Open source developers are using GitHub's 'sponsors' program to get paid for work they used to do for free — and some are making 6 figures
- GitHub Sponsors lets stakeholders give money to developers of open source projects they depend on.
- Hundreds of devs use it to make a full-time living and some even pull in six figure salaries.
- A GitHub product exec told Insider the firm is planning a global expansion and testing new models.
Although open source software powers some of the world’s most well-known technologies, even the most popular projects are often maintained by developers who volunteer their time and effort. Microsoft-owned GitHub is trying to change that through a program that helps those open source developers get paid for their work.
GitHub Sponsors has two main benefits: It gives stakeholders a way to contribute financially to improve the performance and reliability of the projects they depend on it lowers the barriers of entry to open source for developers by paying them, which GitHub hopes will help diversify the open source community.
When GitHub initially launched the program in May 2019, it allowed developers to offer different tiers of payment, so that supporters could pay them, for example, $5 a month, several hundred dollars, or more. Then, to incentivize companies versus individuals to pay the developers building the open source technologies that benefit them, GitHub then launched a corporate program in December 2020 that lets enterprises pay people through their existing billing arrangements. GitHub said this project has significantly increased the amount of funding through the program and that it has already dispersed millions of dollars from firms like American Express, AWS, Stripe, Indeed, Microsoft, Substack, and Notion directly into developers’ pockets.
For example, prolific open source maintainer Caleb Porzio, who works on projects like Alpine.js and Livewire, has over 1,300 sponsors through the program, including companies Basepack, Intellow, and Aulab Hackademy.
Companies and individuals tend to give money through the program for two main reasons, GitHub director of product Devon Zuegel told Insider. One is simply to show a token of gratitude to developers who are impacting the open source community or working on a project that the sponsor admires. A company, meanwhile, might sponsor someone that works on a project that’s core to its workflows: Forking over cash could allow the developer to carve out more time to focus on a project or address known issues more quickly.
GitHub said that tens of thousands of developers have already signed up for the program, hundreds are using it to make a full-time living serving their open source community, and some are even making six figure salaries. The firm plans on charging a 10% fee for company sponsors, but has currently waived it during the program’s beta stage.
GitHub declined to give specific figures for how much money developers have earned through the program total, but said that it has already attracted dozens of corporate sponsors.
“We wanted to supercharge the open source ecosystem and so far we’ve seen dramatic uptake,” Zuegel said.
For example, Nick DeJesus, creator of an open source ecommerce project called Use-Shopping-Cart, makes enough money from his 29 supporters — including payments firm Stripe as a corporate sponsor — to cover the mortgage on his Boston home and focus on open source development full-time.
“I can live comfortably off of the sponsorships I have right now,” DeJesus told Insider adding that it allows him to focus on open source work that he would have never considered before. “So I’m very grateful.”
Another developer, Gina Häußge, has been paid to maintain OctoPrint, an open source 3D printer application she launched in 2012 to allow users to schedule their prints and remotely control their printers.
Before collecting money through GitHub Sponsors, Häußge funded her work through Patreon, Liberapay, and Donorbox. While the exact amount she makes through her combination of crowdfunding efforts fluctuates, she said that GitHub’s program has made a material impact and that she’s making a “competitive salary at this point.”
Chrissy LeMaire, maintainer of dbatools, an automation toolkit for Microsoft SQL Server written in PowerShell, currently receives on average about $200 a month through the program, but once received two major contributions $10,000 from The DevOps Collective and $10,000 from GitHub itself.
“But dbatools is a team effort, so I gave 60% of the award to the other members of the team,” LeMaire said. “So a whole bunch of us got a whole bunch of money and we were able to upgrade our offices and then celebrate it on Twitter.”
GitHub’s Zuegel said the firm has several program improvements in the works, including expanding the program to new geographic regions and making it easier for companies to make one-time payments to developers for building specific features. For example, instead of a company paying $100 a month to simply support a project, it could give $10,000 at once.
“We don’t want open source developers to be in a position where they have to choose between working on what they think is really important for lower pay versus something else where they personally think they might be able to add more value,” Zuegel said.
The “vast majority” of developers that sign up for the program through its application questionnaire are accepted, she added, and the company doesn’t turn people away based on how much work they’ve produced.
“[There are] open source developers out there who very quickly make a ton of money,” she said, “But we also want GitHub sponsors to be a place where you can grow your career (edited)
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