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autarch (914)

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Journal of autarch (914)

Thursday February 21, 2008
08:25 PM

TPF, money, and grants

[ #35720 ]

Something I've talked about recently with a few folks is that TPF has "too much" money. Specifically, TPF has reported an increasing balance at the end of its last couple fiscal year. Nonprofits are not supposed to consistently make a profit (no kidding), and this has a bad smell. I don't think there's anything fishy going on, mind you, it just doesn't look right.

Part of the problem comes from a large $35k grant paid to TPF by NLNet for Parrot. TPF got the money from NLNet back in 2005 (IIRC) and it took a while before that money started flowing out of TPF.

In discussions with a couple folks in TPF, they've said that they'd really like to spend the money, but they don't have avenues to do so. As most folks know, conferences and workshops are generally profitable for the organization (Frozen Perl netted around $1k) so that's not a way to spend money.

Then there's the grants program. I'm on the grants committee list and I've seen all the grants that've come through for the past couple years. The problem with the grants system is that there's not nearly enough grant applications coming in. Then of the applications that do come in many are simply unrealistic. Either they are too vague, too niche, or too hard, and so don't get approved.

I've been thinking about this recently and I think that this failure mode is basically built-in to the current grants system. First, TPF has a sort of unwritten rule that it won't fund travel, because there are so many Perl folks who'd like to go to so many Perl events that it would be hard to handle. I think there's definitely some truth to this, though I could see a use in funding travel specifically for project hacking (which TPF has done from time to time).

Another unwritten rule is that individual grants will not be more than $10k. This also makes sense, as $10k is a lot of money to give to one proposal. So what's the problem?

I for am unlikely to ever apply for a grant under the current scheme (ignoring the fact that I'm ineligible because I'm a grant manager), even though I could probably come up with something TPF would be willing to fund.

The problem is that I just can't see how a grant could be an incentive for me. I already put a fair bit of my time into FS/OSS projects just because I want to do so. I'd love to put in much more time, but I have things like a mortgage and family to consider. Realistically, the only way I'm going to put more time into my projects is to take a sabbatical from work, or at least work part-time for a while.

But if you look at the work/money ratio for past grants there's no way that could happen. Even if I aimed for something like %60-80 of my current FT income, a grant could not come close. It'd be more like 20-30%. So the grant provides no incentive for me. I suppose I could still apply for one anyway, but I don't feel right about that because it would just be funding work I would do anyway!

I'm sure many other developers have the same issue. So what is the point of the grants program, if not to make work happen that wouldn't otherwise happen? The acknowledgement of one's work is nice, but I already get that in many other ways, and if I'm looking for acknowledgement in the form of cash, I'd expect a heck of a lot more than a couple thousand dollars (Amazon and others, contact me privately for an address to which you can mail a big fat check).

Personally, I'd be perfectly happy to see TPF fund three months of full time work on any Parrot, Perl 5, or some other project likely to be of great benefit. Of course, the number of people eligible for this sort of grant are few in number, but it might achieve more in the long run.

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  • Hey, I've got stuff I could probably work on.

    I could hack on Vanilla/Strawberry, or PITA, or various other things, for a month or two I'm sure.

    But as you said, the grants don't provide enough to replace $work (even close), but further I've already gotten two grants from TPF, and I worry about issues of favoritism/cronyism or "hogging" the money.

    But I don't see how this even remotely leaves TPF in a situation of having "too much money".

    I would be overjoyed if TPF had Mozilla's 50m river of hold and could hir
    • But I don't see how this even remotely leaves TPF in a situation of having "too much money".

      By "too much money" I simply mean that TPF has been increasing it's net bank balance over the last few fiscal years (according to its filings with the IRS [perlfoundation.org]).

      I don't mean they have too much, as in more it should, or more than it deserves, simply that it is taking in more money than it spends, but as a nonprofit it should aim towards breaking even, which for a while will mean spending down some of its outstanding balance.

      I would be overjoyed if TPF had Mozilla's 50m river of hold and could hire 50 or 100 full time P5P/CPAN/Parrot/P6 people.

      Me too! OTOH, it did have nearly $100k in the bank as of its FY2006 filing.

  • I agree with you on the difficulty of finding grants that we're willing to fund. We see too few grants. Once you filter out ones that are poorly defined, were we're not inclined to believe the grantee can do, which duplicate existing work, are not travel or are poor value, well, you pretty much wind up with the list of what we fund. And it isn't very many.

    However if TPF looks to be getting too much money and this will be an ongoing problem, it is always easy to find ways to spend money. For instance we
    • The grants committee has done a good job of picking grant recipients with the submissions it receives. As you imply, there's a lot of not-so-good submissions which don't get funded.

      I think that there could be more submissions if the nature of the grants were different. Specifically, I'd like to see grants aimed at funding a sabbatical from work for the recipients. Right now, the grants are more like little bonuses for doing a lot of work, as opposed to enough pay to live on while doing a lot of work.

      Of cour
      • I'd happily apply for something like that...

        I'm currently trying to arrange a sabbatical to do the entire June to August conference season, with city visits/talks in between, and hacking on various useful and interesting stuff as I go.

        It means a pricey around the world ticket, no income for 3 months, and relying on being "hosted" in the various cities in order to try and keep expenses down.

        If any of those fall through and I start incurring hotel bills, or extra flights, or what have you, it gets ugly fast.

        A
        • But of course, then we get down to favouritism again... since it would be my third grant...
      • I was suggesting the awards as a way of reducing he bank balance and not of doing great things for the mission. (Though I do think it would likely help the mission.)
  • Hmm, how timely.

    For several months now, I've been tempted to kite a grant proposal for Thread::Sociable [presicient.com], which (sadly) languishes while I focus on revenue generators. I've written up the proposal and everything.

    So why haven't I submitted it ?

    My sense is (please correct me if I'm wrong):

    1. If it isn't Perl6, its not likely to get much consideration.
    2. If its threads related, its even less likely to get attention.
    3. The advertised amounts ($500 to $3K) don't come close to covering the time/effort required t
    • Actually the Perl 6 comment is exactly backwards. Most of the grant managers have far more Perl 5 experience than Perl 6, and it would be easier for us to evaluate Perl 5 proposals. But we get more good Perl 6 proposals than Perl 5 proposals. Indeed two have just voluntarily stepped down because they felt uncomfortable deciding so many Perl 6 grants when they didn't know that much about what was happening Perl 6.

      Threads related depends on the pitch that is made. We're aware that there are people trying
  • As discussed, the grants aren't much of a carrot, but they're an excellent stick. Let's see what happens inside a developer's head both with and without grants.

    I don't feel particularly guilty when one of my own, unfunded volunteer projects doesn't receive the attention it deserves. Everyone knows that volunteers never have enough time for everyone, and I can hardly be blamed for taking a break now and again, especially if that's to earn a crust.

    Funding, on the other hand, means the whole world know

    • Funding, on the other hand, means the whole world knows that I'm getting paid for my project. I'm expected to blog about it. I'm expected to give talks at conferences. I'm accountable, and I don't have a choice but to work on the project, because now my reputation now hangs in the balance. Screwing up with grant money means I face the possibility of public humiliation and ridicule. That means that grants are an excellent motivator.

      I think this is true, but it doesn't address the problem I see of not getting enough good grant proposals! I for one am not going to be motivated to write a grant proposal because it's a good stick. Maybe we need more skilled hackers who are also masochists in the Perl community ;)

      Maybe TPF should do some outreach to the BDSM community.

        • This may take the form of introducing a new class of grants (the TPF motivation grants), which have the same expectations as a standard grant (you have to deliver the goods), but are instead offered by the TPF to particular individuals or groups, rather than requring a grant proposal to be submitted.

          I believe the grants committee is already doing exactly this, and I think that's a good thing.

          But the recipient may not want to accept the grant because it just adds responsibility without making the work easier to do. This is the exact same problem that would prevent them from submitting a grant in the first place.

          I'll come back to the example of myself. I would be a good candidate for getting a grant (useful modules, well known in community, good track record, showers daily). I don't want one. It's not e

          • But the recipient may not want to accept the grant because it just adds responsibility without making the work easier to do. This is the exact same problem that would prevent them from submitting a grant in the first place.

            I'll come back to the example of myself. I would be a good candidate for getting a grant (useful modules, well known in community, good track record, showers daily). I don't want one. It's not enough money for the hassle, and it would just cause me more stress to take the grant. That would suck the fun out of doing the work.

            <aol>Me too!</aol>

            This is exactly what I found when doing Improving Perl 5 [perlfoundation.org]

            Also, things I found which may be personal to me:

            • I don't like working at home
            • I don't like working on something alone (which, as the only "full" time person is effectively what it was - I had questions no-one else had time to dig into to answer). If one is in a full time job with colleagues, one is likely to have people one can ask.

            So, whilst I guess I am about to be looking for a job, which would seem to m

            • I should say that if I could get a grant sufficient to substitute for real work for a time, I'd probably like that. I do like working from home, and I don't mind working alone for a while, though it's not always ideal.

              My big reason for not wanting a grant as they stand is that it would provide pressure to do work without providing any extra time for that work.
  • Another thought:

    Has there ever been consideration of posting bounties on specific Perl TODO list items ?

    I suppose there are logistic issues to handle when 2 contributors show up with different solutions to the same problem. But at least it moves much of the bureaucratic burden from the developer to the TPF.

    Frankly, as currently worded, the TPF grant application guidelines tend to discourage, rather than encourage, applicants.

    What I see when I consider the guidelines:

    Spend a lot of time on your pro

    • bounties++ # they take the guesswork and challenge out for grantees
    • Has there ever been consideration of posting bounties on specific Perl TODO list items ?

      Yes. Vienna.pm is intending to offer bounties on TODOs, as part of how it distributes the surplus from YAPC::EU 2007. domm posted the announcement here [perl.org], mailed it to perl5-porters [mpe.mpg.de] and has probably publicised it elsewhere. To date, zero comments, and the only TODOs submitted so far are two from me for the Perl 5 core.

      Why is there no interest?

      • I think bounties are worse than grants in terms of motivating people.

        You don't get the money til after you do the work, and you don't even get to participate in determining how much money you get for that work.

        I think when the bounties are really large (think X-Prize) they can be motivating, but I doubt they work well at the small scale.

        It seems like it all comes down to money.
        • I think bounties are worse than grants in terms of motivating people.

          In the general case, I'd agree with you completely for the reasons you give - I certainly don't see small bounties as a viable way to sustain regular interest and make steady progress.

          My hope with them, is that for tasks that can be done in an evening or so, they'd be a teaser to draw in new people, at least to do that task, people who might not otherwise have considered contributing. What is depressing me is the level of interest from p

  • As we've discussed before, there also needs to be a comfortable year to year balance. As with any checking account, there is a cyclical up and down and you need to be able to accommodate this without going negative. In our case, for example, we need some cushion for funding down payments for YAPC. We also need to be conscious of the money we need to support some legal costs to manage Perl trademarks, etc.

    So what is that number? I don't know and I'd appreciate any guidance on how to arrive at it. Once we hav
    • But keeping right around that balance should be the goal, no? I don't think you're suggesting we spend down to zero each year. But you don't like the 100k number. So I guess we should have something in between.

      It's not the specific number that concerns me, it's seeing a year-to-year increase in the bank balance without a clear sense of why that's happening. That's all. Maybe 100k is the right amount of cushion, in which case that's great, TPF has reached that goal, and should make sure that in the future it spends enough to keep the balance right around there.

      Personally, I suspect that's a bit high, and that a balance of maybe $30-50k is probably best. That should be more than enough to cover down payments on a

        • I wouldn't worry too much about the amount of money in the bank.

          I wouldn't care much if TPF didn't do things like solicit people to "rush the stage" at YAPC to donate money, and things like that. Basically, why is an organization that is accumulating profits year to year begging for money in that manner?

          Mostly, it's a question of transparency, like I've already said. If I knew there was a long-term plan that required $200k in the bank, then that'd be fine. As it is, there is this weird pressure to donate at YAPC and similar events, without any reason why TPF needs mone

  • Personally, I'd be perfectly happy to see TPF fund three months of full time work on any Parrot, Perl 5, or some other project likely to be of great benefit. Of course, the number of people eligible for this sort of grant are few in number, but it might achieve more in the long run.

    good idea. TPF should advertise /encourage people to send proposal if this becomes a common practice. since you are the grant manager, can't you do something about it?

    • since you are the grant manager, can't you do something about it?

      I am not the grant manager, I am a grant manager for the NLNet-funded Parrot work. That mostly means I pay attention to Parrot's progress and authorize the release of funds as milestones [perlfoundation.org] are met.

      Note that this money has already been earmarked for Parrot. I do not have any say on additional TPF spending on Parrot or any other project. That is up to the TPF steering committee and grants committee. The grants committee reviews grants submitted according to the ongoing grants program [perlfoundation.org]. The steering committee ru

  • If this is something you're interested in doing, you should submit a proposal. Personally, I'd love to see some proposals that weren't stricly tech work. For example, how about a grant to improve the look and content of the perl.org site?

    But as I said in my original journal entry, the biggest problem is a lack of submissions, not a lack of interest on TPF's part in funding such things.