Help your charity save money by adopting open source software

John Newton's picture
John Newton
LIfebelt on wooden wall

If you are a Comms professional commissioning software for your charity,the bad news is: you need to have a basic understanding of open and closed source licensing around the software and services you are buying.

First off, you have my sympathies. No one wants to bother with this stuff. Do you read the terms and conditions every time you upgrade your computer's operating system? Or book a holiday? Or take out a credit card? No, me neither. But unless you understand a few basic tenets around software licensing you could be paying more for the software than you need to and, just as importantly, you could be shackling your organisation to unwanted payments for years to come.

However, there's good news. First, the essentials of licensing aren't complicated and I'll show you why in this short article. Second, by considering open source software as your default choice, you are almost certainly going to be saving your organisation money and you'll be baking in flexibility to the solution you buy.

So let's get started by defining open source software.

Open source software is free software that you can use how you want.

OK is that it? Well, there's a longer definition - see this Wikipedia article for example for more - and people can get very heated (and rightly so) about the different kinds of open source and free software licensing models and philosophies that are out there. But the fundamental point remains that the software is provided freely and you can do what you like with it.*

Now this is huge. It is completely unlike the closed source model where you don't get access to the code, you can't change it and you can't do what you like with it. Microsoft Windows, Office, Adobe, Salesforce - these are all closed proprietary software.

What follows for you is really important when it comes to choosing open source: it means, you can ask your supplier to alter the software to fit your requirements. You aren't locked in. If you don't like a feature, change it. You can't do this with a proprietary system where no one but the vendor can change the code.

But what happens if your supplier can't or won't change the software? What happens if your supplier isn't doing a very good job for you? Get another supplier. If you've chosen open source software, that software can be transferred and taken over by a supplier that will do a better job for you. This is in stark contrast to the situation with. If you wish to leave, you'll need to start afresh and move all your data and designs and hard work into a brand new project. In effect, you'll need to build your website, intranet or application nall over again from scratch. Sometimes, you might not even be able to get hold of what you thought was 'your' data.

So open source gives you more flexibility in terms of features, plus more flexibility in terms of suppliers. You also need to know that any costs associated with the software should relate to support and provision. Unlike proprietary systems, there should be no fee just for using the software. So you are getting better value for money too.

One last point as I want to keep this brief - open source software is developed and maintained by communities. Communities are robust. They are made up of thousands of talented and committed individuals who are all working towards the goal of creating great software. They are pragmatists and they are generally driven by ethical considerations too. They aren't really corporate types and communities aren't corporations. Sure, this means they can have discord. Sometimes they can be hard to organise. But communities are resilient. They don't go bust like corporations. Proprietary software is built by companies - frequently very large companies - with shareholders. They change priorities. They might develop several pieces of software and one day decide the software you bought from them isn't making them enough money so they'll neglect it or worse still, stop supporting it altogether. Or maybe they'll just get driven out of business by a competitor. In this case your site can disappear over night. This happens. I've seen it.

I'm not saying that open source software is right in every instance. Your organisation may have a particular alignment of skills or existing set of technologies and contracts that restrict your choices. And not all open source agencies are created equal. But what I am suggesting here is that you consider open source software as your default choice. Be biased. You want to save your organisation money and provide better quality and flexible software. So please see if you can make open source work in your next project.

*You can skip this stuff unless you are really interested but it's worth knowing that open source software powers pretty much most of the web and much of the world around you. Amazon, Google, probably any smart device you have at home, your TV, your car, air traffic control systems - open source software is critical to the way web and the world works. Some accessible non-technical artcles include this one from Wired and this piece from V3.