Opened 7 years ago

Closed 5 years ago

#10013 closed enhancement (fixed)

Better Reflect Existing Sponsorship Information on the Website

Reported by: cypherpunks Owned by: phobos
Priority: Medium Milestone: WebsiteV3
Component: Webpages/Website Version:
Severity: Keywords: financial-disclosure transparency sponsors www-team
Cc: Actual Points:
Parent ID: Points:
Reviewer: Sponsor:

Description

The Tor Project is pretty strong when it comes to financial transparency, but three trivial-to-implement suggestions might make information disclosed by the Tor Project on its 'Sponsors' page more useful to users and other stakeholders:

1) Linking directly to the most recent IRS 990 form on the 'Sponsors' page ( https://www.torproject.org/about/sponsors.html.en ) could make details easier to access. Users outside the United States, for example, might not know that IRS 990 forms contain certain details they might not otherwise be interested in.

2) By listing what might otherwise look like end dates on the 'Sponsors' page above, users who don't notice that the information is only current as of 2012 might think that all of Tor's sponsors have left it. Making the "current as of" date more visible on the page and listing something like "2006 - present" instead of "2006 - 2012" might be less confusing. For sponsors offering grants, it seems easiest to just list the expected duration of current grants, where applicable.

3) If a user only reads the 'Sponsors' page, they could be looking at information up to almost two years out of date (1 year and 10+ months as of today) without checking other sources. To offer users more current information, adopting a policy of disclosing all large grants (above an arbitrary threshold, perhaps $200,000 or 20% of Tor's total operating budget for any given year) on the 'Sponsors' page within a month could make the information users might care about most (who sponsors the project now) more timely and relevant. Relatedly, updating the 'Sponsors' page to reflect the specific date (rather than the year) the page was last updated would better inform users in terms of how recently sponsorship information was updated.

Child Tickets

Change History (21)

comment:1 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Owner: set to phobos
Status: newaccepted

comment:2 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Thanks for the thoughts. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Sure, I'll work on it.

2 and 3, we generally cannot disclose current contracts, so giving away information like "-present" isn't possible. We also have had contracts in the past who forbid us from listing them as a sponsor to avoid their name showing up in Internet search results tied to Tor. Go figure.

We can't publish anything before the audit is completed each year and the 990/PC filed. It takes 8-10 months to do the audit at the current rate.

What we could do is scrap the sponsors page altogether and merge it with the financial docs page, and then create a basic set of demographics about tor funding, based on 990/PC filings.

comment:3 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Last edited 7 years ago by phobos (previous) (diff)

comment:4 in reply to:  description ; Changed 7 years ago by arma

Replying to cypherpunks:

2) By listing what might otherwise look like end dates on the 'Sponsors' page above, users who don't notice that the information is only current as of 2012 might think that all of Tor's sponsors have left it. Making the "current as of" date more visible on the page and listing something like "2006 - present" instead of "2006 - 2012" might be less confusing. For sponsors offering grants, it seems easiest to just list the expected duration of current grants, where applicable.

I agree that this would be really useful. It looks like #9614 is where we changed it from mentioning some 2013 funding to pretending like 2012 was the end of time.

Andrew, do we as a non-profit have any legal responsibility to disclose only audited things on a webpage like this (ugh), or can we just be (best-effort) accurate?

I think we should simply not list an end date when we aren't sure when the support will end. And then hopefully every so often we'll put end dates on the ones that did end the previous year.

I also like the idea of putting dates into the future when we know them, e.g. the NSF grant with GATech and Princeton should be written as 2012-2016.

comment:5 Changed 7 years ago by arma

Also, what's the deal with our ordering of funders within sections? It looks like we had one or more patterns once but they got lost along the way.

Also also, what's up with https://www.torproject.org/donate/become-sponsor.html.en ? It seems related but in a totally separate wing of the website ("Help another way").

comment:6 in reply to:  4 ; Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Replying to arma:

I agree that this would be really useful. It looks like #9614 is where we changed it from mentioning some 2013 funding to pretending like 2012 was the end of time.

From the financial perspective, it is the end of time.

Andrew, do we as a non-profit have any legal responsibility to disclose only audited things on a webpage like this (ugh), or can we just be (best-effort) accurate?

We've been repeatedly told by our auditors and accountants to not disclose any financial data which is not audited to avoid messy IRS laws of premature disclosure. I'm investigating which laws and what the courts have done with such premature disclosure. We can assess our risks of publishing things when we have better info.

I think we should simply not list an end date when we aren't sure when the support will end. And then hopefully every so often we'll put end dates on the ones that did end the previous year.

This would fall under "premature disclosure".

I also like the idea of putting dates into the future when we know them, e.g. the NSF grant with GATech and Princeton should be written as 2012-2016.

The Sponsorship page is people who've actually paid us, not promise to pay us. I hear the USG promises to pay us $2 billion in 2018.

comment:7 in reply to:  5 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Replying to arma:

Also, what's the deal with our ordering of funders within sections? It looks like we had one or more patterns once but they got lost along the way.

They're funding levels. Some people use Platinum, Gold, Bronze, Slightly-oxized Bronze, Polished-yet-not-very-shiny Bronze, and ugly stainless steel as levels. I chose species of onions.

Also also, what's up with https://www.torproject.org/donate/become-sponsor.html.en ? It seems related but in a totally separate wing of the website ("Help another way").

It's part of the donate section.

comment:8 in reply to:  2 Changed 7 years ago by cypherpunks

Replying to phobos:

Thanks for the thoughts. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Sure, I'll work on it.

2 and 3, we generally cannot disclose current contracts, so giving away information like "-present" isn't possible. We also have had contracts in the past who forbid us from listing them as a sponsor to avoid their name showing up in Internet search results tied to Tor. Go figure.

This is understandable, but I would also argue potentially misguided, since that information may--in some cases--be available in the IRS 990 forms to people who bother to look.

We can't publish anything before the audit is completed each year and the 990/PC filed. It takes 8-10 months to do the audit at the current rate.

This is also understandable, but previous IRS 990 forms mention some "forward-looking" information like the expected end years of grants. It could also be disclosed in a slightly different way--perhaps in the form of "we anticipate receiving a large grant from sponsor X."

What we could do is scrap the sponsors page altogether and merge it with the financial docs page, and then create a basic set of demographics about tor funding, based on 990/PC filings.

I think this could useful as well.

comment:9 in reply to:  6 Changed 7 years ago by cypherpunks

Replying to phobos:

Replying to arma:

I agree that this would be really useful. It looks like #9614 is where we changed it from mentioning some 2013 funding to pretending like 2012 was the end of time.

From the financial perspective, it is the end of time.

I understand the rationale here, but where I was coming from in submitting the ticket is that I'd assumed this page was for users, not accountants. Maybe the piece about accounting rules dictating how and the information can be disclosed could be added, if necessary?

Andrew, do we as a non-profit have any legal responsibility to disclose only audited things on a webpage like this (ugh), or can we just be (best-effort) accurate?

We've been repeatedly told by our auditors and accountants to not disclose any financial data which is not audited to avoid messy IRS laws of premature disclosure. I'm investigating which laws and what the courts have done with such premature disclosure. We can assess our risks of publishing things when we have better info.

Any news on this? I would be very surprised if there were any risk of making disclosures like "we anticipate receiving a large grant from Sponsor X." It seems like it should be possible to keep users informed with more recent information--even if things aren't set in stone and audited yet--without running afoul of IRS rules.

I think we should simply not list an end date when we aren't sure when the support will end. And then hopefully every so often we'll put end dates on the ones that did end the previous year.

This would fall under "premature disclosure".

Are you sure about that? I've definitely seen other nonprofits' blog posts excitedly announcing that they've received grant funding. I suppose that could be bad behavior on their part, but my impression is that it's a relatively common practice.

I also like the idea of putting dates into the future when we know them, e.g. the NSF grant with GATech and Princeton should be written as 2012-2016.

The Sponsorship page is people who've actually paid us, not promise to pay us. I hear the USG promises to pay us $2 billion in 2018.

From a user's perspective on transparency, I would respectfully argue that promises to pay are still relevant to users. I'm not suggesting this is an issue for The Tor Project, but I think it's analogous to the way that the appearance of financial conflicts of interest can sometimes be just as important as actual conflicts of interest.

comment:10 in reply to:  2 ; Changed 7 years ago by cypherpunks

Replying to phobos:

Thanks for the thoughts. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Sure, I'll work on it.

2 and 3, we generally cannot disclose current contracts, so giving away information like "-present" isn't possible. We also have had contracts in the past who forbid us from listing them as a sponsor to avoid their name showing up in Internet search results tied to Tor. Go figure.

I'm not trying to be snide in suggesting this and completely understand that in many cases contractual obligations like non-disclosure might be appropriate decisions to make, but I just wanted to note that some users might also find it shady that The Tor Project is or has been prohibited from discussing its sponsors on its own website.

I can only speak for myself and maybe most people don't really care, but hearing that a sponsor doesn't want itself listed on the website makes me wonder why that sponsor wouldn't want Tor users to find out about its sponsorship.

We can't publish anything before the audit is completed each year and the 990/PC filed. It takes 8-10 months to do the audit at the current rate.

What we could do is scrap the sponsors page altogether and merge it with the financial docs page, and then create a basic set of demographics about tor funding, based on 990/PC filings.

comment:11 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Ok, I've asked our auditors for specific guidance here. I'll update when I have actual guidance as to what we can publish on this page. As far as I can tell, and I'm not an auditor, there are no financial laws nor standards which apply to non-profits as far as current and forward-looking statements apply.

Last edited 7 years ago by phobos (previous) (diff)

comment:12 in reply to:  10 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Replying to cypherpunks:

I can only speak for myself and maybe most people don't really care, but hearing that a sponsor doesn't want itself listed on the website makes me wonder why that sponsor wouldn't want Tor users to find out about its sponsorship.

They specifically took issue with the meaning of the word "sponsor". In their minds, they no more believe in Tor than they believe in aliens from outer space. We were merely the best people to defeat censorship for their project and duly hired us to do so. To them, "sponsorship" implies they believe in our cause and our goals, which their CEO stated multiple times was not the case. If we called the page something more factual like "funders" they wouldn't have such an issue with being listed.

Last edited 7 years ago by phobos (previous) (diff)

comment:13 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

After a quick exchange with our auditors, updated the page with svn commit 26420.

comment:14 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

I reworked the lists to follow the current trend of non-profits just listing all of their sponsors. All of the details are in the financial docs and annual reports if people want do dig into them and find it. I think I'll work on the financial docs page to summarize the 990/PC on the web page to make it easier to digest than 100s of dense accounting pages in pdf files.

comment:15 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Keywords: www-team added
Milestone: Tor Website 3.0

comment:16 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Keywords: financial disclosure removed

comment:17 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Keywords: transparency sponsors removed

comment:18 Changed 7 years ago by phobos

Keywords: financial-disclosure transparency sponsors added

comment:19 Changed 6 years ago by grarpamp

Pasting below random bits in from talk. Was looking to match up dollars to finer grained subprojects, expenses and so on. And the time budgets for same. ie: "Here's guesstimated budget of time and $ that went to the various 'metrics' projects this year", for non-sponsor-directed coding, etc. One could probably mashup this directory with some of the wiki/blog/status and media info to get a better sense of some of these and other grains. Whether it's available/useful to put such things together and publish in a central area, I don't know. I think tpo hired a PM role, so it might go with that.
https://www.torproject.org/about/findoc/

Where is rent, legal, internet/hosting, marketing, capex?
A further breakdown of "Program Services" would be nice:

  • Number of FTE staff %'s funded from what size total pool.
  • Contracted coding, docs, etc.
  • Directed donations spent.
  • Conference/talks food/travel/lodging/registration reimbursements.
  • Pizza and beer :)

And some sort of breakdown of similar categories by time allocated/used:
a% coding, docs, bugs
b% infrastructure ops
c% management overhead
d% outreach by type
e% research
f% begging for dollars

comment:20 Changed 6 years ago by phobos

Working on this with a designer.

comment:21 Changed 5 years ago by Sebastian

Resolution: fixed
Status: acceptedclosed

Roger has updated the sponsor page quite a bit recently. I think this ticket is implemented for now, further concrete improvements welcome.

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