Tip of the Day: Should Nonprofits Choose Open Source Software?

Editor’s note: All this month we’re publishing tech tips for nonprofits. Keep a look out for a new tip each day and let us know what you think in the comments. -Dan 

Open source software is software that can be viewed, modified, or downloaded by anyone. It is typically free and developed, marketed, and distributed by a community rather than a vendor. Organizations with limited software budgets often gravitate toward open source software, but is it always the right choice?

While open source software is generally free to download, the actual costs of successfully implementing the software vary. Some open source packages are easy to implement, but others need a lot of work to get them up and running. Organizations looking to build a customized solution should definitely consider open source options, but you should also be aware of the long- and short-term costs that come with customization, including how much more difficult it can be to upgrade to newer versions. You should also carefully scrutinize whether you actually need a truly custom solution. For many organizations and applications, it’s not necessary to customize a piece of software through the code itself.

Traditional software requires that organizations not only track licenses, but also the type of license agreement that applies to each piece of software. Even the most conscientious organization can end up in violation of license agreements, leaving them vulnerable to legal action and fines. Open source gives nonprofits more flexibility, since it can be installed on as many systems as needed without tracking licenses.

Expert opinion is, generally, divided. For most nonprofits, budget and functionality are the primary drivers of software decisions. If implementing the software is complex or requires a lengthy development or configuration process, many nonprofits will need to look elsewhere.

How do you decide if it’s right for your organization? Consider all your criteria, and prioritize them. Weigh your needs against compatibility, ease of use, availability of support, and all associated costs. Make your decision based on how well a given solution fits your needs—not whether that solution is open source.

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