[FM Discuss] paying volunteers & motivation

adam hyde adam at flossmanuals.net
Thu Sep 6 02:24:13 PDT 2007


thanks to Julian for the links about paying volunteers. 

I had made some notes from some previous research on an article by the
same author (you can see the paper here -
http://opensource.mit.edu/papers/lakhaniwolf.pdf) I had done for FM.
Heres a cut and paste from my personal research wiki about the article:

In “Perspectives on FOSS” (MIT press) Karim Lakhani and Robert
Wolf review their survey “Why hackers do what they do: Understanding
Motivation and Effort in FOSS Projects”. They specifically ask the
question “What drives FOSS developers to contribute their time and
effort to the creation of free software products."

My experience in this sector has largely been with those that have very
idealogical goals, motivated by the politics of free software or to
assist the freedom of expression through software. The motivations seem
to go together, and there is no drive to earn a lot of (or any) money
via involvement in floss projects. Those in this sector largely make
their living by reducing their overheads (living cheaply, with rents
paid by artists/programmers residencies, or squats) and holding
workshops or teaching to earn an income.

I have some experience with floss projects where contributers come from
the commercial sector. FLOSS Manuals itself is one such project where I
work with a programmer and a commercial rate while feeding the
developments into the public domain. I have also been involved with
larger floss projects but only via irc and email lists discussing the
functionality of the systems.

I have at times wondered what the motivations are outside of the
idealogical sector to contribute to floss. It is becoming very clear to
me that I need to construct an understanding and strategy for FLOSS
Manuals based on an understanding of what motivates people to
contribute. The Wikinomics book was sadly lacking in this area and
additionally it was so ‘celebratory’ it is hard to trust it.

So this article is of special interest to me. 

They targeted almost 700 developers from projects considered active on
SourceForge, focusing on programmers from the professional sector.
Approximately 40% surveyed were paid to work on FOSS projects. They
break motivations down to two simple categories Intrinsic and Extrinsic

Intrinsic motivation comprises of those that do something because they
enjoy it (its very much tied to a sense of creative action, personal
achievement, and self improvement), and those that do something because
they feel personally obligated (“acting on a principle”) to do it. 

Extrinsic motivation might be economic or based on utility (creating
software that does something the programmer needs). However there are
‘delayed’ extrinsic motivators such as demonstrating proficiency in the
hope of career advancement, or gathering feedback from members of the
programming group in order to improve programming skills.

Their survey found on average there was twice as much time contributed
by those that were paid to contribute, than by volunteers. Overall, paid
contributers were spending two days a week on a foss project whilst
volunteers worked 1 day a week. This is a result which outlines the
‘invisible’ business subsidies of foss projects. This means that a large
part of foss is funded by the business sector because of business needs.
61% of participants in the survey said that working on their focal foss
project constituted the most creative period (or equal to) in their life
(true for paid and volunteer contributers). 

This suggests to me that FLOSS Manuals must somehow encourage tasks that
require creative application. Certainly writing ‘installation texts’ is
not so very inspiring and requires minimal creative input. However
encouraging more complex documentation tasks (eg. explaining what a
TCP/IP stack is) might be more challenging and require more creative
engagement. This might mean that there should be some manuals written
that are more in-depth than what currently exists.

**intrinsic and extrinsic motivations
Interestingly, although paid contributers contributed more on average
than volunteers, their motivations are pretty much the same - the main
difference being that most paid contributions had the additional
motivation that their work had a need for the floss they were working

**Intellectually stimulating to particpate
The top single motivation for both groups is enjoyment (intrinsic).
Specifically the respondents answered positively to the question “Code
for project is intellectually stimulating to write”. This highlights the
points I made above about increasing the amount of difficult and
interesting chapters/manuals to write. Improving programming skills was
a close second.

**Improving Programming Skills
This was a top motivator. The ‘improving programming skills’ can also be
applied to documentation writing. However we do not yet have a peer
review or user feedback system. Both of which would assist in gauging
the quality fo documentation someone might write. 

**Idealogical belief that code should be open
One third of the group surveyed said that a belief that code should be
open was a significant motivation. Writing documentation that is in the
public domain is a very similar argument and central to the aim of FLOSS
Manuals. I think it would be good for FLOSS Manuals to state more
categorically that its aim is to generate a base of information about
free software that is in the public domain.

**Giving something back
Also 1/3 of those surveyed said they felt a sense of obligation to ‘give
something back’ to the floss ‘community’ as they had used floss. I think
this is very important for FLOSS Manuals - there are many many users of
floss that are not programmers. These people have no way to ‘give back’
to the floss movement, however the opportunity to give back what they
know in the form of documentation could be a significant motivator for
the non-programmer.

**team interaction
20% indicated that working with the project team was a motivation.
Surprisingly low in my mind. Interesting…this might mean that individual
contributers are happy to do so alone without interacting with the
‘leadership’ so often touted as being necessary in floss projects….very
surprising to me.

Community reputation, career advancement, defeating propriety software
surprisingly this is ranked low by participants. The idea that there is
a economy of status and a motivation to defeat the evil empire in floss
projects is challenged!

My Conclusions
        * its all about (in a nutshell) Fun and Idealogy
        * make available more complex documentation tasks (eg.
        explaining what a TCP/IP stack is) might be more challenging and
        require more creative engagement
        * FLOSS Manuals aims are not clearly stated
        * make it clear FLOSS Manuals is an opportunity for
        non-programmers to give back to the floss philosophy
        * make it clear there is something incomplete that has to be
        * state categorically that its aim is to generate a base of 
        * information about free software that is in the public domain
        *consider mechanisms to help people improve their documentation

My Questions
        would offering paid documentation via competitions or sponsored
        documentation marathons decrease volunteer contributions?


So, this last issue is what Julians links refer to. The effects of
paying volunteers might decrease volunteer efforts (see Julians posted
link -

As I see it (from experience and research), people are not moivated by $
for these kinds of projects and payments _might_ decrease voluntary
contributions. Its by no means established that payments do decrease
voluntary work but evidence suggests it is a risk. 

On the other side of the fence I have been around long enough in the
voluntary sector to know that unless people get paid they just can't
keep doing what they want to do. I have seen too much hard earned
experience leave the building for a day job. Without some $ to keep them
going the really experienced contributers leave at some point and that
means voluntary projects have to keep re-inventing their own wheel every
x years when they should be building upon the experience they already

I would really hope we could build FM to support both voluntary and paid
contributions and find a way for these to exist in parallel.

My question then is - is paying people a risk worth taking? If so, how
could we minimise the risk?



adam hyde
floss manuals

free manuals for free software

mobile : + 31 6 154 22770 (Netherlands mobile)
email : adam at flossmanuals.net

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