ElementaryOS: Payments vs. Donations

Hi Everyone,

We are having an interesting discussion on Twitter with @danrabbit about how payments are handled with ElementaryOS.

Personally, I think it is wonderful that the ElementaryOS folks are soliciting money to help support their work, but in exchange for that, I would expect a report of how the money is used. @danrabbit assures us that this money is being used to pay developers.

I asked if they could produce a report and there is some reticence towards providing it for fear that it will result in and outlash from some Open Source folks. My view is that if you don’t provide the report, you may get an outlash anyway.

@danrabbit’s response to this is that these not donations, but that people are buying a product, thus a report is not required.

I am not sure I buy this: ElementaryOS is an Open Source project that can downloaded for $0. It is not clear to me that this is a product being sold by a company and that the product goes towards company resources. This is, however, a fine line: I get @danrabbit’s point about not getting distracted by line-item details in a report, but I feel like Elementary folks would like more transparency than this.

I was curious to solicit thoughts, and invite @danrabbit to discuss this too: Twitter was too low bandwidth to have a good discussion.

Before we get started, I want to be clear about something: I am not questioning the integrity of the ElementaryOS folks at all. I genuinely believe the money is being used for the right purposes: I just worry that fewer people will donate if it feels it is going into a black hole without transparent reporting.


I don’t like the way you’ve framed me up here Jono. Basically no matter what I say here you’ve pitched me as some shady figure and you won’t be satisfied by the very simple and clear answer. I’m sorry that you don’t believe that a company would sell a thing and then hire people to make more things, but that’s how it is. I’m really not at liberty to personally disclose more than that.

Hang on. We said, on the show, and I certainly stand by this (and I bet @jeremy does too, but I’ll let him speak for himself) that a high-level indication of where the money goes is useful to people. @danrabbit already said on Twitter that all the incoming money goes to developers. I think that’s almost enough by itself, to be honest; as I said on the show, detailed reporting just leads to nitpicking, and if I were them if avoid such a conversation like the plague. So maybe we should frame this discussion thus: what would we, interested parties, like to see from the elementary team about money and how they spend it? That way we can build a list of what a reasonable community might ask for, and then elementary can elect to comment on whether they think that’s a reasonable level of detail to publish or if they don’t want to participate.

…and I quote:

Sounds reasonable to me. I think this is the gist of what I am getting at: if most people don’t really care about a report of where the money goes, I am totally cool with that. I personally think it is useful and helpful to know that: I think it provides confidence and also tells the story of just how impactful the money is.

Again, to be very clear I am not suggesting @danrabbit or the ElementaryOS folks are doing anything dodgy, but I think this is an interesting discussion to have.

I don’t think @jonobacon intended it that way, @danrabbit… though I agree it kind of came across that way. It comes from a good place. :smile:

I think what Dan has said already is actually plenty detailed from the point of view of elementary as a either a project or a company. What I would love to see is more details published purely from the “here are the numbers we achieved and here is how we did it so that other Open Source projects can learn from how we pulled this off” perspective. I think the elementary crew are in a good place to show how they’ve gotten this far and act as a bit of a role model for other projects.

And having more detailed information aids in that… but isn’t 100% necessary.

Ok. So, let’s start talking about what we’d like to know. I personally am basically happy that they’ve declared their point: the money that comes in pays developers to work on elementary. It doesn’t go on cocaine, or on TV advertising, or on paid placement at distrowatch; it pays developer wages. I don’t know that more detail is even needed at this point?

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Seems to me Elementary is an alternative operating system (alternative to Windows and OS X) and not another community-driven-open-source-project Linux distribution. It’s incidentally open source, but the target audience isn’t folks who want an operating system because it’s open source – at least that’s how I see it.

So, to me, there isn’t a difference between donations and payment in that I’m given an opportunity to help them fund the project because I like the product. From my perspective, there’s no difference between the Ubuntu donate button or theirs (other than implementation).

But, I’m not an open source fanatic. I don’t use Elementary or any Linux-based OS because it’s open source.


Honestly, I don’t even care if it goes entirely to cocaine. If that’s the resource they need in order to build the system that their users/customers want… then that’s ok by me. Who am I to judge? :smile:

Seems like the next level of detail, after what’s already been said, is a completely line-by-line budget breakdown. Which takes time. And is boring. Also… kinda pointless.

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Agreed with both @Ld00d and @bryanlunduke here!

As far as the how, it’s kind of a disappointing story… Basically out of millions of downloads, less than a half of a percent of people choose to pay something on our website. And we do what we can with that. We don’t have investors, we don’t take advertising deals, we have basically four streams of income right now:

  • Pay-what-you-want on our website
  • Bountysource
  • Patreon
  • Selling t-shirts

I’m not sure there’s much to emulate there to be honest. We do our best and hope for the best.


You know what, I think I agree in part, but not in other part.

This might be just me, but while personally I couldn’t give a shit if the money, for example, goes out and gets the team drunk after a release, part of me feels that because this is an Open Source project, that people are supporting the project (in a similar way to a charity) and that the money should be used on things that affect the project in a more direct way.

I am not sure though, whether my view, frankly, is bobbins. This is why I thought this was an interesting discussion to have.

For example, I would be annoyed if a donation to the Red Cross went on a boozy evening, but I would not be annoyed if my money going to GoPro went on a boozey evening. For ElementaryOS, they are kinda in the middle, hence not so sure.

Right, and this genuinely was the reason why I wanted to have this conversation. I really do mean that I trust you guys are using the money well, but I wonder if the lack of reporting is impacting the opportunity to raise more cash.

This transparency at a basic level is a report. More widely it could be:

  • Blog posts about features or additions that money directly benefited.
  • Images showing “Paid for by you” on project pages that relate to donated money.
  • Interviews with developers about how much money they are being paid (and this could be so pitiful so as to encourage others to contribute more to help them out).

Like I say, I think that asking for money is definitely the right thing to do, I just wonder if the lack of information about it’s use is a complicating factor.

I think it is, to be honest. They’ve said: the money we get goes to pay developers to work on elementary. This seems to me like a commendable amount of transparency. Calling for more takes us exactly into what I said on the show, where people will bitch that their pet cause got less money. And any discussion of money at all already has a big risk of going that way. If I were elementary I’d avoid discussions on this topic other than at a really high level, because no good can come of it. I, personally, have now heard that it goes on developers, and what the major funding sources are; that to me seems more than what was requested, and further discussion seems not useful. What do I care as a potential donator who the developers are, or what they spent their wages on?


This is astoundingly far from a disappointing story. It’s the story of people working hard to do something awesome. Failure is part of being awesome. If you never fail… you’ll never be awesome.

You don’t have investors. You don’t do advertising. You’ve carved out a living (however large) on your own and in your own way. And you’ve done so using a diverse set of strategies – with mixed levels of success.

Along the way you’ve pissed off a few people and inspired (at least) twice as many. I’ve been captivated by far more boring stories.


Right, to clarify my position from the show: a very high level overview was the transparency I had in mind; and not because I think elementary OS is doing something nefarious (I don’t), but because as I understood it the optional payment for download was a donation. In that context, something along the lines of: 75% went to pay developers, 20% went toward infrastructure and 5% was miscellaneous expenses would have been the level I was referring to.



As I said in the show, I think an Open Source project testing out different funding models is actually a very interesting story. One critical to the sustainability of Open Source, which is something I believe we all care deeply about.



Thank goodness for the forums, for this very discussion with @danrabbit would have been good on the show.

I opened this story here becacuse I was hoping for some kind of tangible transparency about where all the money was going that falls down the hole of paypal → into elementary’s wallet.

What I got was an American developer rebuffing any claims that they would show a full account transaction/s from their list of their donations.

Why ? Well mostly because this isn’t the American way. I mean openness with accountability are always at odds, not together concerning money in the US. -Crumbs they have a vast financial infrastructure that supports this theory.

Why #2 ? Well, they CAN’T ! If money goes down a hole and pays for multuiple items then fractions of donations make it impossible to keep track of every donations and what proportion of it is going to servers, or dev’s or whatever … quite simply the software tracker isn’t there in the system to-do this.

As such you can only give a basic majority of where the money going … it’ll never be 100% accurate and trying to find where the donations have paid off is even more difficult to put a precise tag onto.

@danrabbit, just a curiosity. Is your corporation non-profit?

Please respect our code of conduct which is simple: don't be a dick.