Open source software in the social sector

In almost any industry, demand for products, services, and technologies trends with economic, social, and political situations. A year ago, when I joined the GitHub Social Impact team as the first-ever Program Manager, Open Source for Good, the demand for collaborative tools in tech for social good disciplines was strong. To provide an evidence base for everything I planned to do with the program, my colleagues and I thus decided to launch a research project to shed light on a familiar, but underexplored intersection – open source and social good. We also decided to write a report to summarize what we found, our theory is that a dearth of resources makes it difficult for non-technologist budget makers to understand why and how open source should actively be considered in their suite of tools.

The world is now well acquainted with the term COVID-19, which brings an extremely heightened need for social good organizations to stretch every dollar, embrace remote workers, and prepare for a new world order. In this uncertain time, ensuring social good organizations are able and willing to embrace relevant open source solutions is even more relevant than when we started our work.

I’m excited to share that the final report — Open Source Software in the Social Sector — is now available! (No information is required to download, and the report is free to the public.)

Lead by our researcher and in partnership with the Case Foundation, we designed a year-long research project that included the following inputs:

  • Semi-structured interviews from 55 open source for good experts
  • Two day-long conferences we organized of tech for social good experts
  • A widely disseminated survey that gathered 350 complete responses
  • An extensive literature review

The research led to three major persona types: consumers, producers, and funders. We’re planning on releasing the full personas in the coming months. In the meantime, here are the major attributes of each:

ProducersContribute to the building of OSS in the social sector by:
  • Writing code as a software developer.Designing or researching user interfaces, or contributing to the UI or visual design.
  • Maintaining OSS through triaging bugs, responding to comments, managing project boards, and onboarding new producers.
  • Defining and aligning projects to governance structures or other requirements.
  • Creating, maintaining, or otherwise contributing to documentation.
ConsumersPrimarily use at least one OSS without:
  • Contributing back to the original OSS.Open sourcing work built off the original project(s).
FundersProvide external monetary support to an organization, person, or project for technology in the social sector.

In the past decade, many tech for social good organizations have opted to become for-profit instead of nonprofits. Equally, many nonprofits aren’t focused on social good causes. For these reasons, we focused on the social sector, which we defined as non-governmental organizations that have a primary purpose to actively advance or positively contribute to any pressing societal issue or challenge. This definition includes foundations, nonprofits, inter/national non-governmental organizations (I/NGOs), and some for-profit companies.

Of course, the social sector is massive. Figure 1 below represents our Social Sector research priorities in the report.

Figure 1 shows the different types of organizations and individual social sector actors that were the focus of the research project and report. They are split into three categories – primarily implement, implement and fund and primarily fund. They are also shown to primarily focus domestically in the United States, or to focus globally, or somewhere in between. Other domestic nonprofits, tech consultants and global development organizations primarily implement. Federated NGOs and nonprofits, philanthropic foundations and multinational organizations both implement and fund. Governments and bilateral funders primarily fund.
Figure 1: Social Sector Research Priorities

The report contains major barriers, successes, and opportunities for the social sector to consume, produce, and fund open-source software. Here are some of the top insights:

The mutual benefit of deepening the intersection of OSS and the social sector

Stronger collaboration between the social sector and the open source ecosystem could:

  • Maximize technology budgets
  • Bridge technology gaps of social sector staff
  • Bring software consumption costs down
  • Increase transparency and efficiency of social sector programs
  • Diversify the open source ecosystem
  • Align values between technology use and the social sector

How is OSS communicated and socialized in the social sector

  • Social sector organizations often conflate “free” with “open” due to misunderstanding pricing models.
  • Open data and open source are also often confused.
  • Adequate ways to search for an OSS in the social sector is a problem.
  • Federated and/or multinational organizations have had great success in producing OSS

Best practices the social sector needs to adopt

  • OSS producers should structure new code with the flexibility to contribute and should focus on good design and documentation.
  • DIAL Catalytic Grants can be used toward the cost of refactoring old code.
  • OSS consumers should look for opportunities to contribute back to the OSS tools they use. Ways to contribute include documentation and project management.

Funder Support and Sustainability

  • There are major gaps throughout the funding lifecycle for OSS in the social sector.
  • Producers often face unrealistic requirements in the RFP process and have challenges securing funding for ongoing work.
  • Producers and consumers are not incentivized to use open source.
  • Producers are creating and finding new funding models to meet infrastructure and end-user consumer needs.
  • Adapting commercial models of sustainability and using volunteer platforms may help producers with long-term, non-funding related sustainability.

Open Source Software in the Social Sector is the most comprehensive known resource on the intersection of open source and social good. The research project and writing the report was an incredible learning experience, and we’re grateful to be able to offer all its insights for free to the public. The Open Source for Good program is working on several projects to continue to make open source more accessible to the social sector. To receive updates and to get involved, join our listserv.

And to learn more, be sure to watch a discussion I moderated on open source and COVID-19 pandemic responses.

Mala Kumar
Senior Program Manager - Tech for Social Good
Mala is an experienced tech for social good practitioner with a strong emphasis on UX research and design. She has designed, led and collaborated on ICT4D projects throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and in NYC, DC, and Europe in English and in French. Mala currently runs the Tech for Social Good program at GitHub. Her previous experience extends to the United Nations, the private sector and INGOs. Find Mala's portfolio at and read more about the GitHub Social Impact team: