Why non-profits should use free software (and it's not why you'd think)

You might have gathered from my article about hosting free software events, I work and am interested in the UK Voluntary/Community Sector (VCS)[1]. I also am a user and advocate of free software and I have a desire to see it used more often in VCS and non-governmental (NG) organisations. I believe that these two groups should be some of the primary non-personal users of free software and here’s why.

It’s not about cost

Software cost alone should not be the reason for choosing free software. Free software can and does cost money, and if the argument is purely financial the big vendors will always undercut—even matching the zero-cost tag to get the deal (knowing they’ll get it all back later). Larger VCS and NG organisations will strike multi-licence agreements, smaller ones can often get a similar deal by joining an umbrella group. As a charity I can get a full copy of MS Office 2007 Professional for under £90. Cost of software is not usually an issue but it wasn’t always like that.

Some years ago, software solutions in the VCS (at least in the UK) were likely to be a bad mix of freeware, unlicenced shareware or (if you were lucky) donated software. There was also a lot of very old software in use because it came with donated kit. Of course much of that software should have been removed before donation because of the licence it was purchased under.

That’s a fairly bleak picture and of course you will find people who will say it wasn’t like that—but in general it was and in some cases still is. Factor in also the dreaded (usually Access) database written by a friend-of-a-friend who you’ve lost touch with, and you have a bad situation.

In the last few years there has been a move by charities towards “professionalism” in the way they deliver their services, handle their funds and generally operate. This is not a bad thing but in software terms it has often meant “do what the corporates do”, which can result in software purchases without significant prior consideration. The twin adages of “nobody got sacked for buying Microsoft” and “it’s what everyone else uses” can be seen to underpin some of the decisions. On the plus side it also means a desire to “do things properly”—no more freeware or friend-of-a-friend databases without support considerations. Charities and NGOs have for some time moved away from the take-anything-because-it’s-cheap philosophy. Okay, again it’s still in practice in some corners but generally the impression I get is that it has changed.

So, why free software?

How does free software address this call for professionalism? We know that free software can be as “professional” (if not more so) than some proprietary counterparts. Also, good free software is often based upon “doing it right” as well. An example of this the way styles are central to the use of OpenOffice.org. It’s a departure from the way MS Office does it; it seems more cumbersome at first, but as you get used to it you realise why they help so much—particularly on longer documents. The security, stability and other oft-trumpeted advantages of free software stem, in part, from decisions to “do things properly”.

This philosophy also results in the main reason I feel VCS and NG organisations should be using free software. Use of open standards. Choice of software is an investment, which software you use can dictate the direction of your organisation as much as anything else. If you are using software that locks you into one format or vendor, then you are at the mercy of that vendor or whomever holds the copyright on that format. When they decide you must upgrade, you will fall into line or be left behind (which will only work for so long). But this is not news to you is it? Free software is more likely to use open standard formats: formats not owned by one company, and with a much longer and more stable shelf-life. When a charity or NGO you donate to invests in software, wouldn’t you rather the money was not spent “keeping up with the Gates’” but delivering the services that are needed? Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they should use free software because of the price-tag. I’m saying that donors often expect charities and their counterparts to be responsible for the money they receive. We expect them to be more ecologically sound, fairer to employees, more open and honest, in a word ethical. We expect this much more of them than we do of businesses.

There is an ethical argument for free software, as much as there is one for Fairtrade goods[2]. Free software is about fairness: fairness to the developers, fairness to the vendors, fairness to end-users. Sadly this point is not often mentioned to potential VCS/NGO users, but it should be. When a trust or large funder donates to a charity, the donation comes with strings attached. The receiving organisation must produce report after report saying how the money was used. Some trusts will not donate to IT projects because they see little real return for their donation. Use of free software can mean that donation is better spent, and that the charity is unlikely to come back for more funds when the next version is out. It means the charity is able to produce services that are ground-breaking and unique because the software they use will adapt to their needs and not the other way around, and it doesn’t force them to dance at the behest of a profit-driven business. How do I know this? Because the charity I work for does so.

  • I would like to see funders investing in IT projects in the VCS, but they won’t if they feel their money is just going on licences.
  • I would like to see charities using free software more, so it can help them to lead and not follow the business crowd again, but they won’t if they don’t realise its potential.
  • I would like to see charities and NGOs investing in people, not software licences, because people can have a much greater impact.
  • I would like to see the free software community and the VC/NGO sectors engage and work together more and more, and I would like to use this blog to investigate ways that can happen.

In fact I think I will. Watch this space.


[1] The VCS is often called the Not-for-profit sector in other countries.

[2] I am not saying there is a similarity in marketing strategy nor that free software is “fairtrade”. I am saying there is an ethical argument to both.


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.