If the project is truly open, anyone can become a recognized contributor if they demonstrate merit, but in the end, "open, meritocratic oligarchy" is more apt than "democracy" in describing the way many open source communities operate: led by a stable group of recognized leaders, whose actions have demonstrated fitness to lead, yet who remain replaceable at any time should others prove more suitable. This characteristic has been clear throughout the history of open source.
A second common theme has become a trend in the past few years. As corporate engagement in open source has become stronger, projects have realized their common ground needs a place of its own, resulting in the rise of independent legal entities that act as containers for open source communities.
Usually labeled "foundations" regardless of their actual legal form, these nonprofit legal entities offer multiple benefits, including:
- A host for managing fiscal and other shared resources such as trademarks and shared copyrights
- An employer for staff serving the community and project
- A guarantor and enabler for governance
- An infrastructure provider
- A liability firewall for community participants
These benefits individually reassure different parts of the community, but having them collected into an independent nonprofit frees participants from being unduly concerned about aspects that don't relate to them directly. Consequently, forming a foundation is usually noncontroversial because everyone can see a benefit.
Of course, starting a foundation does not resolve community relationship issues. If there's dysfunction, such as a crisis of trust between community members, merely incorporating won't likely solve it. Addressing community relationship and trust issues before incorporating is key, otherwise these issues are likely to be wired into the foundation's structure and bylaws, perpetuated indefinitely.
The steady growth of long-term entities such as the Apache Software Foundation and the Eclipse Foundation, the introduction of foundations for large projects such as OpenStack and LibreOffice, and the existence of general-purpose foundations such as OW2 and OuterCurve provide ample evidence of the increasing importance of foundations in driving open source forward.