Have you ever been on a WordPress.org plugin page, and seen a link saying “Donate to this plugin”? You probably didn’t click it. Nearly none of us do. But why not? You probably think you should, but something is preventing you. In this article, I explore the reasons we rarely donate to software we depend on, and what can be done about it.
I recently had the hair-brained idea to fund development of a WordPress plugin entirely by donations. By that, I mean don’t explicitly require payment for anything, just ask users of the software to voluntarily sponsor it financially, and through that receive a sustainable income.
Others have had similar ideas, and the prognosis isn’t great. It absolutely goes against conventional business wisdom. But somehow I believe it’s possible. If there is any chance in overcoming the difficulties this presents, I should first identify those difficulties. So here we go…
I Haven’t Donated to Any Free Software Myself, So Why Should I Expect Others To?
That’s right, I can’t recall ever donating money to another plugin or for any other software, or nearly anything. So it’s an obvious double standard to expect others to donate to me.
But thinking of it some more, there are a few things I’ve voluntarily donated to.
- Shawnigan Residents Association (local community advocacy group),
- Toonie Tots (play gym for preschool children, which just operates on the honor system),
- Ocean Discovery Centre (kinda a mini museum in nearby Cowichan Bay that has a suggested donation)
- local apples and eggs (also operate on the honor system)
- tips at restaurants, that’s also a donation
- Oh and 10% at church, plus another monthly “fast offering” which is only suggested to be the value of two meals.
Also, I certainly do many donations in kind online:
- contributing code to WordPress core and plugins and themes,
- giving them 5-star reviews etc, and
- helping a few people out in the local WordPress meetup and WordPress support forums.
So on second thought, there are a few things I donate to after all. But admittedly, most of them aren’t digital, and if they are, they’re probably just non-monetary.
So, in order to figure out how to get others to donate actual money for something digital, I should also figure out what exactly is preventing me from doing the same. I explore this more throughout the rest of this post.
I Don’t Have Spare Money To Donate
I think this will probably be the most common excuse, and I think it’s totally bogus. A $5 annual donation to Wikipedia is nothing. It’s the cost of the gasoline for a 20 minute drive, which most of us never think about. Yet if even 3% of Wikipedia users gave $5, they’d have money to spare (it at least that’s what their pop-up said).
The point is: even if everyone donated 0.1% of their income (eg $50 of $50,000 annually) to free software, they wouldn’t even notice the loss, but all those free software projects would be sustainably funded.
Eg, my obscure Print My Blog Plugin, with a mere 300 active installs, could have a budget of $15,000 annually if all it’s users donated 0.1% of their annual income to it. Not enough to live off yet, but it would more than cover my opportunity cost in developing it. In contrast, it’s budget for the year is currently $17.
We need to help potential donors to realize “I don’t have money to donate” is just an excuse. There may very well be other valid reasons to not donate, bit this is not one.
People Allocate Very Little Money to Making Donations
We’ve been teaching our 5 year old about budgeting, and she has a piggy bank with 3 sections: save (50% is meant to go in that), spend (40%), and share (10%) .
I think us adults similarly have our income divided up. We would, of course, also have a really big fourth section labeled “necessary expenses”, probably taking up between 40%-90%. Regardless, I bet 10% for sharing is unusually high.
Money to pay for a premium plugin up-front comes from our “necessary expenses” pile: the pile for housing, transportation, food, clothing, website hosting , website plugins, etc.
In contrast, money to donate to a plugin after we’ve already used it most likely comes from our “share” pile: the pile for nacho chips, lottery ticket, weekend getaway, donating to a plugin.
And if we’re talking about business expenses, there’s an even bigger difference. Expenses get taxed differently than voluntary donations.
So what I’m saying is that just by renaming the expense, the funds gets withdrawn from a much smaller pile: the tiny “share” pile, where money is really tight, instead of the big “necessary expenses” pile, where we mostly spend without thinking because they’re “necessary”.
So, I’ll probably get more donations if I can help people view it as a “necessary expense” rather than just “sharing.”
And better yet: if I can help people claim it as a business expense, there should be more donations. (FYI that one benefit of Open Collective: facilitate giving donors a receipt for their donations.)
I’m often surprised to discover someone would like donations for something. Like HeidiSQL, WordPress Foundation, Mozilla Firefox, and Webpack. They all operate on donations, but I didn’t realize that until months or years of benefiting from them.
Because payment isn’t required before usage, it often gets skimmed over or skipped altogether.
Many WordPress plugins also accept donations, and have a link right on their WordPress.org page, but it’s a little bit buried, and so often goes unnoticed.
In order to get donations, people need to at least know you’re looking for them.
WordPress.org Plugin Guidelines
The WordPress.org plugin guidelines are accommodating to plugins with paid add-ons (including having advertising for them in the free plugin), and using plugins to boost a consulting business, and JetPack, but might be a bit non-conducive to promoting donations. The guidelines say you should avoid
Compensating, misleading, pressuring, extorting, or blackmailing others for reviews or support (donations)
Of course I won’t be misleading, extorting, or blackmailing. Compensation and pressuring are up for debate though…
People who donate will be compensated with public recognition for it. But the guidelines probably view this type of compensation as reasonable, as opposed to direct monetary compensation (eg save 50% on swag if you give us a 5 star review), or in-app bonuses (eg “to unlock this feature, make a donation”). But simple recognition that a donation was made is following how WordCamps and meet-ups do it: if you donate, your donation will be announced, and your logo will be associated with the event. The compensation I’m wanting to give donors is the same.
And is it “pressuring” if you say something like “Help keep this plugin maintained by donating”? There is obvious pressure, because you’re implying the consequence of everyone not donating is that the plugin will not be maintained. But I’m not sure if it’s unreasonable pressure. It seems quite reasonable to make users aware of the costs to maintain the plugin, and the natural consequences of not contributing. (The WordPress plugin repository is ripe with plugins whose author have no real incentive to maintain them, and so get abandoned. The consequences are real, but explicitly pointing them out could be labelled “pressuring.”)
So, you just need to be careful that the compensation and pressure to donate be kept within the subjective realm of “reasonable.”
Our initial inclination is usually to selfishness, unless we actively try to avoid it. Plugin users (and everyone for that matter) default to taking all they can (free software, free support) and give nothing back.
Of course, given a long term look, they’d realize it’s in their long-term benefit to help maintain the software that was so useful to them…
You should try to invoke users’ proactive, unselfish nature’s; or at least help them realize that if they find the plugin is of benefit to them, it’s in their best interest to help maintain it.
I’m actually a big fan of being lazy (I like lazy code and lazy feature development, because both avoid waste) and it’s reasonable for us to not do something until it’s urgent.
Even if someone wants to donate, it takes time and effort to sign up for a service like Open Collective, type out your billing info, and make a donation. And if it’s not urgent, so users might wait to do so indefinitely.
You need to somehow convey some urgency (while not venturing into the realm of “pressuring”, like mentioned in the WordPress plugin guidelines.) maybe telling users the price of donation tiers will go up soon? Or that features will only be added once there is budget for them?
“Somebody Else Will Finance It”
“The tragedy of the commons” applies here for sure: it’s in the collective best interest of all plugin users to have it well-maintained, but it’s also in their individual best interest to wait for someone else to fit the bill. So what happens? Even though everybody wants it to be supported, nobody does.
You need to somehow incentivize individuals so that it’s in their individual best-interest to support the plugin, not just the collective best interest. Or, if Sally donates, there is a benefit only Sally receives- John’s donation won’t give this benefit to Sally, so she can’t wait for him to donate in order to get the benefit.
Accustomed to free services making hidden income
There are lots of free services online. I’ve been using Gmail for years and haven’t spent a dime on it. Nor have I needed to wonder “how are they making ends meet?” I just use it and that’s that.
So it is with most of us. We get our immediate needs fulfilled (eg, need an email account) so once we have it (through Gmail) we never think about the needs of others (that Gmail needs to turn a profit, at least indirectly, in order for it to continue to exist.)
Of course, upon further inspection we discover that these “free” services have unexpected costs. Eg
if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold
is a quote that’s been floating around lately, meaning, if you’re getting a service for free, the company that’s giving the service is probably selling data about you to advertisers, or are selling space to advertise to you, etc. (It’s not entirely true, of course companies that charge you money do this too.)
My plan features having no such hidden ways of making money. I want my focus to be on making the plugin as good as possible, and so be compensated for just that. I don’t want the plugin to be a lure that wets users appetites, and from there sell them something else (because then the plugin isn’t the focus.)
You need to try to bring the fact that there’s no hidden agenda to users’ attentions so they’ll appreciate it, and be more appreciative of it.
I recently signed up on Medium.com and was using it for free, only to soon learn I needed to pay $5 per month to continue using it. I didn’t really like that, but I started wondering what exactly it was that I disliked about it so much… especially when I’m paying over $100 every week at the grocery store, and don’t begrudge that, nor my monthly hosting bill, or other paid services. So why can’t Medium charge me $5 to use their service?
It’s not that I don’t value it $5. I think it’s just that it was a surprise expense. I expected it to be free (no mention of price was made when I signed up, and I assumed they made their money through advertising like everybody else) and when that wasn’t the case it felt like a “bait-and-switch”.
Users of my plugin could easily feel the same: they assumed my plugin was financed by somebody else (like how Anthologize was financed by a college, or WooCommerce is financed through selling add-ons, or Contact Form 7 is basically advertising for the developer’s consulting business). So they feel surprised when I suggest they make donations to keep it afloat.
You should make it explicit from the get-go that the plugin is funded entirely through donations. So after they’ve tried it, and decided it’s useful, they should then seriously consider making a donation.
You’re still Still selling
While I’m not selling access to download or use the plugin (because those are both totally free), I am kinda still selling something: the idea that they should make a donation.
Everywhere I see folks asking for donations in a really weak, unconvincing manner. It’s usually just a brief call-out: “Donate now!” Or “buy me a coffee!” Easily ignored.
It’s incorrect to assume that just because people find software indispensable, that they’ll therefore logically donate to it (ask the developers of OpenSSL, which secures two thirds of the internet and yet was developed by a handful of developers, mostly in their spare time). They’re convinced of the software’s usefulness, but not the idea of donating to it. They still need to be “sold” on that.
The invitation to donate needs to be convincing. If you want the project to be sustainable, it’s unfortunately not enough to just make great free software that becomes popular. You still need to sell the idea that it merits donations.
It’s Hard to Pay for Immaterial Services
I don’t think it’s a coincidence so many online services sell merchandise. We have it ingrained in our culture that usually you pay for physical things, but immaterial things are usually free. Eg, you pay for the groceries, but not for the time of the cashiers or baggers (although in Mexico, they always tip their grocery baggers.)
Changing this part of our culture is very hard. But a good first step is creating awareness.
If possible, compensate donors with something more tangible. Maybe a phone call, consulting time, or a shout-out on social media. Or somehow give them a physical good.
Plugin users usually stay anonymous, and so there’s no fear of being called out as a free rider. I think most cases where I’ve voluntarily donated it was partially because of social pressure to donate. But there is no social pressure if you’re anonymous.
Imagine if there was a public list of users of a plugin. You would see how many Fortune 500 companies are free-riding on your plugin. There would probably be a lot more donations because they’d fear being called out as a free rider.
I doubt this situation will change (especially because when a plugin is discovered to have a security bug, the exploiters would love having a list of potential victims). Nevertheless, I think this is a major hurdle to plugins receiving donations.
Try to get to know your users, and they won’t be anonymous anymore. This has the added benefit of helping you get to know their actual needs, and encourages user-led development.
Phew! Is That It?
That was literally all the reasons I can think of why I don’t donate to WordPress plugins I use… plugins like User Switching, User Role Editor, and Contact Form 7. Indispensable plugins, just I’ve never donated to them (I did, however, finally give each of them a 5-star review while writing this).
What do you think? Why don’t you donate to plugins (or any free software) you find indispensable? What could be done to change that?
Thanks for sharing!