KDE: Join the Game or Watch the Game?

Some questions about KDE e.V.'s new fundraising drive.

LinuxTag 2010 is going on right now in Berlin, one of--if not the--most influential annual European Linux tech events.

There's a lot of community energy at a show like LinuxTag, which is why KDE e.V, the foundation dedicated to supporting the KDE interface, probably chose LinuxTag as the platform from which to launch their latest community membership drive.

Under the name "Join the Game," KDE e.V. is inviting new individual supporting members to join the organization for 100 Euro/year, to help support their ongoing and expanding programs.

If that's all you want to do--and supporting KDE is worthy in and of itself--US$121 (under current exchange rates) is a reasonable amount to help support the development this popular and useful desktop interface.

But is this really community building?

I ask the question, because this seems to be the way KDE e.V. is pitching this campaign.

In their announcement, the group indicates that they hope this new influx of individual members will not only increase the amount of funding for KDE e.V., but also "expand the scope of its membership and engage more with the wider community. While currently the majority of core KDE contributors are members of KDE e.V., many other active community members are not. The work of the e.V. is sometimes not very visible or well understood and this is something we want to improve."

That's very cool, but there is a clear look but don't touch theme in this new "supporting" class of membership. While new supporting members will get a quarterly newsletter and are invited to attend events like Akademy, KDE's big developer conference, they will not be allowed voting rights within the organization.

Specifically: "The goal of this programme is to get people more involved in the work of the e.V.--we will send supporting members quarterly reports, ask their opinions and in general keep them informed of our activities. They will also be able to attend the General Assembly of the e.V. membership at Akademy and follow the discussions (voting will remain a privilege of the core membership)."

I am of two minds on this. Let's hear what they have to say.

First, I completely understand that this level of membership is for people who might not be able to code or volunteer for KDE projects, due to time or technical limitations, and being able to financially support KDE is still a valid way to participate. The concern, therefore, that these new members might not be willing or able to shape the direction of KDE e.V. because they're only peripherally involved is a real one.

Second, are you kidding me? KDE e.V. is asking 100€ a year from new members and not letting them have any official say in the organization? That's not "joining the game," that's paying to watch the game from the stadium seats.

There's good reasons for not wanting a potentially huge voting bloc to buy their way into an election and derail progress of KDE development. But to completely prevent any representation from people who by definition care a lot about KDE seems too much of an extreme measure. I don't know what "ask their opinions" means, but it seems a bit too vague for real participation.

This is, admittedly, a tricky business. Any time you start asking people for money in an open source project, they're going to want to see something for it: be it a t-shirt, a newsletter, or the right to directly participate. There is a deeper issue here, which KDE e.V. and other projects will need to decide for themselves: does funding inherently mean a right to vote?

I lean towards yes. Not because money is the Source of all Power, but because when you ask people to be a part of something bigger through funding, it's no different than asking for their help to code something or volunteer for setting up an event. You're asking for their talent and their time, which, in our current economic system, is what money represents. I can't build a kitchen counter, but I can transfer my talent of writing and knowledge of open source through money to someone who can build the counter for me. Similarly, I can't code, but the money I earn through my talent and work should represent a proportionate level of contribution of those who can code.

I propose KDE e.V. alter the program just a bit, and give some sort of representation to this new class of member. The Linux Foundation*, for instance, lets one individual member be elected to its board of directors. This is a fairer approach, as the individual members get a say in what's going on, but there no chance of swamping the board with suffrage by wallet. I don't know if something similar could work for KDE e.V., but it's something worth exploring.

Don't take this as a slam on KDE: supporting them in any capacity is a worthy goal. But I think KDE e.V. should allow a little more representation from this new class of members. Ultimately, I think it will attract more interested members and make their community stronger.

* Author's disclosure: Until Jan. 2010, I was the Community Manager for the Linux Foundation, and was peripherally involved in the creation of the Linux Foundation's Individual Membership program during my tenure there.

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