Is Open Source Right For Your Organization

Updated for 2014

Lots of people seem to be talking about “open source” software these days, but for non-techies, it’s not always easy to find out more about this option. The term “open source” itself means that the actual source code written by programmers can be viewed, modified or downloaded by anyone, and the software is typically developed, marketed and distributed by a loosely organized community of individuals rather than a vendor. It’s often distributed for free. This makes it appealing to organizations seeking to meet their goals on limited budgets, but “open source” can mean different things to different people—and so can “free.” Is it a good idea for nonprofits to take it on, or can it cause more problems than it might solve?

Pros and Cons

There’s much about open source software to make it interesting for nonprofits. It’s generally free to download, for example, but the actual costs of successfully implementing the software once staff time and consulting costs are taken into account can vary dramatically. Some open source software packages are easy to get started with, but others expect you to have someone technically savvy to get them up and running. And though a constellation of consultants and vendors tend to support most open source packages, support costs can be as high or higher than those for traditional software.

For organizations looking to build a customized solution on an existing platform of functionality and features, the lack of restrictions on modification also makes open source software attractive. Source code access can be valuable in certain circumstances—for example, to an organization looking to tailor a Constituent Relationship Management system or website Content Management System to very specific needs. But for many organizations and applications, it’s not necessary–or even desirable–to customize a piece of software through the code itself.

Traditional software requires that organizations not only track licenses, but also the type of license agreement that applies to each piece of software. For instance, one package might require each user to have a license, while another requires only enough licenses to cover simultaneous or “concurrent” users. Some require licenses per machine, or per processor within a machine. It’s easy even for conscientious organizations to end up in violation of license agreements, leaving them vulnerable to legal action and fines. Open source gives nonprofits more flexibility, since it can be installed on as many systems as needed without tracking licenses.

Where do the experts stand on open source? Opinion is, generally, divided. Open source evangelists believe in supporting such options wherever possible, and encourage organizations to share any useful modifications they make to the code. But for most nonprofits, budget and functionality are the primary drivers of software decisions. Open source could be useful, but it isn’t necessarily the best solution just because it’s open source.

Whether or not open source software is a good idea for you can also depend on the culture of your organization. Some organizations tend to stick with established technology brands, and prefer Microsoft’s software and all the support and brand recognition that comes with it over a smaller provider’s competing releases. If that’s the case at your nonprofit, make sure you seek and receive strong buy-in at all levels before going too far down the open source path.

Types of Open Source Software

Depending on the type of open source software you’re considering, different implications can affect your decision. For instance, the Linux community has built a powerful open source operating system that many favor over its main competitors, Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X. Linux has been a darling of the technology community thanks to its reputation for security and stability. A lot of people even predicted Linux would compete successfully with Microsoft’s Windows in the enterprise environment, and it did—but largely in niche roles, like web servers, where security and stability are paramount.

Outside the server room, Linux’s impact has been more limited. One reason is compatibility, which is paramount in the world of enterprise operating systems. Many of the most ubiquitous software packages—notably Microsoft Office—run on Windows and OS X, but not Linux, making IT departments reluctant to switch.

Ease of use has also kept Linux from taking a larger market share. Microsoft and Apple both respond to market demand for “approachable” operating systems, and switching an organization to Linux from Windows or OS X could require significant investments in training. Such costs could erase any savings earned by running a “free” operating system.

This is especially true for nonprofits, many of whom might be deterred by Linux’s learning curve and incompatibility with mainstream software tools. While most tools have open source equivalents, switching to Linux would require a near-total commitment to open source solutions. Not many organizations are prepared to undertake such a commitment.

Beyond operating systems, there are strong open source alternatives to productivity software, like Microsoft Office. Microsoft licensing requirements are complicated, and it can be a real advantage to an organization to use open source tools like OpenOffice and LibreOffice, which can be freely installed on any computer. These word processors and spreadsheets can open and save files created in Microsoft Word and Excel, eliminating some concerns around document compatibility.

But interoperability is another matter. While you may be able to open an extensively formatted Microsoft Word document in OpenOffice or LibreOffice, trying to edit documents collaboratively between the two systems can cause more difficulty. This can be a serious problem if your organization produces documents collaboratively with other organizations, who likely use Microsoft Office.

As another example, many open source CRMs compete with traditional commercial options to help nonprofits better track their contacts with the outside world, including donors, volunteers, and vendors. Similarly, open source website Content Management Systems compare well with vendor supported options to allow you to build and edit a website. While operating systems and productivity suites are affected by compatibility and interoperability issues, these are not problems with CRM and CMSs, which tend to be more self-contained. As a huge benefit, though, these open source solutions tend to be supported and built by a large community, which also creates add-ons for specific functions. So if you want to add additional functionality to your CRM or CMS, it’s quite possible that someone has already built an add-on that will accomplish the task. You just need to install it.

Often designed to appeal to end users rather than technology professionals, open source CRM and CMS solutions can be just as friendly as their commercial counterparts. If ease of use of a particular function needs improvement, source code availability means a programmer could help an organization tailor that function to better fit its needs.

While most open source CRMs and CMSs are free to acquire, expect implementation costs similar or higher than what you will find among commercial options. You should also factor in ongoing consulting costs for support and maintenance. Unlike commercial software, though, you won’t have to pay recurring license fees with related license management.

Making the Decision

Open source software has a lot going for it, between access to source code, freedom from licensing issues and the right to modify the software to fit your needs—not to mention the price. But most nonprofits making software purchase decisions have to balance their needs against the time and budget they can afford to devote to implementing the new system. Which means open source software is not going to be the right choice for every organization.

How do you decide if it’s right for yours? Consider all your criteria, and prioritize them. Weigh your needs against compatibility and interoperability, ease of use, availability of support, and all associated costs. Make your decision based on how well a given solution fits your needs—not whether that solution is open source.

This article originally ran in the The NonProfit Times.



Copyright The Nonprofit Times