The Ada Initiative Founders on Funding Activism for Women in Open Source

Their story, and how they see the complications and changes in the funding landscape.

In December 2010, Valerie Aurora, then a leading Linux filesystems developer, announced that she was leaving software development to work on women in open source software activism full time. Behind the scenes, she asked several other geek feminist activists to join her to work on women in open source activism full time. "I don't know what the world-wide economic capacity for paid activists [for women in open source] is, but let's find out together!" she wrote.

In 2010, the smart money said that the world-wide economic capacity for paid activists for women in open source was well under one person. And only Mary Gardiner, then an unpaid computer science PhD student looking to leave academia, took Valerie up on the offer.

Thus began our long journey towards answering the question: "How does an activist get paid?"

Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, co-founders of The Ada Initiative, pose, smiling, at an AdaCamp. Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora

This article chronicles our own painful and sometimes expensive learning experiences around funding diversity in tech work, as well as advice and techniques from several other successful full-time diversity in tech activists and fundraising experts: Ashe Dryden, diversity advocate and consultant; Kellie Brownell, CiviCRM implementer at Giant Rabbit and former Ada Initiative fundraising consultant; Frances Hocutt, founding president of the Seattle Attic feminist hackerspace; and Emily May, executive director of Hollaback!.

Paying Activists and Funding Complications

The question we struggled with initially was why activism, and feminist activism in open source software in particular, should be a paid job at all. Thanks to the work of people including Kate Losse, today the tech community is increasingly aware that this kind of community-building labor is valuable and should be compensated. But in 2010, all we knew is that volunteer activism was not working. Women in open source software were working for free, burning themselves out while fighting for rights as simple as basic physical safety - let alone equal pay, equal treatment and a non-sexist culture.

And yet the expectation that women in open source should be unpaid activists was so high that in 2009, Emma Jane Westby formulated the "Unicorn Law," which states: "If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source." In October 2011, Skud — herself an activist and target of harassment — adapted Arlie Hochschild's term "the second shift" to describe this phenomenon. But after ten years, and tens of thousands of hours of difficult, draining work, the percentage of women in open source software was still in the low single digits.

Valerie's insight -- radical, at the time -- was that we needed full-time paid activists working on the problem in order to make any progress. We founded the Ada Initiative with the principle of paying fair market wages to anyone doing work for us more than a few hours a week. In 2010, this was a moonshot. In 2014, it's increasingly how things are done. More and more diversity in technology initiatives are becoming paid activities, and a growing proportion of the technology industry recognizes this labour as something worth paying for.

For all this progress, relatively few “pre-fabricated” diversity in tech jobs exist, and the ones that do exist tend to be co-opted by corporations to narrowly focus on recruiting and, in effect, marketing. Many existing large diversity-in-tech non-profits are primarily corporate-funded and therefore end up compelled to do recruiting and marketing for for-profit tech corporations. An employee of a for-profit corporation who wants to advocate for significant cultural change as part of their job is stuck in an additional catch-22: they can't criticize their competitors, because it looks like a conflict of interest, and they also can't criticize their own employer, because that's a great way to get fired.

Thus, full-time diversity activists who want to do effective, controversial, culture-changing work must often work out how to pay themselves, rather than taking existing jobs at tech companies or diversity in tech non-profits.

What follows is a survey of some of the most popular funding sources: corporate sponsorship, individual donations, and consulting and training.

But first...

Why you shouldn’t try them all

Often activists will reach for every funding opportunity they can: individual fundraising campaign, yes! Government grants, yes! Selling stickers, yes! Sucking up to wealthy potential donors at lavish one-on-one dinners, absolutely! But it is crucial to pick just two or three funding sources and concentrate on them.

Raising money in any form takes time, practice, dedication, and skill. Pursuing too many forms of funding will just mean that you're bad at all of them. Some diversification of funding sources is often recommended, but the base requirement is a reliable funding source.

An activist’s choice will depend both on their mission and who they are able to reach. The Wikimedia Foundation is focusing exclusively on small donors from all over the world giving an average of $25 each and giving up pursuing most grants or large donors, in part because small donors are inherently diversified. However, the Wikimedia Foundation can use Wikipedia, one of the world’s most-read websites, as a fundraising platform, a rare advantage. No diversity in tech activists will have such a large pool of potential donors! Each individual and organization needs to assess which sources of funding are compatible with their mission, and of those sources, which they can access.

Corporate Sponsorship

The Ada Initiative, like many diversity in tech groups, initially planned on getting most of our funding from technology-related corporations. Our focus was on women in open technology and culture, which includes open source software, Wikipedia-related projects, open data, and similar areas. Our logic was charmingly naïve: since corporations reaped most of the benefit of open tech/culture, they should pay most of the cost of increasing the percentage of women in their talent pool because fairness. Also, corporations tend to have a lot of money.

Major corporate sponsorship for diversity in tech work comes in several common forms: conference sponsorships, grants for specific projects, fellowships employing a specific person for a few months, and completely unrestricted grants (our favorite). Corporate donors are attractive because, compared to the typical activist, many have effectively infinite amounts of money.

However, corporate sponsorship has clear downsides for many diversity in tech activists. The sponsor's goal tends to be making sure the corporate sponsor has access to a diverse hiring pool. Most companies therefore prefer to support events and education initiatives that serve as recruitment opportunities in the short or medium term.

Corporate sponsorship is also often very cautious. They are looking to associate their name with a popular message, and groups who do not yet have a history of successful programs may have trouble accessing corporate donations. Organizations intending to rely on corporate donations may have to bootstrap with other funds or volunteer labor while building a history of success.

The main exception to these rules, in our experience, is smaller privately-held companies whose owners account only to themselves for how the company's money is spent. They tend to be less conservative and more risk-tolerant than publicly owned companies. In the Ada Initiative's case, these kinds of corporate donors were crucial to our success and included Puppet Labs, Dreamhost, Dreamwidth, and Inktank.

Early on, our philosophy at Ada Initiative was to accept any no-strings-attached corporate sponsorship as long as the company's business model wasn't fundamentally anathema to our mission. But since many corporations — and corporate management — are complicit in discrimination and harassment of women in tech, much of the effective work to support women in tech involves criticizing the status quo and has the potential to offend the very corporations who sponsor us. We gradually came to realize that every corporate sponsorship has an invisible condition: unspoken internalized pressure to avoid any actions that might cause that corporation to stop donating to us.

We had another motivation for our initial corporate-funded model: guilt. We felt guilty asking individual people to support our work but no such compunction when it came to corporations. We suspect this kind of guilt plagues many activists; we tend to want to help others, not ask others to help us. Our guilt about asking individuals to support our work instead of corporations drove us to end our first fundraiser early, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars from eager donors and forcing us to start another, less-efficient fundraising campaign only 5 months later. Reframing how we viewed asking individual people for donations took three years, a career counselor, a therapist, several books, and a perceptive fundraising consultant, Kellie Brownell.

So let’s talk about...

Individual Donations

Since mid-2011, the bedrock of the Ada Initiative's funding has come from a few hundred individuals within the technology community. Being accountable to donors who are primarily interested in culture change even when it has no direct benefit to themselves allows us to take on more radical programs. This includes work that is not directly connected with hiring or careers, or that is connected with gift and alternative economies like media fandom with little direct connection to corporate profits.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to adopt an individual donor funding model is that donors often become advocates for diversity in tech themselves. Kellie Brownell, our former fundraising consultant, says, "While fundraising at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I kept noticing that our donors were the first to take action when we asked for help." Many an Ada Initiative donor has gone on to successfully advocate for an anti-harassment policy or a diversity scholarship in their community. We also receive many thank-you notes from people too shy, too burned out, or too busy to be advocates themselves, who are relieved that they can take action in some way by donating. Individual donors create a virtuous circle where fundraising supports our mission, and our mission increases our fundraising.

Four AdaCamp attendees smiling at the conference. AdaCampers at the conference in DC

Diversity in tech organizations are increasingly bootstrapped with a crowdfunding campaign. Diversity advocate and consultant Ashe Dryden raised $20,000 in July 2013; Trans*H4CK raised $6,000 beginning in May 2013; feminist hackerspaces Double Union and Seattle Attic raised $15,000 and $11,000 respectively in November 2013; and in March 2014 Lesbians Who Tech raised $29,000 for a summit in San Francisco and $20,000 for a summit in New York.

Crowdfunding, with its constant outreach and rewards is an excellent way to interest donors and community members in an organization, but Dryden cautions that “[it was and] still is a considerably larger amount of work on top of the other work I'm doing.” At the extreme, the work required to publicise a fundraising drive and then fulfill rewards can risk exhausting the funds raised! It may also only work a limited number of times. Emily May, executive director of anti-street harassment non-profit Hollaback!, says “80% of our donors are young[…] They are incentivized to give by new exciting initiatives, but there are only so many ‘new exciting initiatives’ that [we] can launch without overwhelming our capacity.”

Activists are beginning to be able to raise enough money to pay themselves from many very small regular donations. Dryden's funding now comes primarily from Gittip, a service that allows people to make anonymous weekly donations directly to her. She is the top Gittip recipient with an income of $750 a week, and is not the only diversity in tech activist among Gittip’s top receivers. Others include Lynn Cyrin, a trans woman of color working on a guide to class mobility and CallbackWomen, working to increase women’s representation at conferences.

Dryden says, "Community funding is great because it means I'm working directly for the community. I often tell people that the community is my employer, so I'm working directly for them, instead of what would look best for a company. It also means that I can be impartial in critiquing what's wrong with the industry without worrying about financial ramifications either through my employer's view not aligning with mine or people attempting to get me fired for my views, which many other activists and advocates have experienced." Dryden's model is beginning to approach what Sue Gardner, the outgoing executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and an Ada Initiative board member, identifies as the future of non-profit funding: small donations from a large number of donors, requiring relatively little fundraising effort from the organisation compared to traditional models.

Every individual donor population is unique. In Dryden's case, anonymous donors make small weekly donations on the order of $5. In the Ada Initiative's case, we tend to have donors with high-paying technology jobs (or who own technology companies themselves) with generous bonuses, stock grants, and programs that match employee donations to non-profits. Kellie Brownell explains how we grew our individual donor base: "We adapted fundraising practices from individual major giving, for example, (1) thanking donors quickly, (2) asking what motivated them to give, and (3) reporting back later what we did with their money. Major giving practices are highly personal and aim to help donors grow in their understanding of an organization's mission and why this mission matters to them. Once a fundraising team becomes good at doing both these things, you can develop this model further by giving donors opportunities to participate in the process."

Relying on individual donors has downsides. Recruiting the initial slate of donors can take months of full-time work, and reminding them to give again takes more work (which is one reason why non-profits tend to prefer automatic recurring donations). Individual donors may also attempt to redirect the person or organization's work towards less controversial programs. Dryden explains that the anonymity of her donors, which is not an option for most non-profit corporations, “removes the pressure to fit my message into what I think my larger funders would agree with, which protects the integrity of my work.”

Membership

A variant of individual donations is the membership model of funding, where funders pay membership fees instead of donating, and in return receive benefits from the organization such as access to private events, training or spaces. It often comes with input into the activist group’s governance, usually as the right to vote for or stand for the governing committee.

This model is most successful where activists are primarily working to provide ongoing benefits to a small group of people; for example, feminist hackerspaces (a.k.a., community workshops), which exist for the benefit of local women and others who are not welcomed in existing hackerspaces. Frances Hocutt, founding president of the Seattle Attic feminist hackerspace, says “We aim for members to fund the bulk of our operations because we want our community to be able to continue even if donations drop off. We are trying to build a community that is sustainable and can be self-supporting if need be.”

For organizations like the Ada Initiative, which aims to benefit a very large group of people and provide resources widely and freely, the membership model is less suitable as we have little additional benefit to offer members. Hocutt also observes that it is not ideal when activists are trying to benefit people who can’t afford membership fees: “We believe that ability to pay dues has nothing to do with a person's ability to contribute to the creativity and energy of the Attic community, and we want to remove barriers that keep some of us from doing that.” Seattle Attic offers the ability for donors to donate memberships for people who can’t afford one, and a transport subsidy to members who don’t have access to transport.

Consulting and training

Counterintuitively, one way to raise money from donors without giving them undue influence is to provide consulting and training directly to them for a fee. This makes the terms of the relationship very clear; they receive a specific tangible benefit in return for their fee, rather than there being an unspoken expectation of a long term PR or recruiting boost.

In addition to her Gittip income, Ashe Dryden funds her work by consulting for corporations looking for help improving diversity in their organization. The Ada Initiative's training programs include the Allies Workshop, which teaches men simple, everyday techniques to fight sexism in their workplace and open tech/culture communities. The Allies Workshop is a fairly challenging and confrontational program, as it teaches people to directly confront sexism and harassment without being transphobic, homophobic, racist, ablist, or classist. By offering it as a corporate training program on a voluntary attendance basis only, we attracted companies with employees who were ready to take personal action to support our existing strategy.

As with the membership model, providing consulting or training in return for a fee may compromise the ability of an organization to benefit the public.

“I would love a stronger earned income revenue stream, but our values of making it free to launch a Hollaback! in [any] community conflict with that,” reports Emily May, whose organization’s funding is primarily foundations (65%) and government (20%). In order to combat this effect, the Ada Initiative makes our training materials available publicly, and offers cheap and free spots at public training sessions, as well as offering training using the same materials to fee-paying clients.

Incorporation and funding

The Ada Initiative is incorporated as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit in the United States with tax-exempt status. This has some immense practical benefits in exempting us from corporate income taxes and allowing us to receive tax-deductible donations in the US.

Incorporating in some form — non-profit, B-corp, limited liability company, etc. — is not a requirement for funding diversity in tech work. We were astonished to discover how much money people would give us with the ink barely dry on our mail-order certificate of incorporation from the State of Delaware. In retrospect, we realized people were initially donating to Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, not the Ada Initiative, Inc. In the tech sector, people are frequently willing to give hundreds or thousands of dollars to individuals as long as they personally trust the recipient, with or without the incentive of tax deductions or certification by some charity-related authority (e.g., the U.S. Internal Revenue Service).

The decision of whether or not to create a 501(c)3 requires weighing significant trade-offs. Preparing our application for tax-exempt status and then following various accounting and reporting rules to retain it take an astonishingly high proportion of our time -- our 2012 taxation filing consumed approximately a month of staff time. In the U.S., non-profit incorporation is most suited to an organization that, like the Ada Initiative, intends to grow into a larger multi-person effort. We deliberately created an organization that would allow our projects to be continued by other activists if and when we burned out and move on to easier jobs (like writing operating systems software or leading a computational research lab).

To The Moon!

In 2010, Valerie described paying one activist to work on issues facing women in open technology and culture as a “moonshot”. In the short time since, so many activists have found that the work they do or the resources they need both should be paid for and can be paid for. The Ada Initiative, Black Girls Code, Seattle Attic, Double Union, Trans*H4ck, Lesbians Who Tech and others have joined older organizations such as the Anita Borg Institute and the Level Playing Field Institute. More are appearing every month. They are joined by community-funded individual activists such as Ashe Dryden and Lynn Cyrin.

Diversity in tech activists are using a wide variety of strategies: corporate sponsorship, yearly fundraising campaigns, monthly or even weekly small donors, foundation grants, conference sponsorships, and many more. The technology and culture around giving are changing so quickly that funding strategies that were completely impractical three years ago can now fund a full-time activist or an entire non-profit with several paid employees. Conventional fundraising experts, raised on a diet of buying email lists and snail mail appeals, are hard-pressed to keep up with these massive changes. We recommend that diversity in tech activists learn fundraising techniques from each other in addition to learning established fundraising best practices. In many ways, diversity in tech activists are outstripping received fundraising wisdom.

Two AdaCamp attendees at a conference. One is wearing an Ada Initiative pin. AdaCampers posing at AdaCamp DC

We can’t imagine what diversity in tech activism will look like in another four years, but we’d love to see reliance on corporate donations fall back to simply being one of many options for activists to consider. We hope that people who have benefited from the technology industry continue to give back by supporting diversity in tech activism, by joining diversity activist communities and by donating to individuals and organizations working towards a diverse and equitable tech workforce.

[Disclosure: Model View Culture founder Amelia Greenhall and Valerie Aurora, one of the authors of this article, both serve on the board of Double Union in a volunteer capacity.]