June 2009

"Foundations offer a way to make open-source development more corporate (organized in such a way that commercial vendors can participate with fewer reservations) without becoming commercial, a turn-off for many would-be code contributors."

Matt Asay

As open source projects mature, they tend to join or create a foundation to manage the project's financial and software assets, provide a marketing and legal entity, and help to set the direction of the project. As non-profit organizations, foundations have a specific structure defined by the jurisdiction in which they were formed. This structure typically includes a volunteer board of directors and sometimes paid staff such as a secretary or executive director.

As Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation, I am often asked "what do you do?". This article will introduce the structure of the GNOME project and its Foundation, describe how the Foundation works to support the GNOME project, and discuss the roles of the people within the GNOME Foundation.

GNOME Structure

The GNOME project started out as an open source desktop. It has evolved into a complete, free and easy-to-use desktop environment which includes software for tasks like playing music, editing images, and working with documents. GNOME also provides a powerful application development framework for both desktop and mobile application developers. As part of the GNU Project, GNOME is free to use, modify, and distribute.

The GNOME Foundation exists to support the GNOME project's mission of creating a free and open source desktop accessible to all people regardless of their ability to pay, physical ability, or the language they speak. The Foundation acts as the official voice of the GNOME project, communicating with press and other other organizations, coordinating releases of GNOME, determining which projects are part of GNOME, and planning events that support GNOME and its developers.

The GNOME Foundation is a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with an elected Board of Directors, an appointed Board of Advisors, approximately 400 members, and two paid staff. The 400 members are all contributors to GNOME. A contributor is anyone who has made a significant contribution such as code, organizing a conference, writing documentation, or translating GNOME into other languages. GNOME contributors must renew their membership every two years.

The GNOME Foundation

The GNOME project is mostly self-managed by informally structured teams. The GNOME Foundation serves as the support or steward of the project. Any GNOME contributor can apply to the Foundation for membership. All members, 370 at current count, can vote. Typically there is one vote per year by the membership to see who serves on the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors is then authorized to make decisions on behalf of the entire body of GNOME Foundation members. The Board runs the Foundation's day-to-day business, voting internally on financial decisions, legal issues and general policy. The Board of Directors is also authorized to hire staff that reports to them.

In addition to the membership, the Board of Directors and the Foundation staff, the GNOME Foundation also has a Board of Advisors. The Board of Advisors is a group of representatives from companies and non-profit organizations that work closely with GNOME. Many donate annually to the GNOME project and provide sponsorship for hiring staff, hackfests, events, and outreach programs.


While the GNOME project doesn't provide an organizational chart, the project is definitely well organized. The project is run by contributors, loosely coupled into teams. Teams are rather informal and tend to be grouped around either projects, such as GTK+ or GStreamer, or around tasks like marketing, maintaining the website or providing system administration support. Teams meet in IRC and hold discussions on mailing lists. Each team often has its own wiki and web pages to use for collaboration.

There are teams that write code for each of the technologies in GNOME. Translation team members ensure that GNOME is available to people around the world in their native language from Tamil to Vietnamese to Finnish.

Many contributors begin their involvement by participating in the bug squad team, which tracks incoming bugs and ensures that major bugs get addressed quickly. Some dedicated hackers work on the release team, which makes sure a new release of GNOME goes out every six months. The release team decides which features will be included in the next release, works carefully with all of the projects to ensure their product is ready and tested, writes release notes, and keeps everyone moving towards the mutual goal of an on-time six month release cycle.

The accessibility team is one of GNOME's core strengths. This team makes sure that GNOME is easy to use by people with accessibility needs while supporting GNOME's core value to be accessible to all, regardless of physical ability or ability to pay. GNOME's accessibility solutions cost a fraction of the cost of its non-open source competitors. When speaking of cost, GNOME software is free, but hardware sometimes needs to be purchased.

While we usually focus on people working on the project directly, the community also includes the companies and developers using GNOME technologies in their product solutions. GNOME technologies can be found in traditional desktops, mobile phones, breast cancer scanners, and GPS devices. Some of these companies sponsor the GNOME Foundation. Others participate in GNOME Mobile and still others sponsor GNOME events.

A small group of GNOME contributors run the membership committee, verifying that all members are GNOME contributors. On the infrastructure team, people with system administration skills keep the GNOME infrastructure running, fixing all sorts of issues in their spare time. Most of the hosting and infrastructure is donated to the GNOME Foundation by supporting companies such as Red Hat.

There are others who spend evenings and weekends discussing how the website could best be redesigned to recruit more developers and enable more people to begin using GNOME. Others volunteer to set up and staff the GNOME booth at a conference. Those with artistic talent create artwork including logos, brochures, and tshirts. Some contributors, both those with marketing talent and those with a strong desire to learn more about marketing, write and design brochures for potential sponsors. Some volunteers organize major GNOME events like GUADEC or GNOME.Asia. Many users are happy to answer questions for the person sitting next to them at the coffee shop.

Role of Board and Executive Director

In addition to all of the people working directly on GNOME, seven contributors each year are elected to serve on the Board of Directors. The Board itself does not make technical decisions, although many of the Directors also hold technical leadership roles. Rather, the Board is responsible for the stewardship of GNOME's finances, trademark, press relations, staff, and legal issues. Board members ensure that the GNOME project is successful by organizing annual get-togethers from GUADEC to hackfests. They maintain relationships with corporate partners through the advisory board. The Board solicits corporate sponsorship and individual support, and prepares and manages the budget.

While the Board of Directors doesn't make technical decisions, the Board is elected by the community to represent the project and Board members often get asked by members of the GNOME community for advice and direction.

The Board of Directors in turn hires the staff they see as necessary to run the GNOME Foundation effectively and in a way that supports all of GNOME. We've had an administrative assistant, Rosanna Yuen, for several years. She maintains the financial books, invoices corporate sponsors, reimburses community members for sponsored travel, sends out Friends of GNOME gifts and generally keeps things running day-to-day.

Last year the board hired an Executive Director to help grow the Foundation. The Executive Director is expected to be the "eyes and ears of the GNOME Foundation." Many people approach me and say they are so glad there is an Executive Director as now they know who to ask a particular question about GNOME. I respond by connecting them to the right person in the project. It still surprises me when companies that use GNOME technologies have no idea when they do or do not understand what GNOME actually is. I assume it's because open source tends to be introduced into corporations from the bottom up. In these cases, I educate management and help them understand how working more closely with the GNOME community can help them.

As Executive Director, I assist in marketing by making sure the project is reaching out to the right people. Other job duties include:

  • fundraising: for staff salaries, specific outreach projects, travel costs to bring developers together at conferences and hackfests, and a future paid system administrator

  • business development: finding new ways to make money as well as bringing in companies that aren't traditionally seen as being part of the GNOME community

  • general housekeeping: ensure projects are carried through to completion, potential business deals are followed up, and meeting companies interested in working with GNOME

One of the vital things I do that doesn't cost anything is saying "that's a good idea". GNOME has a great community of talented and motivated individuals. Often they bring an idea to me or to the Board and they just need confirmation or an introduction to the right person to start their plans.

How does GNOME Make Money?

A commonly asked question is "how does the GNOME project make money?". The GNOME Foundation is supported financially by donations. Donations come in several forms which include:

  • regular donations from individuals who pledge $10/month to the GNOME Foundation through Friends of GNOME

  • one time donations from individuals or companies through Friends of GNOME

  • companies who pledge to support the GNOME Foundation with $10,000/year

  • companies that hire people to work on GNOME projects

  • companies that sponsor events like GUADEC, GNOME.Asia and hackfests

This financial support has given GNOME the ability to grow as a project. Being able to get most of the community together at our annual GUADEC conference as well as holding smaller local events and hackfests has enabled the community to work closely together, creating desktop technologies that adhere to strong values like freedom, internationalization, usability and accessibility.

What Will GNOME do Next?

GNOME 3.0 discussions are well under way with a preliminary roadmap outlining new technologies and user interfaces. GNOME's challenge for the next couple of years will be figuring out what the "desktop" means to users who have a traditional computer, a netbook or a smartphone. GNOME is actively working on the best technologies and user interfaces to help users navigate these technologies.

The GNOME Foundation will support GNOME 3.0's evolution by getting feedback from the community and sponsor companies, continuing to release GNOME every six months, and working out a plan to deprecate old code and provide an appropriate migration path for partners and users.

In addition to working with our existing community and partners, the Foundation will continue to grow. We'll add new corporate sponsors, perhaps companies focused on mobile technology, chip design, netbook manufacture, and telecommunications carriers. We'll add new community members, including developers and volunteers that work on planning new events and growing existing ones. We'll see new teams in countries like Nigeria that are busy translating GNOME into local languages.

The desktop will continue to evolve as people work and interact with technology. We'll see more devices from desktops to smartphones, more people in developing countries beginning to use technology and technology adapting to meet their needs. The GNOME project will continue to work to make a free desktop available to everyone regardless of their physical ability, financial status or the language they speak. Come join us!


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