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Applying to Join Conservancy as a Member Project

New applications for project membership with Conservancy are considered twice a year. The deadlines for submission of application materials are 1 February and 1 September each year.

The application process is somewhat informal. New applicants should write to <apply@sfconservancy.org> with a very brief description of their project and a URL to their project's website. We'll send back initial questions if we have any, and after that, we'll send the full application materials. Applications should be submitted in plain ASCII text via email.

Projects are reviewed by Conservancy's Evaluation Subcommittee (which is a subcommittee of Conservacy's Directors), and the subcommittee's recommendations are submitted to Conservancy's Board of Directors, who make the final decision to offer membership.

Project Membership Application FAQs

The following are various questions that we typically get from project leaders that wish to apply to Conservancy.

What are the key criteria our project must meet to join?

In order to join, projects need to meet certain criteria. A rough outline of those criteria are as follows:

While any project meeting the criteria above can apply, meeting these criteria don't guarantee acceptance of your project. The Conservancy favors projects that are well-established and have some track record of substantial contributions from a community of volunteer developers. Furthermore, the Conservancy does give higher priority to projects that have an established userbase and interest, but also tries to accept some smaller projects with strong potential.

Is our project required to accept membership if offered?

Not at all. Many projects apply and subsequently decide not to join a non-profit, or decide to join a different non-profit entity. Don't worry about “wasting our time” if your project's developers aren't completely sure yet if they want to join Conservancy. If membership in Conservancy is currently a legitimate consideration for your project, we encourage you to apply. We'd rather that you apply and turn down an offer for membership than fail to apply and have to wait until the next application round when you're sure.

What benefits does our project get from joining?

We maintain a detailed list of services that Conservancy provides to member projects. If you have detailed questions about any of the benefits, please ask <apply@sfconservancy.org>.

Conservancy seems to be called a “fiscal sponsor” to its member projects. Does that mean you give our project money if we join?

It's true that we would love to fund our member projects if it were possible, because we believe they deserve to be funded. However, that's not typically what a fiscal sponsor does. The term “fiscal sponsor“ is often used in non-profit settings and has a standard meaning there. But, to those not familiar with non-profit operations, it comes across as a bit of a misnomer.

In this context, a fiscal sponsor is a non-profit organization that, rather than fund a project directly, provides the required infrastructure and facilitates the project's ability to raise its own funds. Conservancy therefore assists your project in raising funds, and allows your project to hold those funds and spend them on activities that simultaneously advance the non-profit mission of the Conservancy and the FLOSS development and documentation goals of the project.

What will the project leaders have to agree to if our project joins?

Once you're offered membership, we'll send you a draft fiscal sponsorship agreement. These aren't secret documents and many of our member projects have even chosen to put theirs online. However, we wait to send a draft of this document until the application process is complete, as we often tailor and modify the agreements based on individual project needs. This is painstaking work, and it's better to complete that work after both Conservancy and the project are quite sure that they both want the project to join Conservancy.

If my project joins the Conservancy, how will it change?

Substantively, member projects continue to operate in the same way as they did before joining the Conservancy. So long as the project remains devoted to software freedom and operates consistently with the Conservancy's tax-exempt status, the Conservancy does not intervene in the project's development other than to provide administrative assistance. For example, the Conservancy keeps and maintains books and records for the project and assists with the logistics of receiving donations, but does not involve itself with technical or artistic decision making. Projects are asked, however, to keep the Conservancy up to date on their activities.

Once our project joins, who holds its assets (money, copyrights, trademarks, etc.)?

The Conservancy holds assets on behalf of its member projects and manages and disburses those assets in accordance with the wishes of the project's leadership. Funds received by the Conservancy on behalf of a project are kept track of separately for each specific project and the management of those funds is directed by the project. For example, if a donor wanted to contribute $100 to Project Foo, they would formally make the donation to the Conservancy and identify Project Foo as the desired project to support. The Conservancy would then deposit the check and earmark the funds for use by Project Foo. Project Foo would then tell the Conservancy how that money should be spent. As long as that expense is a legitimate non-profit expense fitting with Conservancy's non-profit mission, Conservancy pays the expense on the Project's behalf.

Similarly, any copyrights, trademarks, domain name or other assets transferred to a project can also be held by the Conservancy on behalf of the project. A significant service that the Conservancy provides its members is a vehicle through which copyright ownership in the project can be unified. There are several advantages to having a consolidated copyright structure, including that it makes enforcement activity easier and more effective. However, copyright, trademark, and domain name assignment is not a requirement in order to join the Conservancy, rather, it is an option for those projects that ask for it.

If our project joins, must it be a member project of Conservancy forever?

All agreements between member projects and the Conservancy stipulate clearly that the member project can leave the Conservancy with a few months' notice. Federal tax exemption law, though, states that projects must transfer their assets from the Conservancy in a way that is consistent with the Conservancy's not-for-profit tax status — meaning the assets cannot be transferred to an individual or a for-profit entity. Generally, a project would either find another fiscal sponsor or form their own independent tax-exempt non-profit.

We fully expect that some Conservancy projects will ultimately wish to form their own non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations; that's why we design our agreements with projects to allow them to leave to another 501(c)(3) organization. Typically, projects join Conservancy because the project leaders don't want the burdens of running a non-profit themselves. Often, as projects grow, leaders get interested in the non-profit management and organizational side of the activities and are then prepared to take on the additional work themselves.

How are “project leaders” defined with respect to Conservancy?

How leaders are chosen for projects varies greatly from project to project. Our goal is to do our best to embody the “natural” leadership structure that evolved in your project into the formal agreement with Conservancy. As part of the agreement drafting, we work carefully with you to understand your project's governance and write up formally with you the decision-making process you use. Most project contributors find this process of formalizing the leadership structure helps them clarify in their own minds the governance of their project, even though the process can be difficult. Since it can be a complicated process, we suggest that you prepare your project community for this discussion once your project is accepted.

How much does it cost us financially to join Conservancy?

After your application is approved, as part of the negotiation of the formal agreement, we'll discuss this issue. Typically, we ask that member projects voluntarily choose to donate some percentage of their donations received to support Conservancy's general operations servicing all its member projects (including yours). We do understand that, particularly for small projects that only receive a few small donations, that donating a percentage of your income back to Conservancy can be a high burden. Therefore, this is not a mandatory requirement. We thus suggest that you be prepared to discuss this issue with us in detail after your application is approved.

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