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.


Talking about “geospatial data” is more correct but does in my opinion only resonate with a very limited target group.

I am not sure how others talk about OpenStreetMap but I always use the analogy “An open source map/database a la Wikipedia” but that is missing a simple statement on why “open source is good”.

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.

That could well be fill in the “why open source is good”.

Some idea’s:

  • It would be nice to have a brief story of somebody or some organization using HOT data
  • The largest group of users are I think using OpenStreetMap maps for their navigation app, a description and some numbers on that would be good.
  • From Who uses OpenStreetMap? I think Pokemon Go is a nice example
  • OpenStreetMap data is also used for scientific research, an example on that would be nice.
  • One of the strengths of OpenStreetMap is that it is a database for the whole world and thereby some kind of standard.

That’s a good point about geospatial data not being well understood, and I think you’re right about why is open source good. Let’s keep workshopping all of these ideas—everything you say here is fuel. Thank you!

It is not more correct, it is correct. So should be told. It seems wise though, to immediately follow up with how this data is put to use. The samples you post are a good start. I see OSM data often used as a basemap that gets enhanced with other content.

I have yet to see a scientific study that used OSM data directly. But there are studies with OSM as a subject and also how it can help e.g. in disaster management, see Blog | Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology

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I know of at least two


There are loads of studies:

another category of use case to add to this list is OSM community/government partnerships

So, as I follow along here, the one sentence summary has moved beyond “OpenStreetMap is free to use, but not free to make” toward something like:

"OpenStreetMap: the data the world needs, powered by its people

anyone want to help me improve on this?


Courtiney, maybe “the free data” & “powered by people around the world”? :thinking:

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I don’t know how to say in words (clearly) this idea / these ideas. When I contribute to OSM (substitute for I, “you” or “her” or “them” or “lots of people in a whole bunch of countries across the globe…”) I am 100% certain that my contributed data are not ONLY going to make my life better (as, for example I enter the path I hiked or the trail I rode my mountain bike on, so it will be there on my GPS the NEXT time I or somebody else hikes or bikes it), the data I enter are going to make A WHOLE LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE’S life better. If this were only one-to-many or a few-to-many, OSM wouldn’t be a terribly remarkable project, but it is not: it is many-to-many, where many people entering data make many-many-MANY truly valuable contributions, which in the aggregate, add up to MUCH greater than the contributions of any one individual. The whole is an amazing and truly rich combination of its many parts.

The appeal, when this is worded correctly, is both to (potential or actual) downstream users of OSM data, as it is wonderful and the quality is pretty dang high, but the appeal is also to (potential or actual) contributors, who get that warm, fuzzy feeling of altruism as they add their knowledge, yes, but there is this additional “wow!” factor of “and I can ALWAYS make IMPROVEMENTS to these map data…FOREVER!” That’s really mind-blowing to some people when they really “get” this for the first time.

Dang…how to say all that pithily in few words?!


In my perception they do better than that. In three words (privacy is priceless) they capture both the individual benefits and the benefits to society. This might be a decisive move because everyone likes when the two are aligned.

What would be the equivalent for OSM?

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Definitely not an angle that is easy for OSM (defining actionable goals).

But, along the same lines as my previous comment (and that of @stevea too) that’s exactly what OSM is about: an endeavour in defining goals for a world-sized mass of people. OSM is not only an data-base / map that makes the physical world’s complexity tractable, it is a way of working that makes the world’s complexity (more or less) tractable.

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This is an encouraging direction: describing OSM as something which is “tractable” might not make sense to many who hear or read this, but there really is value in conveying that while Earth is a very big place, with “you” focusing on “your” neighborhood, and “me” focusing on “mine,” pretty soon, with little effort on any single person, we can “demystify the complexity” of mapping the whole, large world. Said another way, if something is underdone or too simplistic, it can always be made more complete and/or richer and better.

Let’s convey that “mapping anything in the real world is possible” (it isn’t insurmountable, it is in fact quite doable), even if it has never been mapped before. OSM has all kinds of success stories like this, where “a map is wanted or even needed, but it doesn’t exist” and even as few as ONE person can make it. Sure, if there are two, three or more, the load is lightened for each of them, but a basic appeal is that because literally everything in OSM is done in bite-size chunks, nobody really ever chokes on “too much all at once.” (OK, not a pleasant analogy, we’ll want to work on that!). Sure, it might take a while to “get through the whole meal,” but with OSM, “it always can be done” (or mapped) is a reality. OSM is one of those environments where “if you can imagine it, you can have it.” That’s a pretty neat selling point, even if what you want is grand, and so might take a while.


Such excellent ideas, among them:

“by the many for the many,”
the idea of “tractable” ,
the idea of “simplified complexity”,
the idea of the dynamic relationship between the data and its maker community
the idea of a satisfyingly ‘local’ or ‘personal’ or ‘right- sized’ altruism that has a vast, global effect …

These are all at the heart of the statement, we want to get at.

Keep going. Keep typing ideas. The concept can be made pithy later. Right now is brainstorming and getting all the richness of what is most remarkable out so that we can work with it. We need more idea and more phrases and pretty soon the right one will jump out. It always does. It’s how writing gets made. Maybe it’s the opposite of editing a map: in writing you throw ten thousand messy and inaccurate words on to a page and work them down to 100 words–on purpose!

In looking at all the above comments and ideas, what do you find yourself thinking about? what would you add or clarify?

it’s such a powerful three words, right?

If Signal is about privacy at its core, then, is OSM about protecting everyone’s freedom to chart the observable world?

Two caveats, though:

  • when serving my own purposes (using Signal, buying something, contributing locally to OSM) nobody questions my political motivations or the political motivations of those who advertise for the service. When proposing people to do something for society, it’s easy to raise political questions. Signal has the right balance between individuals and society, and uses a vague enough message, that nobody asks political questions. Can we achieve the same?

  • Signal basically creates two roles: provider and users. It is natural for users to feel indebted to providers. OSM creates three roles, like wikipedia: foundation, contributors and users. If as user I can (and do) contribute, am I otherwise indebted?




A first attempt: maps owned by nobody, but someone needs to pay the rent.

I think about this all the time! It’s a core difference, right? Because the contributors are the ones who make the map and who care. But, the people who should be indebted are the ones who use it commercially or for their governmental or municipal purposes but they may not even know they are benefitting from the map. To me, this is one of the most interesting and challenging problems to solve.

Because awareness of OSM among the general population is likely very low. To me, this is a fundamental problem as we try to fundraise (and overall grown the community). How likely is it that someone is going to donate to OSM if they have never heard of it?


Not only has a typical layperson never heard of OSM, but they may not have even considered what goes into producing a map. Most people take maps for granted, as part of the infrastructure of modern life that they also take for granted. How do you get someone excited enough about infrastructure to pitch in?


Lot’s of references here to “the map” rather than “the data”, so going back to the original line, how about:

“OpenStreetMap: the free map of the world”?

Maybe adding “drawn / made by ordinary people”, although I’m wondering if we need that?

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I know it is a bit trite / cheesy, but I’ve said it before: “we channel good intentions” (when we map together).

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