The assignment seemed simple enough. Find out about “open sources” and write about them for our July issue.
I knew they had something to do with technology, but that’s about it. I was concerned because when it comes to me and technology, let’s just say I have issues.
And, when it comes to nonprofit technology issues, many of you might be in the same boat, so I suppose I seemed the perfect choice to write this story. I use the Internet to shop, e-mail, do research, read the latest news and feed my insatiable appetite for celebrity gossip. That’s it. No MySpace page, no blog, and all I know about Flickr is that it’s spelled weird.
So, I thought I would have my hands full.
Seconds into my first interview, I knew I was right. The techie immediately introduced the concept by throwing out words like “code” and “applications,” and then kicked it into overdrive with the acronyms — OS (open source), CRM (customer relationship management) and API (application programming interface). Ouch, this hurts.
My eyes began to flutter. My head started to spin, and I could feel myself drifting into a technology coma. She repeatedly apologized for talking in “geek,” but she also had a tough time controlling herself.
That call had to end. Thirty minutes had passed, and all I had was a headache and a need for french fries (a cure-all, in my opinion). I had to move on. I had a deadline.
I shook myself out of unconsciousness with a cup of coffee and moved on to my interview with Laura Quinn, founder and director of Idealware, which provides reviews of and articles about software of interest to nonprofits.
Bow down and worship, for she is my open source savior. She knows how to get to the nuts and bolts of the issue — and get there quickly.
Quinn first explains that open source isn’t a type of software, but an “ethic behind the software.”
Hang in there. It comes together, I promise.
She quickly redeems herself. See, open source is a development method for software and licensing that typically is created by a group to meet the needs of a community. It’s also free.
The exciting part is that this method provides groups such as nonprofits with access to the software’s code, therefore allowing users to upgrade the software, add features and build applications that will work with it.
“The code is completely for anyone to access,” Quinn says, “offering the user flexibility” — unlike proprietary software, where you have to work with what you’ve got.
Quinn turns to Microsoft Word as an example. (Awesome — a computer term I know well.) She explains that you can’t one day be working in Microsoft Word and decide, “Hey, I think I’m going to move the print menu from the left side of the screen to the right.”
“There’s no flexibility there because it’s proprietary,” she says. “In open source, no one owns the code so anyone who is qualified can update the software.”
So, a nonprofit could customize an open-source software package to create a database to donors the way it wants to track them.
But Quinn cautions that, like most things in life, open source isn’t completely free.
“It’s free to acquire, but getting [open source] up and running is another story,” she says, adding that nonprofits have to be “fairly technical” or have someone on staff who is able to install and maintain it. If not, she says, a nonprofit will have to hire a consultant or a programmer to do it.
There are plenty of well-known open-source packages out there. Quinn mentions Joomla!, a content-management system that helps groups build Web sites and other online applications; Drupal, a content-management platform; and Moodle, a course-management system for educators.
Until recently, MPower, the Dallas-based provider of software for CRM and fundraising for nonprofits, only provided proprietary — or closed — software. Meaning, MPower sold licenses to use its software, and its users had no access to its source code, MPower Founder and CEO Randy McCabe explains.
“In March of this year, we made our [software] completely open-source,” McCabe says. “We believe it was the right thing to do. It gives [organizations] control and options to get what they need.”
He says he believes MPower is the only company that has done this for nonprofits.
So, anyone can visit MPower’s Web site and download the software for free. No strings attached — a nonprofit can turn to MPower for installation and other services, or it can go to someone else.
Nonprofits have complete access to MPower’s source code, so they or their third-party service providers can easily develop new function-ality, customizations and add other applications to their systems.
Just when it’s all starting to become clear, I learn that “open source” isn’t the only way to be “open.”
Convio, the Austin, Texas-based Internet software and services company that provides CRM solutions for nonprofits, is a good example of being “open” without being “open source.”
Users can’t get into the source code of a Convio product and change whatever they want, but the company considers its products “open” due to their interoperability with other Web sites and products, Convio Chief Technology Officer Dave Hart says.
“We provide openness,” he explains. “If you’re doing your Web site on Convio, we can provide a tool to connect you to a Facebook application. You can reach out to your constituents. It makes it easy for nonprofits to do that without technical knowledge.”
Convio Vice President of Product Management Tom Krackeler says that what kind of “open” a nonprofit chooses depends on its needs and its interests.
“You have to figure out goals and go from there,” Krackeler says. “It really depends.”
Idealware’s Quinn agrees, adding that a lot depends on how technologically savvy a nonprofit is and admitting she likely will get some flack for her next comment.
“As of five years ago, open source was less friendly to users than proprietary,” she says. “That’s no longer the hard-and-fast rule.”
That said, however, she adds, “If there is someone technical on staff, then [open source] may be the option for you. If you’re a nonprofit with no clue where to begin, it’s not the type of software you’re going to succeed with. You need to be more technology-adventurous.” FS
Two Open-Source Tech Tips
Idealware’s Laura Quinn offers a number of tips for those nonprofits trying to pick an open-source package. They boil down to just two:
1. Think about your needs. Quinn says nonprofits need to know what their goals are before they choose any software.
2. Do some research. Keep your eyes and ears open. Packages that are generating a lot of positive buzz in the sector most likely would be good choices, Quinn says, suggesting nonprofits do Google searches to see what comes up about the packages that are being talked about the most, as well as visiting message boards: “If a lot of people are using it, it’s a good sign. Find out [user] experiences — what they like, what they don’t like. Word-of-mouth is important.”
Finally, Quinn suggests, find out how actively the package is being developed. “When programmers create new software and release it and then two years go by and nothing else is released, there is a problem,” she says. “Then the trajectory of the software is going down. You want a package that actively is being developed.”