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Adventures in open source: The nonprofit software debate continues

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I have to admit I’m not very tech savvy. I’m just happy if I can use my laptop without hassle and rely heavily on the IT support of my family and friends. Case in point: recently, and without warning, the lovely letter “O” fell off my keyboard, creating much frustration - and plenty of typos. With none of my “support staff” currently available, I make do, swearing occasionally, but resigned to my fate until my geeky friends fit me into their schedule. So when asked to write a story on software - assessing freeware, shareware and open source software - I sensed the infamous O key mocking me. But, in the hope that, I too, will learn a thing or two, I soldier on.

Now, I would never compare my lack of technological know-how to the knowledge of presumably savvier folks out there in the nonprofit sector. But, if the results of my research for this story are any indication, many share my tech concerns and trepidations. And while alternative software - be it freeware, shareware or open source - can prove beneficial financially and otherwise, it appears many organizations remain hesitant to incorporate them into their computerized world.

Who, what, where, when?

Before delving into the issues at hand, perhaps some definitions would be helpful. In short, open source involves programming code that is totally open, on top of which anyone can run or build their own programs. The obvious advantage for a nonprofit is that you don’t have to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a piece of software since you can simply download it and use it freely. Linux, an operating system similar in function to Windows, would be the most obvious and popular example of such software. The development of Linux helped to create many of the open source concepts we see today and inspired others to create software based on these principles. And many would be surprised to learn that they are using open source software even if they aren't aware of it. In fact, more than 70% of the Internet is being delivered by an open source web server called Apache and one of the biggest scripting languages online is PHP.

On the other hand, shareware and freeware have to do with the distribution model, not proprietary issues. Their software has code that is still protected, can be downloaded for free, but comes with a number of limitations. Many shareware developers, for example, allow the user to download the software and use it for free for a certain period of time, say 30 days. But if, after the term expires, you want to continue using the software, you’re asked to pay a fee.

Walk slowly and carry a big techie

So, if one has the ability to download software for free and to customize it to his or her needs, shouldn’t all nonprofits be jumping on the alternative bandwagon? Perhaps, but many organizations seem to hold a cautious, tentative approach. And, while experts place great value in open source and other options, they also understand these concerns. Ray Stockford, a technology consultant at Calgary-based Centerpoint, explains. “We deal a lot with smaller charities and nonprofits who don’t typically have a full-time or even part-time IT person.” In these cases, freeware, shareware and open source are really not a good option, he concludes. “They need somebody to delve into it, test it and find an efficient way to roll it out and then train people. But they just don’t have those resources.”

In fact, one smaller organization I spoke with stated anonymously that, “although the software is free, the support system is not, and if you don't know how it operates - which we don't - it can end up costing you a fair chunk of change.” True enough, but what about the larger organizations, the ones who have enough money to throw at IT support? Well, a marketing director at a big national nonprofit described - also anonymously - his unwillingness to integrate the software this way: “Mostly we see the difficulties in using open source, its compatibility, integrating the many types of use required (fundraising, operations, information/marketing), maintaining and sustaining, etc.”

“The reason I say, in most cases, open source isn’t useful is that you really need to know what you’re doing,” states Gillian Kerr of RealWorld Systems. Organizations have two choices, she continues: one is to buy expensive software that has usability built in, like Microsoft, and the other is to hire an expert to handle it for them. “But if you use an open source or proprietary solution that’s been heavily customized, then what do you do if the IT person disappears or you don’t like them?” While you may save money on free software, there may be huge costs of support in maintaining the programs.

That said, if an organization does have a part-time or full-time technician on hand, Stockford claims the free software can be quite impressive and can make great program choices. Moreover, adds Kerr, where the interface is technical, it makes sense to use open source because you’re hiring an IT person anyway. For example, programs like Drupal - a popular community open source website database program - is widely used and appreciated by many in the sector. “For some areas, you wouldn’t even think of non-open source because you’ve got these 20 years of geeks focused on developing something that is exactly what you want to do.”

Bill Gates calling

Of course, organizations do have the other option of purchasing discounted brand name software. And though many people hail this more budgeted choice, some still find challenges with it. “Even with not-for-profit pricing or donated-software availability, the cost of these applications can become expensive when multiplied by the number of different applications that an organization might require,” says Philip Smith, founder of Community Bandwidth and consultant to Canada’s nonprofit community. For example, through the software-donation program of TechSoup - a company dedicated to providing not-for-profits with discounted software - a copy of the Microsoft Exchange server and ten client-access licenses would cost approximately $100US. “Add to that cost the administrative time to apply to the program and to navigate the overly complex restrictions - such as being restricted to requesting software once every two years and then to only six titles per request - and even 'donated' software quickly becomes a serious investment.”

What works for you?

According to Stockford, it really depends on what you’re looking for. Open source software, he says, tends to be more cutting edge. “Microsoft and big companies take a while to develop things, while, with open source, a new feature is added the minute a programmer decides to put it in.” So if you’re looking for stability and consistency, you want to go with a commercial product, but if you want the latest and greatest features and there is something comparable with open source, then that may be the way to go.

Some organizations turn to open source since proprietary solutions just don’t give them what they need. “Because of some of the things we’re trying to do, we can’t just go to a supplier and get them done. No one is offering these things on a commercial basis,” says Eric Squair, a communications and web consultant at Greenpeace. He adds that long-term viability plays a strong part in the assessment of which software to pursue. When a Canadian supplier of a campaigning tool program went out of business, they replaced it with an open source solution. “It’ll last a lot longer than any proprietary software because if one company goes out of business, someone else can pick it up and start working at it,” he says. Squair believes the movement toward open source will continue to pick up steam as more technological consultants learn the tricks of the trade. “The collaborative way is really more sustainable in the long run because it’s not tied to one business doing well.”

Another proponent of the open source movement, Mike Gifford, runs Open Concept Consulting and works with a growing roster of progressive organizations who’ve courageously gone the way of open source with highly satisfactory results. “If there is resistance among nonprofits, it is usually from the more conservative elements of the NGO - like the accounting department,” he says. He adds that most nonprofits need an external advisor to help them with critical technology issues but if that advisor is trained by Microsoft they will be less likely to be familiar with open source solutions.

One Gifford client, Ottawa-based TransFair, uses open source - such as CiviCRM, a client management software and Drupal - to fulfill a number of their ongoing needs. And Heather Weinrich, head of TransFair's marketing department, claims the new tools are quite user-friendly for non-technical people like herself. That said, she adds, “I would definitely recommend having the assistance of someone like Open Concept to lead the project, unless the user was very computer savvy.”

For nonprofits deciding on which software programs are right for their needs, Kerr suggests a requirements analysis. You need to ask yourself what you need, why you need it, and lastly, what are your technical requirements, including financial considerations. Sometimes your unique needs, available technical support, and cash flow will make open source, shareware and freeware the definite choice. Other times, the preference will be for more standard rock-solid discounted fair such as that found in Microsoft products. Kerr also advises nonprofits to look at other free web-based service options that are available. For example, Google recently introduced Google Apps. Though not open source, the standard version is free and includes a corporate e-mail system that provides each employee with up to two gigabytes of e-mail storage. It's clear that choices abound, but the decision is unique to each and every nonprofit.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance print and broadcast journalist living in Toronto.

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