A New, Open Source Funding Platform With Diversity At The Core

Building a welcoming and sustainable funding community.

by Shanley Kane on July 21st, 2014

We often frame diversity in tech through the lens of minority achievement. We look for representation and excellence of minorities in venture capital, executive teams and board seats, and on online platforms and communities. This lens fails to account for what happens when minorities do succeed in platforms and communities that are owned, dominated and controlled by the existing power structure.

One case study is Gittip, a payments platform that lets people give small weekly cash gifts to support other people’s work. The top users on the platform – driving thousands of dollars in financial exchange on Gittip and actively recruiting dozens if not hundreds of additional users – were at one point largely women and organizations dedicated to social justice in the tech community. Like in other cases of minority achievement, many of these users received significant community harassment. Users had their funding critiqued, policed and discredited, were met with harmful, classist comments that receiving community support for their work was “begging” or “panhandling,” and were told that compensation for hundreds of hours of their community work was equivalent to “getting paid for nothing.”

On Hacker News, white men in tech noted that they were hesitant to use the platform because of who its top users were – an example of how significant usage by underrepresented and marginalized groups is seen as devaluing a platform. Gittip itself, utilizing an “open company” model which too often favors transparency over consent and safety, made many users feel unsafe and unsupported. Despite comprising the most successful user base on the platform, there was very little sign that diverse groups were being centered or even considered in the platform’s evolution.

A heart created by folding a dollar bill.

CC-BY Chris Palmer, filtered.

The Gittip crisis, in which many of Gittip’s former top users and funders (including the author and this publication) exited the service, is emblematic of the need not just for minority success, but for platforms to be minority-friendly, minority-owned and minority-controlled. A new project aims to create just such a platform, focused on building an open source, welcoming and sustainable funding community with diversity as a fundamental tenet and organizing principle. While the project, currently codenamed “ATUnit”, will embrace transparency with widely-shared governance, lots of open source software and a focus on making the project accessible to contributors, they are also dedicated to making sure the consent and safety of users is a #1 priority.

The project is currently led by former Gittip user advocate Marie Markwell, programmer and trans activist Lynn Cyrin, web developer and feminist Adrienne Travis and Computionist, a programmer and the cofounder of Haskell Now. Already, the community has representation from many diverse groups – including people active in geek feminism, anti-racism, trans activism, and diversity and identity efforts across the industry.

Starting ATUnit

The project began in the wake of the Gittip crisis as a number of community members came together to discuss potentially forking the platform and how to ensure community support could continue to flow to former Gittip users and those trying to move off of it.

Says Adrienne Travis: “We honestly expected that someone bigger than us would start a project and we’d get behind them with all the volunteers and ideas we’d accumulated at that point. Instead, we turned out to be the ones who were in the right spot, so we’re moving forward with our initial stated goal, which is to create a funding platform that is run both BY and FOR marginalized people and activists.”

Lynn Cyrin explains that one of the reasons the project is so important is that traditional funding mechanisms pose a lot of difficulty to marginalized users — it’s difficult to get money from people to causes without going through penalizing and often problematic gatekeepers. For example, many forms of exchanging money require going through a company structure, and as Lynn points out: “Just forming a company on a whim isn’t a thing most people can do. So it’s important that we have things like this where the money doesn’t have to move all the way up through the capitalist economy and then back down to the individuals in need.”

She also discusses the importance of having accessible funding platforms online. “Meatspace communities don’t generally have as much of an issue moving money around. Someone can’t buy food? You give it to them. But online communities don’t work that way because of physical barriers. So it’s super important to have support systems in place for online connections.”

The project also aims to offer benefits to funders. Community member Ashley Willis notes the advantages of such a platform for givers: “As a giver, I love the opportunity to see someone doing something good who is not sanctioned by some org, and directly support her a bit on an ongoing basis… and the small weekly payments from many people can ensure a more steady source of income for those receiving than random lump sums.”

Building A Community

The group is in its initial stages of developing its online community, selecting an organizing structure and making the technical decisions that will drive the initial implementation. ATUnit already has an active IRC channel with over 50 regular participants, and a project site at Assembla where information such as meeting notes will be stored. Last week, ATUnit selected a technical decision-making committee. The current plan is to set up the project as a public benefit corporation — possibly in partnership with other burgeoning diversity in tech groups — with a corporate structure that explicitly shares governance widely among stakeholders rather than concentrating it in a handful of “C-level executives”.

The original organizing group will become the first employees of the corporation, which will deliberately be eschewing the concept of “founders.” Says Marie Markwell, “The way I look at it is that we aren’t ‘founders,’ we’re just going to be the ‘initial employees’. The difference being that the former has either an implicit or explicit hierarchy that’s intended to last, whereas the latter is exactly what it says: the initial group of employees.”

Says Adrienne Travis: “The very first thing we agreed on is that we need to set things up properly so that the actual legal governance of the project matches its ideals and goals — which, to us, means some sort of cooperative/community model.”

Originally, the project discussed forking the existing Gittip codebase, but this plan has been abandoned in favor of building from scratch with lessons from Gittip in mind. As Marie points out: “the [Gittip] codebase basically grew organically with little to no actual design. We’ve got a perfect opportunity, and people with the knowledge (both from other work and from being involved with and/or watching the various issues Gittip has encountered while growing), to start over and actually properly design it from the start.”

A list of open milestones for the ATUnit project, including 'Functionality Needed for Launch', 'Wireframes / UX', 'JS Framework'.

ATUnit’s Assembla Project Page

The project is actively seeking contributors and community members. You can join their freenode channel #atunit, which is governed by a code of conduct, or watch the project page.

We’re incredibly excited about ATUnit- started from the ground up by a group of diverse people and explicitly focused on the needs of that community – and we look forward to using it.

Ultimately, minority achievement is only one piece of the puzzle. Focusing solely on this aspect leaves out issues like safety, respect, acknowledgement, and benefit – after all, is it really success if minority achievement on online platforms only benefits the existing power structure which owns those platforms?

As community member Spencer Summerville states:

“ATUnit is the funding community that cares about its users safety and privacy instead of trying to perform social experiments on them in the name of an ‘open company.’ It’s very important that ATUnit has a large community of diverse people who have most definitely been marginalized or harassed so that this ideal doesn’t get lost or muddled. I’d say it’s pretty significant because you don’t see a lot of tools that marginalized people use also be built by them.”