Questions You Should Ask Before Buying Open Source Software

Open Source for Nonprofits

Everyone seems to want, “All that and a Bag of Chips”. Oh, and by the way, “We want it Free too”. Open Source Software for some is the complete package. And, for others it’s half the combo they desire. In this article, I discuss the concept of “open source software” and key questions you should ask before purchasing “Free” software for your nonprofit.

Pros and Cons of Open Source Software for Nonprofits 

What is Open Source Software? 

Open source software is licensed differently than the proprietary software you are familiar with. Proprietary software is intended to be a complete package, and as such you are not permitted in most cases to alter or share the source code. The source code  is the programming that makes the application do what it’s supposed to. And, it usually is closed and locked.

I found this quote on Guidestar which describes an analogy for open source software:

Software companies have been selling us cars with the hoods welded shut. Open source opens those hoods and allows buyers to work on the engines themselves.

Certainly, open source software is different. Here a few of the advantages:

  • Real time updates and upgrades. No more waiting for your vendor to release the next version before bugs &/or security holes are patched.
  • Once a bug is identified and validated, the Open Source community is quick to release a fix.
  • Unlike various proprietary systems, where source code is not available – application integration is now affordable and possible, even for small business.

There are several types of open source licenses for different purposes, but in general an open source license allows the user to share the program, and modify the source code as they see fit. Sometimes open source software is referred to as “free software.” This is because the user is free to change the source code to meet their needs, it does not mean the software is without cost.

In general, open source software (the product itself) is a worthy consideration. And, many nonprofits should contemplate the question, “Is Open Source Software Right For Me?”. But, there are some important things to consider in evaluating and answering that question for your nonprofit.

Does an “out of the box” application fit your needs?

If your nonprofit has unique software needs, then using open source software may be a good option to explore. Once you download (or buy) the software you can change it to meet the needs of your company. There are a couple of ways to do this – using plug-ins and extensions that other programmers have written, having your tech team develop modifications specific to your company, or hiring an outside development team to write the modifications for you. Which ever you choose, the final product will in theory be software that does exactly what you need. Further, a software platform which you can modify as the needs of your nonprofit change.

Can the technical team support the software?

Most open source software provides tech support of some type, usually in the form of an on-line message board. Sometimes the message board is run by the software developer, and other times it’s run by long-time user, and technically minded supporters of the software. There are no guarantee of timely or responsive service. Either way, you need to have someone on-staff who is technically savvy enough to find answers if you run into problems with the software.This is the biggest challenge for most small nonprofits. Most small to midsize nonprofits simply do not have this luxury. So, in order for open source software to be a good fit, you will need to secure a trusted service partner if this is going to be a viable option.

Is the software compatible with other software used by your nonprofit?

This is an important point to research. If you buy an open source software package and it can’t talk to your existing operating system, or other programs it needs access to in order to run, then you have a big problem. Because its open source, you might be able to write a change in the software that allows it to communicate with necessary programs, but then again, you might not. Exploring compatibility concerns could be the difference between a working system and having to spend thousands of dollars to remedy a problem.

If you are considering open source software for your nonprofit, contact us for help in determining if it meets the unique needs of your nonprofit.

Until next time, keep SmartThoughts in mind.

For More Insights: 

  • The Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI) is an excellent source of information for nonprofits looking to get involved with or simply learn more about the open source community.
  • The Debian Web site contains updates and information on the Debian project to develop an operating system for nonprofits.
  • SourceForge is a centralized Web site for open source software development, providing free hosting to tens of thousands of projects.

The Pros and Cons of Open Source Software for Nonprofits