Understanding the expenses of the foundation

As a quick disclaimer, let me introduce the perspective I’m coming from: As one of the contributors working on GNOME, the product, I feel strongly the foundation exists to support us contributors in this work. Contributors are not here because of the foundation, but rather the other way around. The foundation is providing important services to the community, but none of those services are strictly necessary for GNOME as a project to exist.

Coming from that perspective, the foundation employees are, to a certain degree, working for the community. As members of the foundation (and in my case now also as a candidate for the board), we’re electing a board of directors that is formally overseeing the foundation and is equipped with the power and tools necessary to make sure the foundation does its job. To vote for that board, we must have a solid expectation on which services the foundation is (or should be) providing, and what exactly the board is supposed to oversee.

Looking at the latest financial report of the foundation from 2023, there have been 675k dollars of expenses. They are split up into 6 categories: “Conferences”, “Support and Infrastructure”, “Outreach”, “GIMP”, “Administrative”, and “Fundraising”. The highest expense has been for “Conferences”, and it’s 283,373.54 dollars. 280k dollars is a lot of money, it could fund five full time developers for a year. I don’t have a problem with spending that amount of money on something other than development, but I would like to know what it’s being spent on, and I’m not finding any information on that. I would assume that a large part of that money pays for travels, but even then I’m having a hard time imagining where it all goes. How many conferences are being funded? Are salaries for staff included in those 280k? What I do know is that smaller local GNOME events have been denied funding for as little as 1000 euros, that is nothing considering the budget we’re talking about here.

If I were to join the board now, I’d probably learn what all this money is being spent on, but I’d also have to sign an NDA and couldn’t tell anyone. If you ask me, that is unacceptable, and it has to change.

And don’t forget that we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on administrative structures during a time where the core infrastructure of our platform is in a desperate state: We’re dealing with technical debt that has accumulated over 25 years (eg. x11), decreased corporate investment, and burnt out maintainers in our most important projects.

Anyway, I don’t want to end without showing at least a better example. A good example for a yearly report for a nonprofit like ours would be the one from KDE e.V. or the one from Mastodon.


I don’t remember this being the case when I was on the board. Where did you hear about it, @jonasd ?

About conferences - they were always a net positive for the foundation in terms of spending, so it was a case of spending money to make money. (Though I guess you could ask whether we could raise the same amount while spending less.)

I was actually also a bit surprised that there’s an NDA, @sammyfung mentioned it in on of his responses: 2024 Board Candidate: Pablo Correa Gomez - #4 by sammyfung

If there was no NDA back when you served on the board, maybe that’s a good reason to reconsider whether it’s actually necessary to have one?

About the other point, I’m not sure whether that’s still the case. At least according to the annual report, the income from conferences is way lower than the expenses.

I don’t want to speak for @sammyfung but as Board Secretary I presume it was referring to the confidentiality agreements that board members sign, as it relates to the need to sometimes have confidential discussions, outlined toward the bottom of:


The confidentiality agreement - aka “NDA” - that @mdowney mentions was put in place when I was on the board, but it isn’t a “you can’t talk about board business” contract. My recollection (not 100% accurate!) is that it’s more of a legal formality for information protection, due to the board sometimes handling personal information like contract details. Maybe someone could dig up a copy…

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Here’s the text of the agreement as of last year:

Confidentiality Policy

Respecting the privacy of our clients, donors, members, staff, volunteers and of the GNOME Foundation itself is a basic value of the GNOME Foundation. Personal and financial information is confidential and should not be disclosed or discussed with anyone without permission or authorization from the Executive Director, or the Board of Directors. Care shall also be taken to ensure that unauthorized individuals do not overhear any discussion of confidential information and that documents containing confidential information are not left in the open or inadvertently shared.

Employees, volunteers and board members of GNOME Foundation may be exposed to information which is confidential and/or privileged and proprietary in nature. It is the policy of GNOME Foundation that such information must be kept confidential both during and after employment or volunteer service. Staff and volunteers, including board members, are expected to return materials containing privileged or confidential information at the time of separation from employment or expiration of service.

Unauthorized disclosure of confidential or privileged information is a serious violation of this policy and will subject the person(s) who made the unauthorized disclosure to appropriate discipline, including removal/dismissal.


I have read the GNOME Foundation’s policy on confidentiality presented above. I agree to abide by the requirements of the policy and inform my supervisor immediately if I believe any violation (unintentional or otherwise) of the policy has occurred. I understand that violation of this policy will lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of my service with the GNOME Foundation.


I find this a deeply troubling perspective to hear from a potential future director of the Foundation. If you genuinely don’t believe in its necessity/existence, why take a stake of responsibility for running it, and sign your name as legally liable for its actions and ensuring its success? I don’t agree, for the record - I think the most powerful and successful GNOME is a win/win partnership between a strong foundation as an intrinsic part of our community, and an outside advocate for GNOME, as well as the host of the literal foundation of the digital (infrastructure) and social (events, communications, community, …) platform upon which GNOME is built.

How would we have infrastructure, legal entities to handle payments and execute contracts without exposing people to individual liabilities, issue invoices to secure corporate sponsorships, conferences with entities to sign $x,000s venue contracts for events that allow contributors to build and strengthen interpersonal relationships and welcome newcomers, register, hold and defend trademarks (and defence against them), legal counsel to defend us against patent trolls, protecting individuals from liability of distributing our collectively developed software, … the list is long.

It’s not a coincidence that any sufficiently large and mature OSS project either creates or finds a nonprofit organisation with which to do all of these things. There is are healthy communities of shared practice for discussing/comparing/sharing approaches and cataloguing/researching how these foundations are run. It’s a very real and necessary thing, particularly if you want to engage corporations as community members and donors, and give them a process that allows them to reconcile their contributions, liabilities, etc against their internal policies and requirements.

However - getting back to your question - reducing or removing conferences doesn’t immediately free up that money to do other things because with less visible events, we have less specific incentives to offer to sponsors. A bunch of the expenses involved in conferences are raised by finding sponsors for those conferences; so a lot of this is money which comes in - and goes out - for the purpose of arranging those conferences. The largest costs are travel, followed by venues, and then you get a long tail of bits and pieces like merchandise, events, etc. Recently the travel has been scaled back significantly because of general reduction in what we’ve been able to secure in sponsorships. Post COVID we’ve seen corporate sponsorship budgets significantly reduced (along with layoffs in the equivalent departments) for things like OSS community, devrel, marketing, etc which means the conferences aren’t the break-even or revenue generating activities they were before. Holly identified that the conferences needed to be rationalised and consolidated significantly, to run more distributed events with local nodes, which works well with environmental goals and the Pathways initiative to empower local communities.

There is indeed a basic NDA for board members but it’s for the purposes of protecting the financial and legal interests of the foundation in sensitive matters - eg legal, employment, etc. However the board can; and does; decide what to publish as part of / along with its minutes, so there is nothing stopping the Foundation from deciding to increase the fidelity or frequency of financial reporting shared in the annual report, or setting up additional town hall meetings and quarterly updates, or whatever. Since joining Holly has been focusing on improving the financial processes and reporting internally, which gives the ED and the board more detailed and frequent visibility into finances with a new quarterly report. My first instinct seeing them was that we could probably share basically the exact same report publicly. We just didn’t have a chance to discuss it yet. These all sound like great things to do! Let’s do it. :slight_smile:


Thanks for your detailed response Rob!

I’m not sure why you’re finding this view troubling, GNOME is a project that was started by volunteers and is kept running by volunteers. Many of our contributors are never interacting with the foundation, most meetups and conferences are organized by community members, and (of course) the development of GNOME would continue even without the foundation.

Note that all the things I’m saying above are positive: If the development of GNOME were to stop without the foundation existing, that’d be a sign that our community is dead and the project can only exist within some legal superstucture. GNOME is not a company, we’re not doing all this work because of some extrinsic motivation like getting paid, but rather because we think it’s the right thing to do.

So yeah, I do tend to disagree with the perspective that the foundation and the community should be in an “equal partnership”. The foundation exists to serve the project and the community. Of course it should be able to sustain itself financially and ideally even make a profit that can be given back to the community, but not outside of the context of this community.

At the risk of repeating myself but to make it 100% clear: I do completely agree with you that the foundation should exist (and that is why I’m running in the election), but the relationship needs to be clear: The foundation exists because of the community, it’s supposed to serve, to defend, and to advocate for the community, and it should be the community that decides what the foundation should and should not do.

Getting back to the point about the expenses: I’m happy that you’re breaking the spendings down a bit and that you also see the necessity to share more information publicly.

To go a bit further on this, I personally think it makes a ton of sense to go with an attitude of “public by default” (and private on a case-by-case basis) for structures like the foundation. This is how the community is communicating, developing and designing GNOME. It’s working really well, and it substantially lowers the barrier to contributing.


About the main point of this thread: I agree that there needs to be more transparency around the foundation’s expenses, and there are some obvious things that can be done, but there are also some more challenging aspects to this.

One thing that needs to be done is that the budget lines need to be documented somewhere. As far as I’m aware this isn’t secret information - it just never got written up. Presumably that shouldn’t be too hard to do.

The other easy win would, like Rob said, be to publish the financial reports that the board receives from the ED.

My concern - and this is the challenge - is that publishing numbers without commentary can easily lead to misunderstandings - because the numbers alone only tell part of the story. For example, there are often constraints on how certain pots of money can be spent. Some lines of expenditure are linked to income elsewhere. Some items overlap financial years, so income/outgoings from one year appear in another. And so on.

So we need to think about how to provide that commentary alongside the numbers, and how it can be produced in a way that is practical and sustainable.


FWIW, I think if the expectation is that folks will be able to and encouraged to contribute to the Foundation and its initiatives more directly, then detailing out the things you mentioned there would also go a long way toward facilitating that.

At least personally, I’d feel more confident in financially contributing if there were transparency about where in the org that money was placed, and what types of expenses generally draw from that pool - not because I’d necessarily want to make earmarked contributions, but because that would reflect that there’s a level of structure to handling the money that inspires confidence. I’m also thinking this is maybe more relevant for more corporate donations, as random individuals like me would also be more likely to just contribute to a project they like and have confidence by default.