June 3, 2005

LinuxFund account grows but developers get no funds

Author: Jay Lyman

Whatever happened to LinuxFund, the fund that was supposed to support Linux through credit card use? LinuxFund was begun as "a fun project by a bunch of kids," according to LinuxFund founder Benjamin Cox, who has not been involved with the project for nearly three years. Today the project has been largely abandoned, but payments into the fund keep on coming.

The Web site for the card disappeared off the Internet sometime earlier this year, apparently in the last two to three months. Despite the vanishing site, which reappeared Wednesday following NewsForge correspondence with project leaders, the LinuxFund structure and payments -- a percentage of cardholder purchases -- continued.

Where has the money gone? It has been adding up in the LinuxFund bank account, with minimal overhead costs and no payments to developers coming out. The project's executive director, Jerritt Collord, reported the organization's funds -- checking and savings accounts totaling $126,155.29 -- have been sitting idle since he stopped running the largely one-man organization last June. In an email response to NewsForge, Collord added, "Of course F/OSS will get the money." To get those funds to Linux coders and supporters, however, some other individual or group will have to take up the cause, since the current participants have given up.

"Nothing has come out of these accounts for months, save about $250/mo auto deducted for telecommunications expenses," Collord wrote. "I went off payroll in June of 2004 when I stopped working full time on this project and haven't incurred any expenses since. I was paid a salary of I believe like $28k per year. I haven't read my LinuxFund email since about January I believe."

Collord, who said someone tried to "jack" the LinuxFund.org domain, conceded he was "negligent" on the matter in another email to NewsForge.

"I'm certainly negligent," he said. "The short story is: the scale at which the business model seems to work is not commensurate with the overhead required to run a nonprofit well. Everyone that's been involved has been lackluster given the range of requisite skills -- technical and administrative and business development in total -- and ultimately burnt out."

Collord, who began investigating what happened to the LinuxFund.org Web site after NewsForge contacted him, said after some failed efforts at community education and developer programs -- the Open Oregon Technology Center and a youth class about open source and related opportunities -- the organization went dormant.

"We had been paying a couple of what we called 'interns' who were basically kids working on projects that we could pay (well) such that they didn't have to get jobs while in school and take time away from their FOSS contributions," Collord explained. "So... last summer... there wasn't anyone readily available to administer the project... I've been doing the absolute minimum since, which obviously isn't enough.

"The org has been inactive, merely collecting royalty checks, for the last ~8 months," he continued. "There's one person I can think of to whom we owe money for work done, and I need to get off my ass and make him whole. I'd love to give you an accounting as to the total activities of the group. It will be surprisingly sparse. Honestly, I don't know why the site is down. I'll get the kid who was helping us with some admin work to perhaps get me an answer."

Collord said the Open Oregon Technology Center, which failed for "a number of reasons," was "the nail in the coffin for me," adding the demise of that project, which was to house the LinuxFund operation, took a lot out of him.

Although he did not indicate a desire to maintain the organization on his own, Collord did express interest in continuing the project through another entity -- he mentioned the Free Software Foundation -- that was willing and capable of taking it over.

Financial services giant MBNA, which administers the credit cards characterized by the Linux logo penguin, would not provide program statistics on the LinuxFund cards for competitive reasons, MBNA spokesperson Jim Donahue said.

In an email response to NewsForge, Donahue said if the bank has issued a card, it remains in force until the customer cancels and settles the account, or until MBNA notifies the customer of any change, which did not occur for the unknown number of LinuxFund cardholders.

"The LinuxFund card remains in force," Donahue wrote. "In the case of a change in the endorsed status of a card, MBNA will typically offer the customer the option of transferring the account to either a non-endorsed product, or to one of the 5,000 other endorsed credit cards that we issue. If a LinuxFund card holder has a question about his or her account, they should contact MBNA directly."

An MBNA customer service representative told NewsForge the contributions to various causes are made by the bank under terms of what are called "affinity" card programs. The representative said the contributions range from a half percent to 3 percent of each credit card's transaction total, and that the bank has no control over what is done with the funds once collected by the endorsed card affiliate.

"MBNA doesn't make any stipulations for the contribution whatsoever," he said. "We send it to LinuxFund. We're not able to designate and say this section of the environmental group should get it, for example. We can't do that."

Cox, founder and original director of LinuxFund, said his current career, family, and travel leave little time for a project he left more than two years ago and has had nothing to do with since, and he does not have the time, energy, or motivation to make it work. However, Cox did express a sense of moral obligation to seeing the project put back on track, and indicated he is willing to do what is necessary to ensure LinuxFund does not flame out.

Cox -- who conceded he had also made mistakes with the organization by continuing his marketing push for it and creating a "laissez-faire" atmosphere -- doubted the project's status was the result of malfeasance, instead calling it "just neglect."

Indicating the group had given out "micro-grants" that averaged $1,000 for various FOSS developers during his tenure, Cox said he was confident and hopeful the project would continue. However, he echoed Collord in expressing the difficulty of running an organization based primarily on volunteer support, a familiar challenge to FOSS project participants.

"As for the future, well, I need to find people who are genuinely interested and able to come out with a sustainable and healthy organization, or (more probably) part of an organization," Collord said.

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