Open Source Technology from the NonProfit Point of View – Houston NetSquared’s April Topic

On Tuesday, I had the honor of co-hosting this month’s Houston NetSquared meetup featuring Jeff D. Frey, the Web services manager in Rice University’s IT Department.  Jeff’s role at Rice is to help all the different departments within the university as well as nonprofits in the Houston community identify the best software tools and then install and integrate them.

Jeff spoke to the members of the  Houston NetSquared on the good and bad things about open source technologies.  He approached the topic  from the perspective of nonprofit organizations and their communities based on his experience working with all kinds of software and hardware solutions at Rice.  Here’s a wrap-up of Jeff Frey’s presentation “Open Source … and Six Blind Men.”

Six Blind Men?

Jeff began his presentation with one of my favorite parable’s 6 Blind Men and an ElephantEach man had a different impression of the Elephant after feeling just one part.

Jeff Frey uses this parable to explain that “Much like the elephant trainer, my role is to basically show you around the elephant of open source”.

The Open Source Elephant

Just like the six blind men in the parable, Jeff described that there are six different perspectives in nonprofit organizations, and each of them typically only sees one piece of the total project being planned.

Jeff describes the people that typically see each perspective’s piece of the open source elephant and talks about what he recommends nonprofit organizations should be aware of with open source tools to make sure each group’s perspective fits into the total picture and everyone in  your nonprofit organization likes to use the new solution.

The 6 Perspectives of Open Source:

1)      Community

—  This is the group of people that follow the open source software or product and is usually a tight knit group.

According to Jeff, nonprofit organizations should take a look at how strong an open source’s community is.  A strong community means the product will probably be better supported and have more “one off” or edge-case customizations that your nonprofit can benefit from for free or lower cost than if you had to pay for the custom development yourself.

2)      Customers

–-  The folks that a nonprofit serves including your members, donors, and visitors to your website.

The great thing about open source from your customers’ perspective is that it can look really high end, has improved stability, and has fewer compatibility issues with web browsers.  Open source makes it easier for you to look like you know what you are doing to your customers even if you can barely use a WYSIWYG editor.

3)      Management

–-  Your Board members, Executive Director, and the decision makers at your organization.

From the perspective of your Board and those approving the budget for the project, open source is a very appealing option.  There are little to no software costs, no programmers, and the potential for no hardware costs.  As Jeff put it “You can basically run your whole nonprofit on open source tools with virtually no software costs.”

4)      Employees

-–  The people most affected by the software package you select, the ones using it daily and sometimes this includes your volunteers.

Your employees and volunteers using the software everyday will want to know that the software will work and will be easy to use.  Different open source software options have varying levels of features and ease of use.  You’ll want to look at how much training your employees will need before they use the new product and if it has the features your organization needs.  Jeff suggests starting with something little that your staff does daily with the current solution and see how the proposed software performs with that task.  Then keep adding new daily tasks, one at a time, and test them before deciding on a particular software product.

5)      Developers

–-  The application developers that constantly support and add new features and functionality to the open source software.

“It wouldn’t be an open source product without having developers”, Jeff rightly states.  When looking at open source software, you should find out what are the code base standards and ask if there is a good, available API.  Find out what the language on which the software is built because some are more difficult to use, which increases programming hours for custom projects.

6)      Support Staff

—  These are your designated “power users” and can be internal or external to your organization.  Often this will be an IT consulting firm or Web design agency who customizes and updates your software.

When looking at open source solutions from the perspective of your power users, you will want to find an open source product that has a strong network of partners and support professionals.  Ask if the software has a regular schedule to roll out new versions and patches and find out about the hardware, network, back-up and maintenance processes and costs when comparing software.

Tell Us which of the six perspectives you think you fall under in our comments below!

I probably fall under the power user perspective in most cases, and in particular when talking about Tendenci.  I spend most of my days inside a Tendenci website updating content, adding events, creating training documentation, etc. and I honestly love it.

Has the Elephant Left the Building?

With all the excitement we’ve felt here with the open source release of Tendenci last week – we also recognize the hesitation and concerns from our current clients and their community.  We want to keep the conversation going to address your questions and I thought I’d add my personal takeaways from Jeff’s Netsquared presentation and invite you to tell me what else you’d like to talk about.

Jeff Frey surprised us with a slide on Tendenci in his presentation and Jeff shared his feedback on our newly open source CMS to the Houston NetSquared members.  Here’s what he thinks about Tendenci:

  • Tendenci has a very new/young community of developers and followers and his advice to me was to “get in the mindset of moving in the direction of building your developer community”.
  • Tendenci is written in the Python programming language, which is the language that “all the cool kids are coding in now,” including what Rice undergrad programmers are learning.
  • Unlike a lot of open source software, Tendenci has more than just a forum to support its clients and community; it has real people to call, email, and come Hang Out with.

One important quote I heard Jeff say at NetSquared was “Open source doesn’t mean free as in no cost, it means free as in liberated.” And throughout Jeff’s presentation, he reiterated that while the software code is freely available, and anyone can download a copy and start using it for free… there are different costs associated with open source software that can include things like hosting, IT support staff, development to customize the platform for your organization, and hardware costs.

To provide you with an example: you can create a free twitter account to use but you then may have to pay for…

  • the computer or laptop that you access twitter from,
  • the internet connection to connect to twitter,  Then,
  • the designer to customize your twitter landing page,
  • the staff member or to manage your twitter communications,
  • the web marketing agency to train you and your staff how to use twitter…

As you can see, each of these extras come with an extra cost.  It is no different with other open source software, including Tendenci.  Open source software does greatly reduce the total cost of the project so that more nonprofit organizations can afford to have better tools to operate online and offline.

I want to leave you with a comment from an audience member Tuesday night at NetSquared:

” The thing about Open Source that I love is there is a huge community helping find the bugs before I have to find it, and fixes it, and I don’t have to pay for it or deal with it.”