The debates about harnessing the benefits of information technology (IT) in the public interest have centred on issues such as Internet connectivity and computing hardware. To date minimal attention has been paid to the central role of software. Open source software is being seen as a way of providing tailor-made software to help civil society organizations achieve their goals and to contribute to meeting the needs of developing countries.
The majority of non-profits have very few resources available for investing in IT. What spending power they do have is usually directed towards proprietary software, for which the licences, especially for the latest upgrades, are prohibitively expensive. In addition, the software has often been developed for commercial use and does not match the specific needs of non-profits.
Collectively, unless the non-profit sector can find a way to reduce the costs of accessing software, it will be trapped into a spiral of increasing IT costs. Corporate responsibility might lead to software giants giving away their products. So far, however, there are no signs that this will happen on any widespread basis beyond some discounting.
What is open source software?
The term ‘open source’ refers to software where the source code – the instructions programmers write to create the software – is distributed as well as the programme itself. Unlike proprietary or closed source software, anyone can modify and redistribute open source software.
Open source software and its associated business model have become more widely known through the success of operating systems like Linux. The initial creation of Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds in 1991, Linux has been developed through the collaborative networks the Internet facilitates to become a serious challenger to the dominance of Microsoft. Many large computer companies, for example IBM, have moved to invest in open source. They, like the hacker community, see it as one of the best ways of promoting open standards and developing high-quality software quickly and efficiently.
Companies and other organizations developing open source software turn traditional software merchandising on its head. One of a variety of funding methods, for example, is building a market position by giving away the software their programmers produce and generating income through value added services. More than simply a business model, open source is a growing social movement and a worldwide community, with a core of socially conscious hackers. The voluntary impulse is one of its hallmarks. ‘Open source is as much a mindset as it is a movement,’ says one enthusiast. ‘It stems from a belief that software is a resource to be shared and developed collectively and not restricted by private ownership or copyright.’
Realizing the potential
If the potential of open source software in the cause of social and economic justice is to be realized, more decision-makers must become aware of its existence. In parallel, the open source community needs to share knowledge about the needs of civil society so that new kinds of service providers – trusted intermediaries dedicated to non-profits – can emerge.
Open source desktop applications are beginning to be developed with the user-friendly interfaces of household brands, and they do not bar reading most familiar formats such as Windows documents. For servers and databases, few would argue that open source products are inferior to closed sourced software. If non-profit investment in technology continues to be in largely proprietary software, then the growth of a stronger overall open source market that will generate low-cost, adaptable software for non-profits will be weakened, along with all the long-term gains that will provide.
Michael Litz, Chief Technology Officer at the Benton Foundation and Director of OneWorld US (http://www.oneworld.net/us), sees a crucial interest for the funding community:
‘It makes little sense for foundations and other donors to have to support licence fees, across the sector and in perpetuity, for software that cannot become assets to be adapted and freely shared. Strategic investment in the open source model for the non-profit sector would leverage benefits that could be shared across thousands of non-profits the world over.’
1 James Plummer, Director of Prospectus, a London-based digital economy recruitment and talent management company that is setting up a new division focused on non-profits.
For further information about open source software, see the following websites: