February 1, 2001

LinuxWorld: Consume with conscience through The Linux Fund

Author: JT Smith

- Julie Bresnick -

The Linux Fund Incorporated project is a not-for-profit company that
is all
about money; making it and giving it away.

A notable cluster of people are gathered by The Linux Fund booth.
They are
all standing still with their heads bowed, quietly scribbling on a
clipboard.
The silence creates a contrast with the bustle of the exhibit hall and
the
playful mob of small stuffed penguins lining the inside of the booth.
Perhaps
the people are quiet because they are worried about their credit or
because
they're
still trying to convince themselves that it's OK to sign up for
another
credit card because this one is for a good cause.

The 5,000-plus Linux Fund cardholders apparently agree.

On the first day of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, The Linux
Fund booth
operators estimated
that more 200 people came by and signed up for a MasterCard at their
booth in
the .org Pavilion. All the .orgs represented at LinuxWorld are
not-for-profit. The area in which they
are gathered consists of four rows of kiosks designated by metal
partitions
with holes big enough to stick your hands through but small enough to
create
division. The section is sponsored by a corporation and the fee is
waived for
exhibitors.

The Linux Fund brought seven people
to
rotate staffing the booth, each of their plane tickets bought on
Priceline and
all sleeping in one hotel room, but paid to work nonetheless.

The Linux Fund's only means of revenue is through this credit card.
A small
percentage -- 1 percent or less -- of the cost of each cardholder's
purchases
is forwarded to The Linux Fund, at no extra cost to the user,
by the issuing bank, MBNA. In turn The Linux Fund bestows the cash
upon
qualified
grant applicants who, ideally, are small Linux-related projects or
individual
developers/programmers.

The operation currently runs out of Benjamin Cox's basement in
Portland,
Ore. He is The Linux Fund's founder and "Chief Executive Penguin." He
started the organization
his final year of undergrad at Brandeis College in Waltham,
Mass. He knew he had no interest in getting a "real" job after graduation. What he did know for
sure
was that:
A. he was totally broke and living in a four bedroom/one bathroom
apartment
with four other geeks and one phone jack and
B. that he could build a
company.
Revelation came in the form of a phone call from friend Michael McLagan,
founder of
Linux.org.

Cox incorporated The Linux Fund in March 1999, a few months
before
graduation, and launched the credit card that August.

He is an energetic guy with wispy facial hair and a relaxed smile
but an air
of impatience. As we walk, he talks and looks around the busy hall
attentively.
He describes himself as an idiot savant because he can't spell, write
or learn
languages but has a well above-average understanding of money and
business.

He has gathered two volunteer boards to facilitate the process of
raising
money and then giving it away. The Development
Board
is
an impressive list of high-profile programmers like John "maddog" Hall
and Alan
Cox, who assess applications. He says they
are very
picky and only want the best of the best. So far they have given away
a total
of $3,000 to three projects.

The Linux Fund's Cox hopes to soon bring that number up to $3,000 per month. He is
in the
process
of swapping out the old board of directors for a new one headed by
himself and
David Mandel, chief Linux evangelist for the Portland, Ore., LUG who
approached Cox in
September 1999 and offered his services.

Though Cox is anxious for momentum, he can see what has held The
Linux Fund
back
thus far -- a lack of public relations and a misconception on his part
that
figuring out how to give away money required less attention than how to
raise
it. He is the visionary, never good at day-to-day tasks, and is
confident in
the abilities of Joshua Black, who he has brought in to manage the
that stuff instead.

As we sit, he bounces his knee the way people do when they are
anxious for a
bus to arrive or a wife to finish shopping. He looks around at the
booths and
starts reading the names of companies that neither of us have ever
heard of.

"Everyone tries to shoot for the moon," he says. "They're going for
the IPO,
they're going for the money, they don't understand what they're doing."
Cox may
not be facing an IPO, but with a growing non-profit started with the
$20 it cost to incorporate and the $175 to register the domains,
enough
income to pay rent and a few part-time employees, the credit to lure
clout and
plans in place to go international, he clearly understands what he's
doing.

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