Using Ads to Sustain Open Source

Why someone who loves Privacy Badger, uses a non-tracking browser, and never cared for ads, is advocating their ethical use for open…

Using Ads to Sustain Open Source

Why someone who loves Privacy Badger, uses a non-tracking browser, and never cared for ads, is advocating their ethical use for open source.

Good will only take you so far.

I strongly believe we need to move away from the charity framework for sustaining open source. OSS projects are the building blocks of the vast majority of products, services, and digital infrastructure we use today, and they are largely made by unpaid communities.

We need to shift gears and think about how OSS can leverage the tangible benefits it provides companies. Speaking to super niche audiences, like developers, in their own environment might be one of them.

Like anything else, open source software needs income to be sustainable.

First things first: I acknowledge that OSS will not be sustained exclusively by throwing money at the problem. Github’s OS survey points to a lack of documentation, moderation and diversity as the roots of many of open source’s maladies. Mikeal Rogers reasonably names this “community imbalance”. However, many of the important challenges raised can be at least partially alleviated with some funding.

From Github’s Open Source Survey

For those who would like to increase the time they spend on open source, while still making a decent living, access to funding is a common problem. Funding can help with community-building activities such us sending contributors to conferences, organizing meetups, or contracting a technical writer. But it can be a tricky space — some projects can get sponsored by companies, while others can’t. For the latter, alternative revenue streams need to be found.

People want to contribute financially, but often don’t have the means.

I believe that people and communities genuinely want to back the projects they use. Some decision-makers at companies might not always get it, but developers appreciate how much difference good software makes, and they want to support it.

Placing ads on a website and sending the revenue directly to an open source project could be a way to generate extra revenue, as long as the advertising is done responsibly:

  • Don’t track users: don’t build profiles, don’t track users across the web, don’t retarget. Just don’t.
  • Make unobtrusive messages: don’t disrupt the natural flow of the website and waste users’ time.
  • Be mindful of the community, respecting their space and interests. Show images and messages that are relevant, and do not serve ads that go against the community’s values. This approach will provide more value to sponsors.

Sites could use ad revenue to support their own project, or direct it to another open source project, the way BootstrapCDN is doing. This creates a way for popular websites that don’t need the funding to contribute to open source.

Every little bit helps, but some ad networks can’t work with sites that generate only small payouts. To get around this, The Open Source Collective will bundle payouts from ads and then distribute the revenue to the specified open source projects. Even websites and blogs that would only generate $5 per month can contribute!

Examples of how we could do this


Carbon Ads
Carbon places ads on design and developer websites. These ads are secure and unobtrusive (one ad per page only), and the team is super responsive. These ads are relevant where they show up, and not based on your user data. You can blacklist ads you don’t want shown.

Websites already using Carbon include Lodash, bootstrap, BootstrapCDN (to support the open source collective ❤) and codinghorror. Carbon has some 3rd party tracking for reporting purposes only (not retargeting). Their approach has gotten them whitelisted by Adblock Plus and they are part of Acceptable Ads.

If this could work for you, we can help. Email us:

Carbon Ad in docs page

Referral fees: Triplebyte
Read the Docs has been placing ads to support projects for a while (they placed one for SustainOSS and it worked really well!) Now they are testing a job search ad from Triplebyte. It’s a quiz for engineers, and if someone gets a job through the ad Triplebyte pays the website a $1500 referral fee, which the site can either keep or donate it to an open source project. Triplebyte is a sponsor of the Open Source Collective ❤.

We can help you get set up, or email Mike @ Triplebyte directly:

Codesponsor connects maintainers with sponsors. Sponsors pay projects to put an unobtrusive message in the project’s README, aimed at developers. Many popular projects could have a healthy revenue stream from this. Sponsor messages adhere to ethical advertising standards. They need to offer products or services relevant to the developer community, and not collect or share any metrics.

If you are interested in this approach, email Codesponsor or join their slack.


DIY: Hoodie
Some communities are not comfortable with ads served by a third party. Hoodie is one of them. But they still wanted to give companies who support them an ad on their website, so they started a sponsored banner program. Companies made a contribution in exchange for a weekly banner, designed as a message instead of an ad. However, the overhead off coordinating these arrangements got too big, so they stopped. Now, we’re working with Hoodie to build a tool to manage DIY ads more efficiently.

Like the sound of DIY ads? Ideas are welcome here or ping Gregor on twitter!

I hope these ideas and examples encourage you to try ethical ads or sponsored messages to support your open source community!

Advertising is a hairy issue and by no means the entire solution for sustaining open source, but it can give projects additional support.

Open Collective is setting up these different advertising options as a way for popular blogs and websites to generate extra cash to donate to open source, and as a potential alternative revenue stream for projects that can’t find corporate sponsors. As long as we choose ethical approaches, ads and sponsored messaged should be explored by the open source ecosystem.

If you are interested, send us a note We’d love to hear your feedback on this and chat about opportunities!