Opening your project for contributions

So you want to open source your project for others to contribute? That’s great, but where do you start? With a few things to consider, you can start on the right path from the start with contributions and avoid some of the common first step problems. This guide is a minimal viable opener if you will – a start.

Have a welcome

If you think of the project as your house, welcoming someone in is great. Even better is the tradition of a welcome mat and then sitting someone down, making them feel at home and give them a cup of tea. Your project version of that is solid documentation (no matter where it’s hosted). This sets the tone of your project, the voice many will hear before they even start contributing to it.

Provide signposts to contribution

If you want contributions, be sure to show how and where they are wanted. It’s one thing to say ‘all contributions are welcome’, but that’s open-source theatre because honestly, it’s likely not all are in every area as welcome as others. There are always more areas needed than some. Highlight these and make sure someone gets off to contribution success from the start.

Document everything possible

I’ve hinted at this with my previous points around a welcome and signpost, but you also need to have documented everything possible. From code to vision and everything possible – ensure there is something written about it if possible. You might want to have documentation as a contribution, but if that contributor has to guess what you were thinking, that will not be someone who will stay around a long time. Give everyone a start with some basic documentation.

Show the small ways

By highlighting not just the big things to contribute to, but the little wins – someone can dip in and support right away. Show how to test, report a bug (using templates to make easier reporting is fantastic) and show the level of commitment of fixes. If something requires a certain skill or understanding, clearly mark that also – it helps people focus where they are going to be the most effective.

Say thank you

The biggest thing you can do to someone contributing is to say thank you no matter what size that contribution is. Recognise that contribution, say thank you. If someone takes the time to contribute, make sure you engage with them. You wanted them to, so don’t leave them contributing without interacting. That’s a lost contributor and one that will rapidly find another project.

Include and recognise contributions

Opening your project to contributions isn’t a checkbox. It’s not something to do if you genuinely don’t want to accept and merge in contributions. Otherwise, it’s performance, not actual, and you are unfair to people who try and contribute.

Beyond including, recognise those contributions. If you have a release, put those contributors are in front of it, celebrate them. They have helped you make what it is; you wouldn’t be there without them.

Be open about roadmaps and releases

If you have contributors pretty soon, you need to be open about plans you have for your project, goals and releases. I believe you should have at least a project roadmap table somewhere—ideally, open project boards and a roadmap. I like the way Github do theirs.

Opening your project up can be incredibly rewarding, but do it respectfully and then who knows what incredible contributors will join you on the adventure.


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