The modern nonprofit, like pretty much all organizations these days, runs on software. But beyond the everyday tools used by most organizations, such as messaging, email, word processing and spreadsheets, there is always field-specific software that gets to the heart of each organization’s mission. For example, mental health organizations need software to handle incoming calls or do case management, whereas an anti-hunger nonprofit might need logistics software for managing donated food. But software really matters. What exactly an organization uses can be critical in meeting mission goals. The wrong choice can impede the work of a team and their programs.
And one of the biggest questions that arises when making a major software decision should be: open source or proprietary?
The answer to this question should be “it depends!” But, the widespread shift to cloud software brings with it a new set of complexity. There is a huge need for cloud-based software as a service (“SaaS”) platforms in the social good sector. The data should belong to the users, and the platforms be designed to meet the specific needs of each nonprofit. Some platforms will be built on top of open source software, and some will not (they’ll be proprietary, commercial software). But such tech questions get to the heart of success for a mission-based nonprofit. So, let’s dig in.
I’m a nonprofit entrepreneur building software for the social sector. Part of my job is trying to help nonprofit leaders understand both the promise and pitfalls of technology. Because open source is usually more affordable, and generally more values-aligned with the nonprofit sector, I advocate for open source solutions wherever they are a valid option.
Still, open source can be confusing and complex. I may have gone through my confusion phase about it twenty years ago, but that does not mean the typical smart nonprofit leader should expect it to make sense. And, even if they once felt they understood it, the move to the cloud, now increasingly inevitable, significantly changes the dynamics for nonprofits. When I’m explaining open source to funders, policy makers and most importantly, nonprofit leaders, I try to hit three major points.
Cloud is Different
Open source in the cloud era works differently than in the old days of PC-based software applications. In the old days, you’d download an open source app and use it on your computers. You might not get around to updating it ever. Cloud applications are simpler, much easier to maintain, generally cheaper, and far more powerful. However, they also store all that data about a nonprofit’s clients and donors on servers on the internet. That means they are at greater risk of being attacked by cyber-criminals. The advantages of being connected to a network are partially offset by being connected to a world of online attackers. This means that you have to take security very seriously, not something the nonprofit sector is known for. But a shared open source platform is still far more likely to have good security features compared to a custom, one-off, piece of software.
Open Source Cloud is Not Free
Every time you use a software-as-a-service platform operating in the cloud, one or more meters is running and costing you money. Even if the software applications you use are open source and free, vendors like Amazon, Microsoft or Google host that software for you on their computers. That uses computing power, storage and bandwidth, and they charge rent for those assets. So why has business moved just about all of its software to the cloud? Because it gets more powerful tools that work better, and overall, the cost of using those tools remains lower than the old-fashioned alternatives. Well-informed leaders know that the total cost of ownership is the only realistic way to evaluate tech investments. The up-front cost of some solutions can be appealingly low, but is not the whole story by any means.
Open Source is Values Aligned
Open source software operating in the cloud brings a host of benefits to the social good sector, and it is generally more values-aligned. The proprietary solutions that run in the cloud, by and large, are exploiting the data of their users, often against their interests. Open source by its nature is instead jointly owned with its users, shifting power and control to them. Nonprofits using open source cloud solutions typically own their own data and have the ability to hire their own tech team to improve and operate the software, if the original developer isn’t doing a good enough job.
An Open Source Cloud Example
KoBoToolbox is a terrific example of an open source cloud-based solution aimed at nonprofits. Started by two Harvard public health professors, KoBo was designed to make it easy to design surveys and collect data from anywhere in the world, even places without reliable internet. The software is open source, which means that anyone can update the software or install it themselves on their own computer servers. So, what’s the cloud angle? Almost nobody installs KoBo, because the KoBo nonprofit operates free servers available on the web (the UN liked it so much, it is paying the bill for any humanitarian nonprofit, without any usage limits). You set up a free account, design your survey, and collect the data, and the data is all yours (and KoBo doesn’t peek at it, either). Hundreds of millions of surveys have been done with KoBo for free. The users of one of my projects needed similar capabilities, so we just built KoBo onto our platform and contributed some software improvements to the open source project to make it even easier to use. This shows the public good which is possible through open source, and donors have even volunteered to foot the bill to make it free to nonprofits!
I believe a modern nonprofit needs a combination of proprietary and open source cloud software tools. You want your email to be handled by a Google or a Microsoft level company, with hundreds of security engineers protecting your confidential emails. But when it comes to SaaS platforms designed to meet the unique needs of the social good sector, I think the balance tips toward open source. On open source platforms, the data typically belongs to the users, and they are designed to meet the specific needs of each nonprofit field.
Open source shared platforms built as partnerships between the nonprofits in a given field and a tech nonprofit enterprise are a critical response to the problem I posed in my last Techonomy article: Why Don’t Nonprofits Have the Tech They Need? If SaaS works for restaurants, dentists and golf courses, it shouldn’t be surprising that it also works for crisis counseling hotlines and to operate vaccine refrigerators that stay cold. Those are both successful examples of SaaS being used in the nonprofit sector.
If you, or a nonprofit leader you know, wants to dig deeper, I wrote a white paper called Open Source Software for the Modern Nonprofit. It even includes a cute explainer video to help non-technical people understand how open source might actually work for them. If you know nonprofit leaders struggling with technology in general, or tech strategy in specifics, or if you want to work on using software and data for social impact, I encourage you to share the white paper and get engaged in seeing technology benefit all of humanity, not just the richest slice!