nonprofits caught between data collection and storage requirements and IT licensing costs turn to free and open source software.
FreeGeek (motto: "Helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the third millennium") of Portland, Ore., is well-known in the area as a positive resource for transforming toxic IT trash into tech bootstraps for the less privileged and groups that serve them. The group's Collaborative
Technologies effort takes it to another level by seeking out open source, free, and old software to use along with the tossed and rejuvenated
tech gear. The group provides consulting for all of its clients, but only some of the more
affluent nonprofits have to actually pay.
'It seems the world is ready'
Collaborative Technologies coordinator Ron Braithwaite, a well-known
Portland FreeGeek and former member of the IEEE Society's technology
transfer working group, said the effort is in its startup stage, but, Braithwaite said, "basically, it seems to be the world is ready."
With local funding through the Meyer Memorial Trust -- the philanthropy arm of the grocery and gear retailer Fred Meyer -- Collaborative Techs is matched with hardware and software grant
applicants to provide consulting and services. As part of the technology application process, nonprofits and social change organizations must evaluate open source, with a goal of using off-the-shelf open source software whenever possible.
The first group to go through the process is Homestreet, Inc., a mental health clinic that was caught in a perfect storm of rising need because of cuts to public programs, increased regulatory requirements, and proprietary software licensing, Group Information Supervisor Amy Price recalled.
As some nonprofit geek assistance goes open source to save money and build
on collaborative work, Microsoft is also fine-tuning its support of charitable organizations and schools. The company, which
underwent an embarrassing donor fiasco when it haggled over licenses for an
Australian children's charity in 2001, announced
it would now be offering a special license through its Microsoft Authorized
Refurbisher program, so that charitable groups and schools do not find
themselves violating the law with donated hardware that has Microsoft
Microsoft's eventual offer of 150 copies of Windows 95 in the PCs for Kids
"Many communities are prevented from realizing their full potential by a
In the United States, Microsoft moves its software to needy groups and individuals
However, she said that different groups have different restrictions on the
-- Jay Lyman
"The need really did come from several governing agencies' stance requiring our stuff to be databased or tidy enough so they could come out and look at it," Price said. "One of the other things was as the proprietary software companies are getting stricter with security and licensing, it requires people to upgrade software fairly frequently. Subsequently, you have to upgrade hardware."
"We started with a technology plan a couple of years ago, and we realized it would be difficult to keep caught up," she said.
Once Homestreet was matched up with Collaborative Technologies, Braithwaite said he and his team had to tackle the group's homegrown, ad-hoc database,
which had good data but would not come close to meeting the management needs of the nonprofit, particularly in dealing with privacy and
security requirements of laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act (HIPAA).
'Terminally ugly' UI, but functionality there
Rather than spend $100,000 on software as another Collaborative Technologies client had, Homestreet used an open source application called SQL Clinic, which was already in place across town at St. Vincent Medical Center. Braithwaite said that the software package was "terminally ugly" and had an "obscure
interface, but all the functionality was there."
The volunteers and paid pros of Collaborative Technologies templated the Perl-based
software package to change the program flow and
match it to the process flow of Homestreet.
"We've made it beautiful," Braithwaite said.
The first beta install was just around the corner when Braithwaite discussed the plans. He said Collaborative Technologies will be taking the
rejuvenated package to 20 to 30 more mental health programs.
Braithwaite said the open source model is proving its worth as his group looks to tailor the solution to the different community resource
organizations. "Open source isn't just about software, it's about a way of working together
collaboratively," Braithwaite said. "All of a sudden, we can leverage the work we've done. Because we've templated the hell out of it, we can tune it and enable and disable [portions] to specifically serve community mental health
programs quickly and easily."
The hunt for free, used, and open source code is not without its peril. Braithwaite said while some of the off-the-shelf, open source software he
encounters is fabulous, some of it is broken, too.
But "there're some real jewels out there," he said. "Finding the jewels among the dreck can be pulling hair, but that's what we do."
Next -- some dreck and dinosaur systems still work
Tom Brown, director of FreeGeek Michiana in South Bend, Ind., encounters the same dreck and dinosaur systems on the hardware side. Brown, who said most of the hardware he gets is junk, with only 30 percent refurbishable, touts that his group's site is run with an old SGI Indigo box with Debian Linux slapped on it.
The Indiana group, which uses a Salvation Army church for storage and classes, converts computers running Windows 98 during the day for congregation kids into open source workstations at night by using the Linux Terminal Server Project, Brown said.
A student and fan of LTSP, Brown said he realized his efforts to recycle hardware could be combined with the add-on Linux package to help nonprofits
deal with their growing IT burden.
"I do computer consulting and I know that nonprofits don't have any help in that area," Brown said. "Some places there is virtually no budget for technology and training. I learned LTSP from some guys in the local Linux Users Group, and some had the same feelings about helping people and helping organizations using FOSS."
After some checking around, Brown found FreeGeek. He continued laying the groundwork for another, similar group, but realized he couldn't do it
without a recycling program first. Brown's group now focuses on getting the hardware to folks, but still said nonprofits will benefit most from
developing and using software that fits their needs and sharing it to create a constantly growing public library.
Rating the open source software available today as "very good and getting better," Brown said his biggest challenges are finding storage space -- those PCs pile up quickly -- and funding.
"FGM is a nonprofit," he said. "We are one of these groups. We cannot grow and meet our mission without revenue. FGM must profit from our relationships with other nonprofits, and all nonprofits must shoulder the burden of
acquiring, using, and disposing of appropriate technology."
Challenges, as usual, from the monopoly
Another temporary challenge, according to Brown, is "monopoly (Microsoft) product lock-in and competition by Npower, a nonprofit technology network subsidized by Microsoft and its business partners." And while he said that Npower's staff has a sincere humanitarian motive to provide technology solutions to nonprofits, dubious licensing schemes, closed data formats, and closed APIs could be painful for non-profits.
There are plenty of proprietary systems making their way to nonprofits through solid philanthropy efforts. San Francisco-based CompuMentor, which has served nearly
20,000 organizations and distributed more than a half-million products since February 2002, offers cut-rate deals on IT to Bay Area nonprofits through its TechSoup.org and
CompuMentor spokesperson Franziska Marks said the organization is basically a product distribution outlet for nonprofits to get proprietary software
from the likes of Microsoft (mostly), Cisco, Intuit, and Macromedia. The outfit's TechSoup Stock has an open source section that includes an
information service on when open source makes sense, Marks said.
Marks said CompuMentor -- which offers nearly 250
products from 25 partners in nine categories from software to online training -- is in talks with Red Hat to include Linux in the lineup. "We're in the process of negotiating that," Marks said.
While CompuMentor is looking to be "the technology portal for nonprofits," the nonprofit organization realizes it must have a wide offering to respond to the various needs, according to Marks, who claims CM is "aggressively pursuing open source vendors."
Next -- realizing all the possibilities of open source
While Marks and Computer Mentor may realize that newer reporting requirements are forcing financially challenged nonprofits to find more sophisticated technology, the nonprofits may not realize all of the possible alternatives,
particularly open source. Homestreet's Price said the nonprofit industry is blinded by the burden of upgrades and licensing.
"I would say that we were very unaware of open source as an option," she said. "That would go for most people in the nonprofit industry. You say open source and they say, 'Huh?' They're so used to seeing proprietary so much, and with advertising, that's all that is on people's minds. It seems to be picking up, though."
That picking up is the hope of John Billings, who is involved with a
Chicago-area project called Teaming4Technology. The seven-year-old
initiative of Americorps, VISTA, IBM, and the United Way works to build nonprofits' capacity to use technology.
"Unfortunately for me, a free software advocate, we work primarily with Microsoft operating systems and office applications," Billings said. "However, we have had a lot of success implementing the SME Linux server and using various free software/open source content management systems for Web sites."
Billings -- whose group is also working on a fairly complex outcome tracking system using a free software application called phpCollab and a PHP/MySQL volunteer management system built from scratch -- said the biggest hurdle in serving nonprofits is getting them to think strategically about technology, since most are in crisis mode or reactively implementing technology to keep up with funder, regulatory, and other demands.
Agencies have little time for good needs assessments
"Many times agencies just don't have the awareness or resources to put time into really assessing needs and researching applications that might help, and instead implement something that's too complex or just not suited to meet their need," said Billings, who works with about 35 to 45 nonprofits. "And sometimes they get bamboozled by consultants and vendors."
Billings praises the FreeGeek effort, calling it a model that manages double returns. "At the same time they were doing professional development, teaching volunteers how to design databases, they were developing an inventory-tracking database to help monitor all the hardware they collect and
refurbish or recycle," Billings said. "The refurbished equipment feeds into the Collaborative Technologies program by making hardware available when needed. Volunteers who spend time building skills at FreeGeek can become instructors and teach other people what they learned. I just love how one aspect of the program helps make another stronger."
Billings, who said he is stressing such integration with the further development of T4T, is not the only one harkening nonprofits to open source ideas and software. The NonProfit Open Source
Initiative is encouraging the marriage of philanthropy and open source by offering guides, TCO and other studies, and more information for
nonprofits looking to leverage open source software.
However, it is more than the evil proprietary software makers that open source nonprofit supporters must face. FreeGeek Michiana's Brown said that while the mega-nonprofit provider has so far stayed on the fence, the foray of a group such as Goodwill into the tech recycling game could spell disaster for the grassroots efforts currently under way.
"If they decide to get into it, we're dead meat," Brown said, referring to the organizations distribution and storage capability. "If they get into it, they will be hard to compete with."
Still, the feedback from the groups that find a tech fix from the FreeGeeks of the world is overwhelmingly positive. Most of those involved with such efforts say it is common after a speech or discussion of the programs to have both technology and talent volunteered for the cause. FreeGeek's Braithwaite got excited most recently when "a serious security guru" asked about helping out.
Homestreet's Price adds that open source fits philosophically with the idea of a community service organization. "The sharing of ideas and not being secretive," she said, is similar. "We are sort of pioneering this in a sense. It is a bit of a leap of faith we're taking, because it hasn't been tested and proven in our area."