A word to the Wise…

I have been recently reminded that while it may be hard enough to discuss the role and importance of communities for Free and Open Source Software, it is equally important to understand the complexities and the challenges that a Free and Open Source Software foundation has to meet.
It may come as a surprise that the objectives and the issues faced by a FOSS foundation sometimes takes its members (its directors, board members or employees) to places and into discussions that they never would have imagined. It shouldn’t. A foundation may have its own set of challenges and issues that are distinct from the very members whose interests it is supposed to protect; and perhaps it is for the best.

A foundation cannot be a subsitute or an ersatz of a community. The community itself is the very thing without which the foundation has no purpose. However, the foundation exists both to protect assets (tangible or intangible) and to plan ahead into the future. The foundation therefore tries to have an insight into what lies ahead for its community. It “thinks” in strategic terms, which is precisely what a community cannot do under its usual form and because many in that community are simply not interested about these matters. Yet these matters must be addressed.

I realize that this could be seen as a slippery slope towards a situation where a foundation would be cut off from its community, from its project(s), and ultimately from its very roots. It is not. It is much easier -despite the amount of work the daily tasks represent- to get dragged down into the minutiae and the busy humdrum of everyday. One week is a release, the other day there’s some quarterly meeting; yet another day and the infrastructure has some hardware problems that must be dealt with immediately. Since days only last 24 hours, the day is quickly over, regardless of one’s talent. But when a foundation is only doing this, it is also not reaching outside its own boundaries, its own comfort zone. It refuses to acknowledge that while its role is to protect the community and enforce healthy principles across its projects and teams, it blinds itself from its very role in the broader industry. It does not look at the public policy landscape, even though digital policies directly impact the adoption of Free Software. It sees anything coming its way as yet another problem, and never as an opportunity. Anything that may threaten the status quo of the daily routine quickly becomes a problem that has to be shot down before it becomes even real.

All this is done in the name of the community. But the community, to paraphrase the famous movie, the community will be just fine. FOSS communities rely on foundations to fulfill a broad range of needs. But a community can very well work without a foundation. At least for 5 days; for the time required to do something that matter to the foundation as a foundation.

I know of no Free and Open Source Software foundation that has not been founded by thinking out of the box. Mozilla, Apache, the Document Foundation, etc. are no exception. A foundation that invokes its own principles to justify its lack of vision and its lack of prospective will ultimately turn the very community it was supposed to protect in the first place into something it has not wished, something that could be very much the opposite it was founded for. Ultimately people move on, things change and nothing ever stays the same; to think things can remain the way they are is foolish; they never will.

Serious literature about FOSS foundations may be found in a few places around the Net; these are three selected locations interested readers may wish to visit :

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