In past blog posts I’ve mentioned Mozilla Foundation grants that we’ve made for various purposes; in this post I go into more detail about what kind of grants we’re making, why we’re making them, and how you can be a part of it all.

Foundation != Corporation

First, though, let me make a critical distinction: some time ago Mitchell Baker blogged about the possibility of the Mozilla Corporation making grants and donations and more recently added more details about Mozilla Corporation plans for grants and donations. What I’m discussing here is separate from that, and involves grants by the Mozilla Foundation, not the Mozilla Corporation.

(Recall that the Mozilla Foundation is the nonprofit tax-exempt parent of the Mozilla Corporation or, to put it the other way around, the Mozilla Corporation is the taxable subsidiary of the Foundation. See the FAQ on the Mozilla Foundation reorganization if you have trouble keeping all of this straight.)

Over time the Mozilla Foundation intends to complement and not compete with what the Mozilla Corporation does in terms of grants. However so far it’s been a moot point, because the Corporation hasn’t yet launched its own grants program.

How we got into grantmaking

The story of how the Mozilla Foundation started doing grants goes something like this: As part of the reorganization the Corporation ended up with pretty much all the people, machines, and associated costs; as a result the Mozilla Foundation itself is now a pretty lean organization, and we have excess funds over and above what it takes to run the Foundation on an ongoing basis.

Right after I started with the Mozilla Foundation Aaron Leventhal asked me if I’d consider having a Mozilla booth at the upcoming CSUN conference on accessibility. I thought, “Sounds like a good idea, why not?,” and I went ahead and registered us for the conference. Aaron then kept coming back to me with more proposals: “How about sponsoring some students to attend CSUN?,” “How about funding some work to improve Mozilla accessibility for OS X?,” and so on. I kept agreeing that these sounded like good ideas, until finally we got to the point where we seemed to have a reasonably coherent vision for Foundation support of accessibility-related work and people were beginning to take notice.

Along the way the Mozilla Foundation also did a number of other grants as well, for example to the Mozdev Community Organization, for the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank project, and (a little further afield) to the OpenBSD and OpenSSH projects. However I single out the accessibility-related grants because I think they offer a good model for how the Foundation might go about making grants in the future.

Looking for more Aarons

In particular, it would be nice if we could find other people like Aaron Leventhal: people who know a specific area of the Mozilla project well (if possible, as a module owner, peer, or equivalent), could identify opportunities to make targeted grants in that area, and could provide some informal oversight to help judge the effectiveness of the grants. Anyone is welcome to offer advice on how we should do grants, but we’re most interested in working with people who can “make things happen” in a particular area, whether that be getting changes into the tree, identifying promising new contributors, or suggesting early-stage work worth supporting.

Note that for the most part we are not interested in making very small grants or very large ones. People have made some interesting suggestions about doing “bug bounty” programs, “code competitions,” etc., involving relatively small grants or prizes. However these take time to start up and administer, and I’m concerned that the administrative overhead would be too large relative to the potential impact.

At the other end of the spectrum I think that large grants are out of scope for the Mozilla Foundation: If a task is large enough that it would take the equivalent of a full-time person, then IMO it should be up to the Mozilla Corporation or some corporate contributor to decide whether it’s important enough to actually hire someone to work full-time on the task. To give you an idea of scale, our accessibility-related grants have been in the range of $5–15K, and in total (i.e., summed across all grants) have been comparable to the cost of one full-time person. I expect we’d take a similar approach for grants in other areas. (In venture capital terms you can think of us as providing “seed funding,” but staying out of later rounds.)

As for the sort of things we’d fund, in the accessibility area we’ve done two general types of funding: sponsoring contributors to attend conferences and other meetings relevant to their work, and contracting with individuals or organizations to perform particular tasks that (for whatever reason) weren’t being done and weren’t likely to be done. I’m open to expanding this list, but only if it’s warranted based on the advice of whoever ends up suggesting and overseeing grants in a particular area.

There are some other things I could say about grants, but this post is long enough as it is. The important point is what I noted above: We’re looking for more people like Aaron to whom we can successfully delegate responsibility for suggesting and overseeing grants in their area(s) of expertise. If you’re one of those people I’m interested in hearing from you. If we can’t find such people for certain areas of the Mozilla project then we’ll simply refrain from doing grants in those areas.