The Future is Community
Nonprofit organizations inherently champion “community” in their work -- communities organized around fighting diseases, regional issues, oppressed groups, third-world needs, politics, education, faith and more. Yet, community is conspicuously absent in one critical area: operations. To date, nonprofits have not been able to leverage, in any significant way, their collective wealth of knowledge, experience and technology pertaining to fundraising, IT and internal processes
Granted, groups such as the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation, Association of Fundraising Professionals, Nonprofit Technology Network and others facilitate community through publications, conferences, Web sites and other vehicles for education, networking and knowledge share. But the ability to do this broadly has been severely limited due to immature online tools, scant use of collaborative spaces and a lack of appropriate legal structures like the General Public License for software or the Creative Commons license for content and thought leadership.
However, a new paradigm is emerging because the nonprofit sector now has the ability and the responsibility to achieve a deeper level of community collaboration. This is a truly transformative way of operating, likely to have profound impacts. The most mature manifestation of this new community model is the open-source software movement.
Open-source software is a better way to develop and use technology to fuel nonprofits’ missions, ultimately making the world a better place. With open source, organizations have access to the software’s source code and freedom to customize applications and create widgets to meet specific needs. Currently, very few platforms and applications for nonprofits are open-source, but most applications allow some third-party integration with other tools (usually via an application programming interface, or API). This is the first step in what we should hope will be full opening of these products.
Beyond customization, open-source software allows organizations to share the tools they’ve developed and then improve and share them again. For example, in the past, an organization that needed mobile access to donor data had four choices: 1.) build an application to allow access from mobile devices; 2.) pay someone to build the application; 3.) find, buy and integrate a commercial product; 4.) beg, even badger, a software vendor to develop the functionality and, if the vendor agrees, wait for a future product release.