June 17, 2014

Is Your Organization Ready for Open Source Software?

You know your organization needs to make a core technology change. Why? The list is long— you can’t get the donor information you need, your program team can’t effectively manage volunteers, and your operations staff are spending way too much time entering and moving data instead of engaging key constituents. It’s time.

Choosing the right core technology may be one of the most important strategic decisions you’ll make; because it changes how your organization operates and because of the cost and effort in involved, you’ll probably only have one chance to get it right.

If you’re like most nonprofit leaders, you do not have a lot of experience in this area, and so you’re likely to seek advice from a plethora of software firms, industry consultants, and other “experts” willing help you make the “right” decision. After the choice is made and the implementation complete, those people go away; but you, you’ll still be there leading the organization, living with and owning your technology choice for years to come.

Don’t leave this decision to others— you need to own this decision.

You’ve heard about open source software and its growing use and impact in the nonprofit community. You are especially attracted to the idea of “free” because you’d rather spend your money on your mission, not on your back office. You may even think open source software and nonprofits are a natural fit since neither is out to make money and both are driven to make the world a better place. However, you’ve heard about similar organizations to yours that had bad experiences with open source solutions. So…

What are key points to consider when evaluating open source software?

Open source software is not free. 
Yes, you can download the software for free, but unless you know what to do next, you’ll need help, and help generally costs money.  Essentially, you’ll need to host it, implement it, and maintain it. You will probably also need training, and you may need customizations or integrations.  If you have in-house experts, then great, your costs could be a lot less.  If you don’t, then hire a true expert that understands how your nonprofit works, what you need, has expertise in the technology, and can support your organization.

In the long run, the costs could be a lot less than commercial software, but not always.  Be sure to allocate funds for implementation and ongoing maintenance and training.

If you’re choosing an open source solution primarily because it’s free, then it may not be the right choice for your organization.

Be a bit wary of experts, even well-intentioned ones.  
It is very tempting to use “free” or deeply discounted offers from experts. However, often times these experts are not truly experts, but rather well-intentioned constituents who may not have the experience needed to effectively implement an open source solution.

It is common for consulting firms with expertise in nonprofit technology to receive inquiries from organizations because their critical software stopped working, cannot be upgraded, can’t be accessed, etc.   Often times by this point, 6 months to 2 years into the implementation, the organization is very dependent on the software.  Sometimes the issues can be easily fixed, other times not, and the system needs a second implementation. Often times, these organizations initially utilized a well-intentioned expert such as a board member, a staff member, someone’s relative, a local technology person, or an intern to install and maintain open source software at no cost or deeply discounted costs.

If your well-intentioned expert cannot provide you with examples and references of similar implementation projects, then understand that utilizing their services is a big risk. If your organization can not afford the risk, then using these free services is probably not the right choice for your organization.

Think of open source software as a platform and not a product.
A key strength of open source software is that it can be configured and modified. Open source software is a flexible platform that can be built upon to meet your organization’s specific processes and needs. On the other hand, commercial software is a product with prebuilt approaches in which your processes and needs will be placed.

Many nonprofits have similar processes and fit very well into the prebuilt approaches within a commercial product. However, if the commercial vendors cannot provide you with good examples of similar implementations of your key needs, or if process flexibility is important to your organization, then an open source platform may be a better choice.

There are no guarantees.  
With open source software, you don’t have a software company that you can call and scream at if things go awry, you cannot pay the provider a fixed monthly maintenance or support fee for unlimited support, and you will not have guarantees that features you want or bugs that you need fixed will be done on a particular schedule.

You should not think open source means low quality because it doesn’t have such guarantees. If your organization will have difficulty dealing with these uncertainties, however, and you won’t feel comfortable having an outside support organization take on these responsibilities, then an open source product may not be right for your organization.

Is your organization a good fit for open source software?

Open source software for the nonprofit community has come a long way over the past 5 years; in most cases, it makes sense to consider open source software when making a strategic technology decision. Frequently, an open source solution has as good if not better functionality then many commercial products. Your choice may not be primarily based on functionality, but on organizational culture.

If your organization is conservative and doesn’t feel comfortable without a commercial vendor’s guarantee, then open source is not for you.  If your organization needs flexibility or doesn’t have processes that fit well into a commercial products pre-built approach, then a platform solution built on open source software is probably a better choice.

If you are choosing open source principally because it’s significantly less expensive, then be sure that you’ve factored in all the costs and are just hoping it’s less expensive in the end.

Paul Keogan
Paul Keogan is Founder and Principal at BackOffice Thinking, has been a leading technology consultant for the past 20 years. Since 2006, with the founding of BackOffice Thinking, he has worked primarily with nonprofit organizations. Paul’s passion is to transform his clients’ use of technology to better serve and engage their constituents, grow their donor base, and run their organizations more effectively. With the BackOffice Thinking team, he has led numerous software selection, design, and implementation projects throughout the U.S.