Inside Gratipay

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Our strategy for cultivating an economy of gratitude, generosity, and love is to fill the market with open organizations. In adopting this term, we are participating in a conversation hosted by Red Hat on their website,, based on the book The Open Organization by their CEO, Jim Whitehurst.

Open organizations as we define them have four characteristics:

  1. transparent decisions—the default is for information to be shared publicly and decisions to be vetted publicly before being finalized;
  2. open hiring—anyone can start collaborating of their own volition, no permission necessary to get started;
  3. take-what-you-want compensation—individuals have agency to reap a meaningful economic benefit from their collaboration; and
  4. pay-what-you-want revenue—labor and profits are funded by voluntary payments, not hard fees.

Each of these is highly nuanced in practice, and can be implemented somewhat independently of the others. The purpose behind each is to emphasize the agency of the individual over the group. Lack of agency leads to resentment and guilt. But when there is personal agency, gratitude and generosity are able to flourish.

The Open Source Value Vacuum

Open source software projects are the most well-established institutions that are closest to our vision of the open organization. Transparent decision-making and open “hiring” are the norm. Insofar as they have any revenue, it is voluntary. There's historically not been much revenue, however, so practices around compensation are not well-developed (hence the scare quotes around “hiring”).

Our strategy is to evolve open source software projects into open organizations: open institutions with a peer economic relationship to closed organizations. In economic terms, open source software is a public good:

goods matrix

There are three ways to fit public goods into the economy:

  1. Enclosure. In other words, taking goods out of the commons, making them excludable. Booooorrriiinnngg!

  2. Taxation. This is akin to enclosure, in that both involve forcing people to pay for the thing.

  3. Social norms. At its worst, this looks like guilt-tripping and shaming. At its best, it looks like inviting people to be grateful and generous and Do the Right Thing™. This is us! 💃

If we have a chance at (3), it's because open source has created a “value vacuum” in the economy. Closed organizations have been unable to ignore the value open source software offers; they've embraced it. This creates some pressure to compensate open source projects after the fact rather than beforehand. Is it enough?

A second pressure point is developer relations. Companies with a good reputation in open source communities find it easier to hire from and sell to those communities.

Another relevant pressure in the industry is the pressure to address the diversity problem in tech (e.g.). This is a problem worth addressing in its own right, and it dovetails with the idea of proactively giving individuals agency to be involved in the engines of our economy.

A fourth entrypoint is consumer-facing public goods, such as the services provided by Wikipedia, Mozilla, and the Internet Archive, and digital content more broadly.

The goal is to tap these pressure points to get some funding moving into open organizations. If we get enough money moving in this direction then we might even see a new sector of the economy: public, private, voluntary, … and open! And if we do that, hopefully we'll have increased the gratitude and generosity in the world by a fraction of a degree—maybe enough to get an interesting feedback loop going!

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