(This was co-authored by Jared Chung and Neel Sunil Kishnani)
PyCon is here and we've been thinking a lot about Python — its community, its prominence in modern software development, and how much more impact it could have with more funding. Foundations and philanthropists are used to funding social service programs but rarely consider the social return of funding programming languages like Python. As social impact practitioners sitting at the nexus of both the tech and philanthropy worlds, we feel that ignoring Python as a social impact investment is a huge missed opportunity. Dramatically increasing funding for Python could be among the highest social return-on-investment opportunities available.
Programming is empowering. It confers economic benefits and influence to the individuals and organizations who can wield it. Nonprofits (like ours) have more impact than we ever had before having programming skills on-staff.
Python is an especially impactful programming language. It has been adopted rapidly by otherwise very disconnected sectors: private sector, social scientists, social impact nonprofits, medical researchers, veteran programmers, individual youth, and more.
It is possible to distribute these benefits more broadly than they are being distributed now.
A strong Python ecosystem multiplies Python’s benefits to nonprofits, individuals, researchers, and scientists.
With more funding, the Python Software Foundation could do great things that make access to programming skills more equitable: underwrite more grassroots events in communities all over the world helping people learn about Python and find mentors, sponsor more Python Ambassadors to do outreach, host more gatherings that bring together programmers from different sectors (social, research, private, public), and lead more initiatives specifically targeted at increasing access with populations that don’t have access now to training and programming coaching. And on top of that, maintaining the Python language itself and the many amazing Python tools and teams, upon which the community is built.
Foundations and Philanthropists have been ignoring the opportunity to invest in Python and other OSS largely out of a lack of awareness of their positive social benefits and of how funding could increase equitable social benefit. And we are not alone in finding that Foundations and Philanthropists are often predisposed against investing in technology nonprofits, technology tools, and anything else they associate with technology companies. There’s a significant barrier of distrust between the Philanthropy and Tech worlds.
Open source software has a well-known funding problem, but compounding this problem is that most corporations and individual software developers believe that they can only contribute to open source if they have an economic mandate to do so. Some folks might say “I can’t go to my boss to ask them to pay for something they could get for free” but that’s the wrong way to think about the problem. Even if you were right that your boss couldn’t approve an at-will donation, if your company has a corporate foundation, consider making the case to the leaders of that foundation instead. Foundation leaders want to know what causes you care about, they recognize that programming is empowering, they recognize the value of investing in diversity, equity, and inclusive access to programming skills, and they have a much more potential funding available than most people realize: Corporations donated over $21B in funding to charities in 2020. Their budget for philanthropy is significant. This puts Corporate Foundations in a unique position: amenable to supporting high-impact work, and able to do something about it.
To start making the case for funding Python, we'll need solid estimates of the social return of investment of investing in a strong and equitable Python. Those estimates could be tricky to develop and then measure. The benefits accrue to so many different types of stakeholders in so many ways, so codifying and estimating all of that benefit would take a fair bit of work. But the current funding available in OSS (Python Software Foundation’s annual budget was $3.6M in 2019 but most of that was conference expenses) is miniscule next to the aggregate benefits to society, and should be directly compared against the most lauded traditional charitable investments.
Let’s start talking about the social impact of having a strong Python ecosystem, and let’s start making the case to funders about why they should consider Python and the PSF as serious philanthropic investment opportunities.
About the authors:
Jared Chung is the Executive Director of CareerVillage.org, a tech nonprofit helping youth prepare for careers. Jared started his career at McKinsey & Co. as a consultant, and programs for fun mostly in Python.
Neel Sunil Kishnani is a masters student in computer science at Stanford University. His interests lie in inclusive education, systems design, and computer security, which he has explored at CodeHS and Apple. Neel was a Software Engineering Intern at CareerVillage.org in 2019.