Supporting free software with grant money

April 2nd, 2009 in open source, Would you do it again for free?

I recently started investigating how GNOME could fund projects with grant money. Will Ross sent me an email with a lot of good information and I’d like to share his experience with others in the open source software community.

DSCF0535aWill Ross is a project manager with Mendocino Informatics, a small healthcare technology consulting firm in Mendocino County, California. Prior to Mendocino Informatics, Will was CTO for a consortium of nonprofit community clinics, and before that worked on the network infrastructure teams for two Bay Area dot-coms that *didn’t* fail (Organic Online & LoudCloud). Will spent the 90s as CIO for a mail order company and writing SQL queries for a multinational manufacturing company.

Hi, Will. You have successfully developed a business that provides open source software to healthcare organizations funded by grants. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I work in community-based nonprofit health care. Using grant funds to develop open source software is my standard procedure. Specifically, I write grant proposals to foundations who fund health care software deployment projects. When I get the grant, instead of buying some COTS package I use the funds to add features to an open source project, or to write a technical implementation guide and release it under an open source license (see the ELINCS guide on my home page). In most cases the foundations are uninformed about open source intellectual property issues. It is typically not a requirement of the grant that I invest the project funds in open source, it’s just something that I do because of my personal convictions about the need to restore balance to the
intellectual property commons.

Have you been successful?

I have been self-employed at this since 2004. Since then I’ve used grant funds to purchase about $500 k in software engineering development for three open source health care projects — OpenHRE, ClearHealth and Mirth. Right now I’m working exclusively on the Mirth project, and have recently lined up an additional $100k in funding to develop further features on the product roadmap.

How do you go about writing grant proposals?

Basically, as an IT project manager I work entirely at the application layer within the health care sector. I start with the general list of tasks that need to be done in the field. I investigate software functionality from a user-centered workflow perspective. That is, I don’t impose software on users, I look at their current workflow with an eye towards optimizing the business rules and disrupting COTS solutions with FOSS solutions. This process identifies gaps where FOSS tools are not yet enterprise class, and where my grantwriting can raise the quality of FOSS tools to the expectations of enterprise CIOs. Then, knowing what I need to build, I pay attention to any grant funding that becomes available. Right now I’m working on proposals that will apply for funding from the HITECH act recently passed by Congress.   Grant opportunities ebb and flow. When one opens up that is a good match for the opportunities I have identified, then it’s typically a three or four week deadline to gather all the details, pull stakeholders together and write a credible proposal.

How often are you successful getting a grant?

Writing a proposal is a huge time sink with no pay; that is, it’s entirely a business development write off. I try to focus only on grant opportunities where I have a good chance of success. When I find an opportunity, I write a proposal. Overall, my track record as a grant writer is probably about 30%. That is, I write about 10 proposals a year and get 3 or 4.

What advice do you offer to open source organizations looking for funding?

I want you to know that you have friends in the field — software users who are annoyed by and dislike their current cumbersome COTS tools. Study the user experience at the level of the business rules their software makes them follow, and look for opportunities to optimize their work flow by migrating them to new, more agile FOSS tools. In shops that already understand FOSS applications, you may be able to write grants to “purchase” open source software development, as
I do.

What do you use the grant money for? Do you pay yourself?

The exact sequence of steps is that I write proposals for free, sometimes investing more than 100 hours into a proposal. If a proposal is funded, then as the project architect who developed the specific technology roadmap, I get the project management contract. In terms of the whole lifecycle of the process, I get paid for about 60% of my time, and the rest is invested in studying the sector, attending conferences, serving on public committees and becoming conversant with
the user perspective in the market vertical.

I’m not a coder. I’m a project manager who writes grant proposals so I can have interesting work and live in a rural area. When I get a grant, I pay professional coders to write the apps. Currently I am working on a huge suite of Java apps (for Mirth, which is published under the MPL) that will disrupt the business lines of several major COTS network app vendors in health care. The short version I tell people is that I write grant proposals to develop free software that can be given away to nonprofit health care facilities. The reality is a little more complicated, but its generally too much information so I try to keep the story short.

Do the grant organizations give you preference because you are developing free software?

The funders generally do not pay attention to whether their grantees are buying COTS or building FOSS.  When I propose a project to a funder, about half the time it is not relevant to mention that the funds will be spent on a FOSS solution;  it would be too much information to the funder. Also, I got burned once when I didn’t read the fine print in a grant contract and later I discovered that I was prohibited from releasing that work as FOSS, but otherwise it has not been an issue. I guess the more important point is that at a basic level the foundations are generally so tactically focused on their mission that they don’t “get” the underlying strategic social value of a rich intellectual property commons, so in most cases they treat a FOSS pitch as incoherent babble that is off topic from their particular social agenda. So, a lot of the time I leave out the FOSS part and present the funder with a project that does the specific things they are mission driven to accomplish.

What advice do you offer to developers looking to fund work on open source software projects?

Find operating nonprofits in the service sector with FOSS savvy CIOs who need enterprise class tools but are stuck with legacy COTS apps, and then look to the funders who support those nonprofits. That’s my story. I get it because I was a CIO in the 1990s, and FOSS tools that were enterprise class were easy to integrate into my shop.

Thanks, Will, for sharing your expertise with us!

I’d like to encourage the GNOME community to submit ideas for GNOME projects,

2 Responses to “Supporting free software with grant money”

  1. Janice says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I am researching this topic for business planning and this is very helpful and informative.

  2. Janine says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I am researching this topic for business planning and this is very helpful and informative.