There Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Software Package

If I were to group all the questions I get into categories, one category would be far and away the most numerous. I'll call it the "options for people who can't afford software" category. As in, "Well, those databases for $300 or $20/month sound great, but we can't afford to pay anything - what can we get that's free?"

No question riles me up more. This is a really dangerous mind set. Would you think this way for other types of investments? "That Executive Director candidate seems really great, but who can we get that we don't have to pay?" "That office space seems perfect for us, but $100/month is a lot of money - what can we get for free?" Okay, possibly some nonprofits actually would do this for other things... but it's equally dangerous. Things worth having are worth paying for.

And not paying for them up front almost always means that you're paying in some other way. That free office space is great until it starts raining asbestos on your employees, or you're evicted to make way for a paying tenant. That free software might seem great, but if it doesn't do what you need, or your staff can't use it, or it's full of bugs... then it's useless to you, and it doesn't matter how free it is.

Also, I reject the likelihood that your organization has no money of any sort to devote to software. If you can't raise $300 to purchase a donor database that will help you solicit donations more effectively, you need donors much more than you need a database. I'm not saying that you should spend tens of thousands. I'm saying that you should decide the priority of having effective software and assign a budget to it accordingly. Yes, that might mean you'll have to fund raise for it.

Don't get me wrong. Free stuff is nice. I use some free software myself. But it's a BONUS that it's free. You can't start with that as a requirement and expect to end up in a good place. If a software package will help you save time or money, or earn more money, then it's worth paying for....and if it won't, you shouldn't waste your time with it.


I can't believe I just found this post!

I agree with Laura wholeheartedly.  I describe free donor databases as "free as in puppies" because they need a lot of care and feeding after you get them home (even more than kittens).  If you go into a donor database project expecting it to cost nothing you're likely to be disappointed.  In most cases organizations need to pay someone to configure or customize the system to their needs.  And even if the system does 100% of what you're looking for and no tailoring is needed, someone will need to convert your existing data, develop and document data entry standards and procedures, train your staff, and provide ongoing support.  If you have technical staff who understand fundraising and can do all this work, the system might technically be "free".  But there's still a cost in staff time for that person to do the work, and for the people who will use the system to help design and test it.  I'm not knocking these software packages, just the notion that they're free.

Bravo! Software should be

Bravo! Software should be viewed as any other tool that your organization uses. What are the benefits? Does it save you time or money, then it's a no-brainer. And you pay for what you get is so true. Excellent advice.

David,Well, I guess what I


Well, I guess what I should have said first was that it is extremely important when nonprofits pick open source software, that they choose a package with a large, active community of developers and users. That means that thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of users, and tens or hundreds of developers are invested in the project, and even if the original developer of the project leaves, the project will continue.

I would never suggest that any but the most savvy nonprofit choose open source software that has just a few developers, and a very small user base. There is real risk of the sort you've mentioned there.

I agree with you that there is less incentive on one level for open source software developers to stick with projects. But on another level, if there is a good community surrounding a project, then I'd actually try to argue (and you may disagree) that the presence of that community increases the incentive for developers to keep going. Whereas for-profits will look simply at the bottom line, even if a product has a user base. And there is also the risk of what happens to products that become obsolete, or during a merger.

I guess my argument is that neither proprietary or open source are inherently riskier in this area - what's most important is careful evaluation of the options.

Michelle,I understand where


I understand where you are coming from (I read your earlier post on a similar topic and do regularly read other posts of yours). However I am not sure about the point you made in response to my last comment.

If an open source project fizzles out or is fizzling out then there is little incentive to carry it on. As an organization that is really bad news if you have invested time and resources in it. If your for-profit solution is waning, not capturing the market share you would like then you make sure you capture the market because if you don't it could be the end of your product and then end of your profits and ultimately the end of your business. An open source project does not have these worries. If a project does not continue, so what. If the lead developers have gone on to do other, newer, bigger and better projects they probably do not care that a project they once invested in is no longer the ideal solution they once thought it was going to be.

Of course it would be great to think that somebody would pick up where they left off but it is not always the case that there are such people around to take up the mantle. At least with a for profit product there is the profit to be concerned about.


Thanks, guys! Yeah, this

Thanks, guys! Yeah, this post wasn't intended to suggest that open source software is a bad way to go... just that deciding up-front that you're not going to pay anything is a bad process.

In some circumstances, you'll decide what you need, budget what makes sense based on the priority of the system, look at what's available, and decide that an open source system is absolutely the way to go. And then you can take the money that would have gone to license fees and have more to define your business processes, training, data migration, etc - all of the *other* costs that any new system is going to entail.

A couple of comments. I agree

A couple of comments. I agree with Laura wholeheartedly - which is why I use the metaphor, "free as in kittens." But there are a couple of things to address.

David: actually, for-profit organizations stop supporting software all the time. Open source software, because it is a community resource, actually provides *more* guarantee of long term support. If a proprietary software maker stops supporting something, there is nothing anyone can do about it. If an open source developer stops working on something, someone else can (and usually does) take it up, and keep going with it.

Also, I agree with Jeff that money spent carefully will pay itself back - but money spent mindlessly on license fees when open source software that is really solid, and fully appropriate to an organization is available is problematic, too.

Everyone should please take

Everyone should please take heed of this great advice. As a consultant I have run across all too many organizations that went the "free" route at first only to have to pay much more later. Most free solutions require much customization, do not have support, and are not very powerful. Do it right the first time, and take your time to find a vendor that will provide you with a solution to "your" organization's needs. Money spent carefully here will more than pay itself back.

I could not agree more. There

I could not agree more. There is this terrible myth that open source free software is just so great. It can be. It can be really great but as Laura says you get what you pay for. Of course there may be some free software where there is support with a maintenance agreement but even then there is no guarantee or obligation to improve the software. When you buy software those selling have at least an obligation to maintain the software so that other continue to buy it.