe this is an effective approach (19% effective vs. 25% ineffective).

While the other three options we studied were markedly less popular, the 17% of respondents who reported their organization contributes to an open source foundation, consortium, or independently governed entity feel like these investments are effective (12% effective vs. 5% ineffective).

These data points lead us to the conclusion that there is a lot of room for new approaches when it comes to improving the effectiveness of how organizations contribute to open source.

There are some proven effective methods, like contributing time, code, and other resources like documentation to open source projects. And contributing to foundations can be an effective approach for the deep-pocketed organizations that can afford to do it at the level required to have a strategic impact on the highest-profile open source projects.

For organizations that lack these multi-million-dollar budgets, we believe there are better ways to contribute more effectively to the future of open source. Ways that level the playing field and further the success of the tens of thousands of open source projects that are equally critical to enterprise application developers, regardless of their size, influence, or ability to contribute code or other resources. Ways that directly create a financial impact for open source creators and maintainers.

This is one of the key reasons we created the Tidelift Subscription—to make it easier for more organizations to pay the maintainers of the projects they rely on, while getting a clearly defined SLA and set of promises about the future of those projects in return.

Want the full survey results in one report? Get them here now.

Read more about how we conducted the survey, see the survey demographics, and learn why we call it the managed open source survey.

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