The world is a digital forum now, and the nonprofit world relies as much on computer systems and other forms of digital communications as any other sector of society. But are there any considerations in a nonprofit’s choice of software that might be different from that of other sectors? And is there an aspect of software choice and usage that might be more aligned with the core values of nonprofits?
This guide, produced by the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI), will attempt to answer those questions and provide some guidance on getting the most out of your software.
In the last few years, there's been a significant shift in the way that people use software and how people make money from use of that software. Initially, proprietary software made money through the sale of “per-seat” licenses. Which meant that anyone who wanted to install software on a computer was required to pay for it. Now, because of factors such as the wider availability of broadband and the increasing value of user data, the accessibility of software is far greater, the distribution system has completely changed, and the costs of the licenses of proprietary software have dropped significantly.
Today many people never actually install software, its accessed freely via a browser. However, there are still costs to using these services as companies now make money off of user data, usually by selling that information on to third parties. Even software that is still traditionally installed on your computer is increasingly using “the cloud” – which is essentially access to online servers provided by the company where your data is stored.
The most commonly used computers have also changed, they are now much smaller and are even built into your mobile phone. As a result of this, usability has become hugely important and companies have rushed to patent the most basic of user interfaces. Patents have become another way that software companies have increased their ability to make a profit.
In contrast, the other significant shift that has occurred in the last few years is the increase and use of software developed under the definition of "Free and Open Source" Software, also known as “FOSS”. The foundational philosophy behind free and open source software as articulated by the Free Software Foundation is “software that is:
free from restriction
free to share and copy
free to learn and adapt
free to work with others"
Free refers to the freedom to copy and reuse the software, while open source refers to the ability to study, change and modify the source code. Normally this is signified by the software license, by granting extensive rights to modify and redistribute. One of the most common FOSS licenses is the GNU Public License (see http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html), but there are also a wide range of others. See:
List of Free Software Foundation approved software licenses—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_FSF_approved_software_licenses
List of Open Source approved software licenses – http://opensource.org/licenses/index.html
Every nonprofit has its own particular mission, such as protecting human rights, feeding the hungry, creating job opportunities, or advocating to protect the environment. To support their missions, they need tools that work, don't take a lot of resources and allow them to accomplish their tasks effectively.
Open source software facilitates the needs of nonprofits by:
Allowing for free distribution, without the worry of piracy or having to pay for licensing fees
Allowing existing software to be modified to meet the unique needs of nonprofits
Utilizing “open standards” which means that data is portable and is not locked into proprietary format which can only be accessed by a particular software package
Assuring your system is as secure as it can possibly be, that the only eyes on your data are your own
This primer might be your first step into understanding how to integrate FOSS into your nonprofit's work; or you might use it to take that integration a step further, by initiating a FOSS development project or modifying an existing FOSS tool to better meet the needs of your team.
The chapters are arranged in an order that takes you through a process which allows you to use FOSS effectively.
In Chapter 1: “Why Nonprofits Should Care About FOSS,” we make the case for FOSS and explain it's importance to the nonprofit sector.
In Chapter 2, “You're Already Using FOSS,” we explain how you are likely to already be using FOSS, even if you don't already realize it, and also provide background to the long relationship that FOSS and nonprofits have with each other.
In Chapter 3, “Choosing FOSS,” we provide pointers on how to avoid some common pitfalls in migrating from proprietary software to FOSS and cover the basics for creating a plan to implement technology solutions.
In Chapter 4, “Planning Your FOSS Project,” we provide further guidance on how to engage your team and participate in the FOSS community.
In Chapter 5, “How to Get Support for Your FOSS Project,” we will look at ways to identify resources for your FOSS project and explore ways to maintain your FOSS tool over time.
We also have two appendixes, a glossary of terms and a listing of where to get open source tools.