How Open Source Can Open Doors for Nonprofits

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How Open Source Can Open Doors for Nonprofits

Open source software is a natural for nonprofits

By: Reuben Silvers and Jamie McClelland

November 1, 2002

There is a natural connection between nonprofits and the open source software movement -- but it has not yet been fully realized. By developing this connection nonprofits will not only benefit from the advantages of open source software but will be able to uniquely contribute to the development of new and richer open source patterns to the benefit of both nonprofits and the greater open source software movement.

What Are Open Source Software Patterns?

Open source software, by definition, is released to the public along with the code used to create it. Unlike proprietary software licenses, which restrict where and how you can install the software, prevent you from modifying or tampering with it, and deny you the right to copy it, open source software licenses grant you all these rights. The main restriction to most open source licenses is the requirement that any modifications made to the software be made public. Open source is perfect for nonprofits because it's not about "one size fits all." Each agency can adapt the software to suit its particular needs.

Rather than being developed for the ultimate purpose of sale, open source software is developed with the single goal of producing high quality software. By releasing the code to the public, developers are encouraged to take apart and improve the code.

Open source software, however, is more than just a license. It has become a novel way to both develop and use software.

Proprietary software is typically developed by a closed group of paid developers whose work is directed according to the financial interests of the company paying their salaries. Open source software, on the other hand, is often produced by a disparate team of developers – some paid, some volunteer – often spread out all around the world. The success and failure of many open source software projects are based on the ability of people, who may not share a common first language or culture and who have never seen each other, to effectively communicate and cooperate on a single goal that enriches the entire project, rather than just the individuals involved. The Internet and the (open source) software tools developed over the last decade have enabled this type of collaboration to succeed. The availability of programs like mailing lists, control versioning systems ( CVS), and project management software has greatly enhanced the ability of groups of programmers to collaborate without spending significant amounts of money.

Open source software has also changed the user environment. For example, open source is perfect when one size does not fit all. With the ability to modify the code users are able to tweak the software to fit their exact needs. Furthermore, open source software often (but not always) provides a more direct and personal line of communication between the users and the developer, in which a real user community can develop for the benefit of all users of the software.

Why Should Nonprofit Organizations Care?

Open source software development patterns are consistent with nonprofits on both ideological and practical levels.

For example, social justice nonprofits have always struggled to build diverse coalitions based on shared resources and a commitment to strengthen the entire movement, rather than enriching an individual or single organization. Most groups strongly advocate on behalf of public ownership of resources and property. The concept of community has always been of real importance to nonprofits seeking to build genuine relationships with the individuals and groups with which they work. The proliferation of small, special-interest nonprofits attests to the belief that one size does not fit all – every community and issue is different and requires new and original solutions.

In addition to these ideological similarities there are a number of practical considerations and trends that will make open source software an even more appealing choice for nonprofits.

While in the eighties and nineties most nonprofit organizations managed to get by with the most basic of software packages - word processors, spreadsheets, and simple databases - with the advent of the Internet, the need for more expensive and complex software packages is growing. Furthermore, new approaches to licensing (such as Microsoft's requirement that every product installed on every machine require a unique install key) may change how nonprofits use software. Soon, software companies may even replace the model of software as a product with a new model of software as a service. According to this model, software customers will have to pay annual fees, thus removing the cost-saving option of using old and out-dated software.

The software as a service model is closely related to another new development: the application service provider ( ASP). ASPs provide an alluring promise of storing all software on a remote server, requiring only a Web browser to use them. While ASPs are an appealing model, they also have their own risks – particularly the risk of going out of business. Since most ASPs are run with proprietary software, if they go out of business it is very difficult for a client to transfer data to another ASP. Furthermore, ASPs are either prohibitively expensive (compared to what most small nonprofits pay for software today) or ad-supported.

In the next few years software will become more expensive exactly as it becomes more essential to nonprofit organizations. This will require organizations to make difficult financial and strategic decisions.

Are Nonprofits Ready For Open Source Software?

Two large trends are at work making the transition to open source software even more appealing to nonprofits.

First, open source software is evolving from behind-the-scenes technical functions to applications (such as e-mail lists and content management systems) that users interact with directly. Since most nonprofits are small operations, with little in the way of IT staff, this is an important trend. The open source pattern to approaching problems prioritizes sharing the results for everyone's mutual benefit.

This trend is also important because it strengthens the pattern of open source development. The open source pattern to approaching problems is based on a distribution of work (beyond one office, city, state, or even country) and sharing the results for everyone's mutual benefit. This pattern has always been viable to international corporations via expensive plane tickets, video conferences, long distance telephone calls, and proprietary project management software. However, as new open source tools become available and become more user friendly to non-techies (such as the mailman e-mail discussion list and phpGroupware ), the ability for nonprofits to collaborate in this manner becomes much more viable.

Open source developers have been using less user-friendly versions of these tools for years and have developed unique relationships and systems for managing large projects across distances and cultures. As more nonprofits go online and have access to these tools, and as these tools become more user-friendly, nonprofit organizations will have an opportunity to more fully participate in this form of computer-assisted collaboration and will be able to contribute ideas for how to improve this process.

The pattern of open source development is therefore embodied at two levels – both in the development of the software itself and also in the way certain open source software projects are being applied.

The nonprofit sector is quickly getting up-to-speed on technology. A whole nonprofit technology sub-sector has emerged that includes:

Technology Advisors:
organizations and independent consultants that provide a range of technology-related services to nonprofits including: strategy and planning, assessment, implementation, networking, programming, and ongoing maintenance and support.
Information & Training Providers:
organizations that develop and deliver materials and training to help nonprofits understand technology and its potential impact.
Application Vendors to NPOs:
organizations that develop and market software aimed at the nonprofit market. Includes nonprofit as well as for-profit vendors, either selling licensed software or "renting" it via ASPs.

Why Open Source Now Looks Wide-Open For Nonprofits?

Trends exist in each category that would seem to lay the groundwork for the emergence of open source. Several technology advisory firms have begun releasing open source software of their own, which they then customize as part of their consulting services. Other firms have begun experimenting with Linux and other "mainstream" open source products with their clients.

At the same time, an increasingly important source of technology information for nonprofits are the online communities where consultants mix with nonprofit IT personnel and other staff who have become "accidental techies" at their organizations. The popularity of these communities means that nonprofit technology workers are becoming comfortable with collaborating on technology solutions.

Finally, the Internet boom and bust have led to fall-out among the application vendors. Some built expensive applications using venture capital that was designed with nonprofits in mind but they were unable to make a profit on the effort invested. They then have difficulty selling the application to other vendors given the questionability of the business proposition. In these cases, one option is to release the source code under an open source license and develop a community of users to help take on the burden of maintaining and supporting the software.

Based on these trends the long-term outlook for nonprofits to adopt open source looks bright.

So, What's the Problem?

Despite the advantages, the aforementioned trends, and the rosy outlook, nonprofits have not fully embraced open source software and do not appear to be moving in that direction on their own.

It may be that many people in the nonprofit community de-prioritize technology. Unlike for-profits, where technological innovation is closely linked with increased profits, there is still very little confidence among nonprofits that technology can significantly help them achieve their mission. While for-profits can evaluate to the dollar the impact technological changes have on their companies, most nonprofit missions' are largely immune to this type of objective evaluation. As a result, technology as a whole is often viewed as secondary to the organization's programs, rather than being understood as an integral part of these programs. In this environment it is difficult to advance any type of change to the technology status quo.

Additionally, the value of open source software rises with one's technology experience. If you do not know how to program, what good is having access to the source code? Adoption of open source software and methods has progressed the furthest in subsectors where organizations are larger and have full-time IT staff. These include education, libraries, and government (nonprofit in one sense). However, the vast majority of nonprofit organizations are small, with less than one full-time IT staffer (if anyone at all). While they may firmly believe that one size does not fit all, they are not necessarily in a position to take advantage of open source software's flexbility.

Many people in the nonprofit sector do not use open source for the simple reason that they have never heard of it. Although technology is slowly seeping into nonprofit conference and publication agendas, open source alternatives are still lagging behind. Many people do not understand the concept of open source, much less have a practical idea of how it could be used. Of the few people who are familiar with open source, many are frightened by its reputation for being difficult to use.

Finally, despite the growing group of individuals and organizations who are helping nonprofits develop technologically, few of even these folks are familiar with open source software. Of the people that are familiar, many have already mastered proprietary tools and lack resources to learn a new skill set that would be required for them to support similar open source tools.

Don't Despair!

Overcoming these barriers in not an impossible task. It simply requires the laying of groundwork in order to see results. The first task is education. Many individuals and groups are working toward this goal in collaboration with a project called the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative ( NOSI). NOSI is a volunteer effort aimed at bridging the gap between the nonprofit and open source communities. As the NOSI Web site states, "We envision a world in which nonprofits are an integral part of the open source community and in which technology development for the nonprofit sector is open, interoperable, useable, sustainable, and minimizes total cost of ownership."

The benefits of bridging this gap will be enormous – not only for nonprofit organizations but also for the open source development "pattern." As more people use computer-assisted tools for long-distance collaborations they will further develop the concept of open source intellectual property (for both software and other endeavors). The sharing of ideas as well as the techniques for implementing these ideas will become more widespread and can only enrich us all.

About the Authors:

Reuben Silvers is with the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative.

Jamie McClelland works with Media Jumpstart and the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative.