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June 11, 2006 » 8:57 pm

Why Nonprofits (and Foundations) Should Care About Open Source

Why should nonprofit organizations care about Open Source? I’ve had an ongoing conversation about this with Katrin Verclas for a while now, and I thought it would be worth outlining the arguments here. I actually think philanthropic organizations should care a lot more about Open Source than nonprofits, and I’ll explain why below.    (KOD)

Forget, for a moment, the question of whether nonprofits should be investing in technology or what the long-term return on investment might be. That question is a bit of a red herring, because a lot of nonprofits have fundamental problems (poor management, under-resourced, etc.) that can’t be resolved with technology.    (KOE)

Instead, assume that there are specific needs that can be addressed by technology. The question is, what do nonprofit organizations need to leverage that technology? They need two things:    (KOF)

  • The tools themselves    (KOG)
  • Capacity — the ability to install, maintain, and use the tools    (KOH)

If there’s an affordable tool that meets your needs, and if you have the capacity to install, maintain, and use it, then it doesn’t matter whether the tool is proprietary or Open Source. Use it.    (KOI)

If there’s no tool that meets your exact needs, then that tool becomes a candidate for fundraising, and the conversation likely shifts from the nonprofit itself to foundations. If you’re a foundation and if you’re going to invest in the creation of a tool, there are all the reasons in the world to invest in Open Source.    (KOJ)

  • You get more for your money, because others can invest in the same codebase as well, and you can use what you develop across your entire portfolio. This is especially true if you’re investing in a project that already exists.    (KOK)
  • You decrease the likelihood of lock-in. This is a bit misleading, as the cost of switching technology is not necessarily lower if your software is Open Source. However, you avoid the problem of legacy, unsupported software where the supporting company disappears, because the source code is always available.    (KOL)

Most importantly, as a foundation (or nonprofit), you’re more likely to be skilled at connecting people than you are at developing software. And this is exactly what developers need to build better tools — a greater understanding of their users. Commercial companies aren’t likely to care about a market unless it is mature, and the needs of most nonprofits don’t fall into that category. But Open Source developers will care. Many Open Source developers share the same underlying “do good” attitude that folks in the nonprofit world have, and they’re more than happy to improve their tools for the nonprofit community. By focusing on connecting with a pre-existing software development community that is already predisposed to work for the social good, you are likely to get better tools sooner than you might from proprietary software companies.    (KOM)

More importantly, the process of connecting has a powerful side-effect: It helps build organizational capacity. When you connect your community to developers, you’re also connecting your community to each other. There will be some who will feed off the knowledge of developers, and that’s critical. Even more critical is what your community will absorb from each other. People are far more likely to learn from their peers — those they perceive are as lost as they are — then they are from authority figures.    (KON)

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