The Structure of a Community
openSUSE is a free, open project. Although Novell sponsors it heavily, the project belongs to the openSUSE community. Things were not always this way; before Novell's acquisition of SuSE, SuSE internally managed the course of the distribution, with little input or participation from the user community. Novell's decision to split the SUSE product line into the free, open, community managed openSUSE project, and the Novell-owned SUSE Linux Enterprise projects, has allowed the community to embrace, extend, and direct SUSE in a way that was not possible before.
The openSUSE project is governed by a document of Guiding Principles, managed by a Board of Directors, elected by the Membership, who are appointed from the User community. I'll explain each group in a bit more detail.
There are users and there are Users
openSUSE allows for its users to officially recognize themselves, proclaiming "I am an openSUSE User!" via users.opensuse.org . As of today, there are over 11,000 registered users worldwide. As an openSUSE User, one is entitled access to the complete member directory, election results, and easy access to the other SSO-enabled openSUSE sites.
As a User, one has the opportunity to accept the Guiding Principles: the document that governs the community and the project, and defines its identity apart from, and in cooperation with Novell. In a nutshell, we are the openSUSE community; we want to create the best Linux distribution in the world; we value the ideals of free software; we are governed by the board of maintainers. So far, over 4,300 Users have accepted the Guiding Principles, establishing the legitimacy of the project as a a free, open software project.
The largest benefit to being a User, though, is the stepping stone it places before you. As a user, one can apply for openSUSE Membership. Members are, by the definition of the project, users who have made a "continued and substantial contribution" to the community.
Membership has its Privileges
Users can apply based on the merits of any contribution, but it is a request not a grant. Applications are reviewed individually (currently by the Board) and granted on a case-by-case basis. Given, most applicants are accepted, assuming they understand what they are applying for. Applying without contribution, over-embellishing, or flat out lying about your contribution is a sure-fire way to get yourself drummed out.
Members do receive some interesting benefits, most of which are only of interest to those who would want to contribute anyway: an @opensuse.org email alias, an openSUSE cloak on Freenode's IRC servers, syndication on Planet SUSE, a Lizards blog account, and most importantly, access to Board elections.
Membership requires contribution, because Members must be committed to the project. From the Members the Board is selected and elected, who make the day-to-day decisions about the direction of our distribution. It is a serious responsibility, and an important role in the community. As of today, there are nearly 400 openSUSE Members.
The Board of Maintainers
During an annual election, Members may run for a position on the Board, half of which is elected each year to server a two-year term. The Board consists always of both Novell employees, and non-employee Members. Only the chair is directly appointed by Novell. The Board provides guidance, and facilitates communication with Novell; they are the official channel between the community and the corporation, responsible for ensuring the success of the project.
Get into the Groove!
If you use openSUSE, I encourage you to sign onto users.opensuse.org, and (if you agree) register your support for the Guiding Principles. Each user that does so strengthens our community, and therefore ensures the endurance of our project. If you are giving back to the community, apply for Membership, so your contribution can be recognized, and the horizons for your participation expanded. Who knows... maybe you'll be on the Board next year ;)