How open source is losing the charity battle

Non-profit organisations are keen to take advantage of emerging technologies such as social networking for fundraising and software as a service for administration, but a lack of perceived support options is keeping them away from open source software and focused on traditional providers such as Microsoft.

Non-profit organisations are keen to take advantage of emerging technologies such as social networking for fundraising and software as a service for administration, but a lack of perceived support options is keeping them away from open source software and focused on traditional providers such as Microsoft.

At this week's Connecting Up conference in Brisbane, staff from non-profit groups were eagerly discussing Web 2.0 technologies, how wikis could help their organisation, and the role which Twitter might play in their fund-raising plans.

"We in Australia have barely scratched the surface of Web 2.0," said Doug Jacquier, CEO of CISA (Community Information Strategies Australia), which organised the event. "If we don't move soon, we risk losing an entire generation of potential supporters and donors."

While next generation technologies may be appealing, for resource-strapped charities, government service delivery branches and non-government organisations (NGOs), merely getting existing IT to work can be an uphill battle.

Moving beyond that is both pricey and scary, and unfamiliar concepts like free and open source software (FOSS) are unlikely to get a look in when the PCs are still running a pre-1995 desktop suite.

The challenge of change
Change is difficult in any business, but doubly so in minimally staffed organisations being pressured to deal with urgent social problems and unable to offer high IT salaries in a competitive market. In that context, new systems can be very slow to stick.

"We're not all that proactive about changing things," said Amanda Kelly, business manager for the Windana Society, a Melbourne drug and alcohol recovery service which is undergoing a complex IT modernisation project. "A lot of my work has been around allowing people to change. It's a long and slow process a lot of the time."

Kelly previously spent five years working with the Australian Community Support Organisation (ACSO). "They had a computer system and did all the intake of clients electronically — and then they printed the information and put it in a paper client file."

Converting those reams of paper into electronic form was a long-term process.

"We had large numbers of travellers coming in pulling out every staple and taking off every sticky note and getting them ready to be scanned. By the time I'd finished, we'd converted 40,000 files. At the same time we had to work out how to change our electronic system to cope with the ongoing capture of information."

Kelly's current project is even more daunting. "At Windana, we have no computer system at all. We're starting from scratch."

Resources are definitely on the limited side. "Our server room is a converted toilet. I spent two hours trying to put together our server cabinet. It arrived in many pieces with no instructions."

Most staff don't need to know that, however. Avoiding technology terminology is crucial, Kelly says. If you mention concepts like wikis or RSS, "people just blank out. But when you say 'Do you want all your forms in one place?' they say 'Yes please'".

Open source shown the door
Something else Windana has avoided is open source. "For my preference, open source would be fantastic," Kelly said, but that's not the route Windana has chosen.

"In our risk assessment, we said we can go open source and the software is free, but how are we going to support it?"

Finding and keeping staff is a big problem, and one emphasised in nearly every presentation at the conference. "We're not going to keep someone," Kelly said. "We can't pay to attract someone who is brilliant with open source."

The constant pace of change is also daunting. "Open source is brilliant, but there's a new version of something every night so you need to monitor and change that," Kelly said. "We didn't have the ability to do that."

Conversely, there's always plenty of people being trained in how to administer Windows and Office, Kelly noted. "If we choose Microsoft, there are Microsoft support people coming out all the time. They're not [necessarily] going to stay [either], but if they don't we've got a fall-back plan." Other PC alternatives for Windana also fell over for cost reasons: "We looked at Mac but the hardware for that was just too expensive."

Even organisations that have embraced open source urge restraint. Philanthropy Australia used the open source MediaWiki software platform built for Wikipedia to help centralise its knowledge resources in a wiki format. "Nearly all our software is open source which works really well for us, but I always caution people that there's a cost in terms of the time and expertise needed," said communications and knowledge manager Louise Arkles. "While it has saved us a bit of money up front, there are costs involved."

Vista licences for AU$22
Of course, buying Microsoft site licences isn't cheap either, but it turns out that it is considerably cheaper upfront than you might expect. One of the conference sponsors is DonorTec, a "program to assist Australian non profits build their ICT capacity", and whose main line of products seems to be hugely discounted Microsoft and Cisco equipment, donated by the companies themselves.

Microsoft in particular is quite hard to...

...escape. Every conference brochure includes an advertisement for DonorTec, selling Vista licences for AU$11 each (plus GST) or Office for AU$22.

But the hard sell might not be needed; non-profit organisations are hugely in favour of DonorTec. "Donortec were fabulous," said Windana's Kelly. The Windana Society purchased AU$80,000 worth of Microsoft products for AU$10,000, and AU$6,000 worth of Cisco gear for AU$600. "That meant we could use some of the funding we thought we'd have to use on software on servers."

Louise Fisher, special projects officer for the Rural Financial Counselling Service NSW – Central West, was similarly enthused after the service learnt about DonorTec from its IT provider.

The service saved about AU$55,000 on its infrastructure via purchases through DonorTec, Fisher said. "That allowed our organisation to do a lot of things we weren't planning on doing."

In this context, complaints about the dangers of locking in to proprietary software or equipment, however well-argued, are going to have a hard time being heard.

Most presenters recognised that up-front costs were only the first element in the battle, but the reduced software fees mean that the focus remains clearly on staffing problems rather than software costs. "Free software is not really free; you really have to work on it," Kelly said.

Familiarity and stability are also crucial. Many organisations at the conference favoured well-established global hardware suppliers, particularly if they have to operate equipment in remote rural environments.

Building a communications network in far north Queensland presented that kind of challenge for Cape York Digital Network (CYDN). "It's a bit hot up there and there's a fair bit of humidity," said commercial manager Ray Heffernan. "We made sure we bought recognised brands: IBM laptops have less problems in high humidity."

Heffernan advocates the same approach for others in the sector. "Yes, there are plenty of cheap products out there but stick with the good ones because they've also got good support."

Fighting the open source fight
All that is not to say open source doesn't have its champions in the non-profit sector. Darrell Burkey, the president of CASE (Computing Assistance Support and Education), which provides centralised IT support and administration services for non-profits, is a firm fan of FOSS, presenting sessions on using Joomla and how to maximise technology productivity for non-profits.

Burkey isn't convinced that existing tech support options are serving the sector well. "What I'm hearing from you is that you're having a lot of problems with relevant ICT support," he told one audience. "Community groups have basically partnered with the wrong people to get their support, and it's creating a lot of issues."

"What they're going to sell you is what they're familiar with and what will make them money. They're not there to sell you what you need."

Lack of research is also a problem. "People will believe anybody and anything when it comes to IT. False authority is your enemy. Odds are your CEO is not an administrator and the person you should be getting technical advice from."

For all that, Burkey doesn't buy into the Microsoft-is-evil argument either. "I'm not interested in getting into that proprietary vs. FOSS discussion. I'm here to say what works for us; it's not to say that it's the only thing or the holy grail."

No free hardware please
One idea that's often raised is that non-profits could use older computers that have been end-of-lifed by larger businesses, setting them up with open source packages. While these seem environmentally and economically sound, those who have experienced it say it often isn't worth the hassle.

"Being offered free PCs can cost you a lot of money," said Heffernan from CYDN. "What we've found with free PCs for instance is that the software's missing. They're generally older PCs which are harder to maintain."

"I do have my issues with computer recycling projects," said CASE's Burkey. "If it's done improperly it can be fairly damaging to our sector. Outdated equipment is your enemy because it doesn't run modern operating systems, and you need modern operating systems because they're secure."

Admittedly, CASE has a slight advantage when it comes to security: Samba developer and open source legend Andrew Tridgell volunteers for the organisation, assisting with security set-up and systems administration. If there were more volunteers of that calibre, a lot of the current problems might disappear.