Charities have even greater need to minimize costs than businesses, even most other sorts of non-profits. Charities registered in England and Wales, certainly, have a duty to keep their administration and running costs low in order to maximize the money they have available to fulfil their objective(s); I’m not up on Scottish charity law, but I would be surprised if charities in Scotland didn’t have a similar burden.
So why is it that, if media reports are to be believed, charities across the world have been slow to move to such stable, useful software as OpenOffice.org and Linux-based operating systems, or to produce their magazines using open-source desktop publishing software? I don’t doubt that the situation has improved in the four years since the BBC reported on charities shunning open source, or even the two years since ZDnet reported that charities shy away from open source offerings due to a perceived lack of support. My own experience suggests that open-source software is considered perfectly acceptable when delivered as part of a supported service, like web hosting, but are loathe to even consider the use of open-source desktop software at the heart of their work.
Their are two main concerns mentioned when anyone looks at this problem – perceived quality, and perceived support. Trying to convince decision-makers of the true quality, and the real support that it available, is a tough question, and I don’t aim to actually put forth reasons that will convince everyone that using more open-source software is a good idea. I just want to share a few thoughts, especially those that are most relevant to charities.
On the question of quality, it’s understandable that people worry. “Most professionals use Program X,” they say, “and surely they know what they’re doing.” Well, that makes sense as far as it goes. Of course, they really know what they’re doing, so it might not be the best indicator for a less experienced user. More than that, however, is the inertia inherent in any industry. People with paying customers have to fulfil client expectations, and they certainly expect people to be using what ‘everyone uses’. There’s one good way for anyone to test the quality of a piece of software, as long as they know what they’re doing with sort of software to begin with, and that’s to try it out. Great thing about open source software – you can usually try it for free. Of course, if you haven’t got time for that, try seeking the opinion of other people, just try and avoid the ones who work for anyone that produces related software.
Support is a much more interesting question. There are lots of companies that produce open source software and offer support contracts, but these are often based on a scale more applicable to large businesses. Smaller firms and consulting operations are always an option though, and needn’t be very expensive. That’s not to say that some of them won’t happily fleece clients, but there are good guys out there, and there could easily be more if the demand goes up and makes the business model more viable. The support a skilled consultant can provide ranges from simple problem-solving and configuration to wholesale customisation and alteration of the software, which is not usually an option with traditional, closed-source commercial software. If you’re looking for any sort of enforceable guarantee that software will fulfil some function, you’re not going to be too pleased with commercial software either, which usually disclaims even fitness for a particular purpose.
Going hand-in-hand with the idea of support is, of course, training and ease-of-use. This is such a broad issue that it’s hard to address, but I will say this: anyone who can use most Microsoft Office products, up to a fairly advanced level, will be able to use the equivalent component of OpenOffice.org to about the same level with very little confusion; While some functionality may differ, the GIMP is about as easy-to-use as Photoshop; And if someone can find their way around a Windows desktop, they’re not going to take much adjustment to use a modern GNU/Linux desktop, like Ubuntu (my personal favourite for the desktop).
Open source software can offer charities, and everyone else, easy-to-use systems to manage their websites, keep in touch with their staff, volunteers, or customers, manage customer relations, even manage their finances. It’s a treasure-trove of tools that someone, be they an individual or a company, has freely expended effort to produce and improve, and there’s generally a thriving community of people offering support to one another just because they can. Of course there’s some poor offerings out there, and you shouldn’t treat the label ‘Open Source’ as any sort of indicator of quality, but every organisation should be considering the possibilities, and talking to whoever they can to get a better idea of the opportunities available for them. Almost everyone knows someone who’s interested in this sort of thing, and they’re usually more than happy to help other people find out what might be of benefit to them.Share