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Open Source and Nonprofits: A Good Match?

At many nonprofit organizations, the continual search for new ways to cut costs is a simple fact of life. Any new process that represents a potential means of saving money tends to be welcomed with great enthusiasm. When the new process is technology based, however, that enthusiasm is sometimes laced with mistrust.

Open source software is technology's latest potential money saver to land on the nonprofit sector's collective radar screen. Open source refers to the fact that the source code of these programs is readily accessible to their users. Programmers who wish to improve the code or modify it to fit their specific needs can do so themselves, without depending on tech support from the company that produced the program or being hindered by restrictive licensing agreements.

The use of open source software and applications is a fast-growing trend among businesses and government agencies across the globe. There's no question that the open source model is having a powerful effect on the way the world looks at software. But is it right for the nonprofit sector?

Ideologically, the case for a good match is an easy one to make. Much like nonprofits, open source software represents an alternative to the "profits first" attitude of the corporate world. Like nonprofits, open source software is about a community coming together to make things better.

But fiscal realities, unfortunately, can often loom larger than ideals. The more pertinent question is whether the adoption of open source applications can truly represent a practical and cost-efficient alternative for the average nonprofit organization.

An important point is to understand the use of the word free when people refer to "free software" (a term more or less synonymous with "open source software," at least from a layperson's perspective). To quote from the GNU Project's definition of free software:
"Free software" is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of "free" as in "free speech," not as in "free beer."
In the long run, the implementation of any technology will cost money. And there eventually will be problems with it that need to be fixed. Naysayers argue that most smaller nonprofits don't have a sufficient IT staff to fix technical problems and rely almost exclusively on outside help. Using well-established proprietary software ensures technical support and a large pool of potential volunteers who are familiar with your system.

A common analogy used to explain the concept of open source to novices is that until now, software companies have been selling us cars with the hoods welded shut. Open source opens those hoods and allows buyers to work on the engines themselves.

This analogy leads to a word of warning for any smaller organization ready to rush out and join the open source revolution. You can open and close your hood all you want, but unless you or someone in your organization knows a heck of a lot about cars, you're still going to have to find a mechanic when you want your engine worked on.

Proponents of open source don't see this reality as a drawback. In fact, some see it as an asset. In theory, when your organization adopts an open source platform, your organization is adopted by the open source community. On-line resources and the pool of potential volunteers, it can be argued, are both increasing along with the popularity of the software.

So, is open source a good match with nonprofits? The quick answer is that there are no quick answers. It's safe to say that open source matches well with the sector but not necessarily with your organization. When it comes to technology (and many other things), it's a mistake to lump all nonprofits together into a single group. What's good for a private university with a multi-million dollar endowment might not be good for your local community center.

As a nonprofit professional, however, you should stay aware of what's going on with this developing trend. Projects are already underway to modify software to meet nonprofits' specific needs. And it's also important to remember that the use of open source software isn't necessarily an all-or-nothing deal. There are many applications that can be integrated into your current system.

So pay attention. If your organization isn't ready to get involved with the open source community right now, it doesn't mean that you won't be in a year or two. When considering new technology, open source is an alternative that should be strongly considered. But base your decision on realities, not just ideology.

Web Sites of Interest

  • The Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI) is an excellent source of information for nonprofits looking to get involved with or simply learn more about the open source community.
  • The Debian Web site contains updates and information on the Debian project to develop an operating system for nonprofits.
  • SourceForge is a centralized Web site for open source software development, providing free hosting to tens of thousands of projects.
Patrick Ferraro, 2004
© Philanthropic Research, Inc.

Patrick Ferraro is the Editor of the GuideStar Newsletter.
Topics: Trends