Signal's Fundraising Appeal Has Lessons for OSM

Signal dropped a lengthy appeal yesterday, titled “Privacy is Priceless, but Signal is Expensive,” and there’s a lot we could learn from it in terms of fundraising for OSM

(I know there are plenty of things not to like about Signal. This is not a post about those things. This is a post about how they are positioning their story as a worthy organization to make donations to. Please don’t lecture me about Signal. )

Here are some things that struck me as noteworthy:

Start with the title. “Privacy is Priceless, but Signal is Expensive.” It reminds me of “OpenStreetMap is free to use, but it’s not free to make”. These are both excellent one sentence pitches for nonprofit or open source technology. They are pithy and easy to repeat. They are not aggressive; they just state facts. They remind people to be respectful of the tool that they are using, and nudge people to ask, "how can I help? "

Getting a one sentence statement like that right and then using it a lot goes a long way toward defining how you want your organization to be seen by its users and by the world. OSM needs to do that. Right now.

Signal starts by outlining its top level importance to society. This is not the same thing as its importance to its users. Signal is offering an end to end encrypted service as a nonprofit that can compete with commercial services that harvest data. That’s its importance to society. Its importance to its users is that it lets them talk to their friends and share memes and works on their phone and doesn’t drop calls.

OSM gets this distinction wrong all the time when they talk about themselves to the world. OSM’ers love OSM for dozens of amazing reasons, but its top level value to the world is that it is the world’s largest, most diverse, open source geospatial data set and the only geospatial data set that has an entire community continuously improving it.

Signal also gets the financial conversation right. They give top level numbers that are precise and that matter. They are not overly granular, which shows they can do costs benefits analysis on what is important. They are confident about their priorities, and they make it clear, quickly, that they can account for their finances and have actionable goals.

This is the only way to attract significant philanthropic investment. Donors have very serious fiduciary responsibilities. They have to prove to their boards or their overseers that the money they give is being used well. They must report every year on how gifts are used. The recipients of those gifts need to be able to do this. (Exceptions are corporate donors who can do what they want, kind of, until their CFO wants to know what is the ROI on ‘corporate social responsibility’ and private donors, who mostly, even if not legally constrained, choose to be very responsible.)

Clearly stated strategic priorities, each one paired with a specific, rational, financial goal, alongside the actions that will be taken toward realizing the goals is fundamentally important. Sometimes the priority doesn’t cost money. That’s great. The cost, as such, should still be known because that’s how you prioritize. And if you don’t prioritize, one of two things happens: nothing gets done. Or, the person with the loudest voice sets all the priorities.

Signal is a large nonprofit organization with a paid workforce, so the similarities start to end as they talk about paying wages and growth and things of that nature. But even in that section, they do something well: they build an excellent case statement by pairing a description of their approach to something (for example, registration rates or bandwidth) with its cost or another number such as volume or user numbers. Then, they repeat this format again with the next example. It builds compelling evidence for why they do what they do and the value it provides.

We could and should structure statements about OSM’s costs in volunteer hours, infrastructure, fees, and user numbers about several of of our services in much the same way. It can feel weird to quantify something that is done by volunteers for the joy of it. On the other hand, it is a good thing to take pride in what is built and be honest about its value to ourselves and others. Furthermore, to raise significant donations these things must be quantified. And raising money means being able to support all of the things that give OSM mappers their joy.

This notice from Signal went out across a lot of channels. My guess is they are starting up a campaign.

For those who want to see the OSMF establish a strong fundraising program, it will be worthwhile watching Signal for ideas.

I would also like to hear from others who would be interested in building on some of the work the fundraising committee has started by talking through ideas for “case statements” that we could create about the value of OSM’s services.

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