Open Source Software for Non-Profits

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5 minutes

“Open source software” and “non-profits” aren’t two terms you often see together, but that’s changing.

While a lack of funding isn’t a new problem for non-profits (NFPs), they’ve found new ways to work within those restraints. Recent developments in the cloud and Web3 space are enabling NFPs to do more with less. And as many non-profits plan for digital transformations in the next several years, cloud-based technology — especially open source technology — is very much on the table.

Low-code, open source software decreases the pressure on non-profits to compete with tech giants for talent and allows them to achieve their goals in a faster, more secure, collaborative way. When done right, open source software can drive true social change.

In this post, we’ll explain:

  • What open source software is
  • How it relates to the non-profit community
  • What benefits it confers to non-profits
  • Which non-profit organizations are leveraging open source software today

What is open source software?

Open source software is publicly accessible code. Unlike  “closed source” or “proprietary” software, anyone can view, edit, enhance, or distribute it. Open source software is jointly owned and operated by its users, inherently shifting control to them rather than big corporations.

Because open source software is decentralized, it’s reliant on community input and review. But generally, that means open source software is cheaper, more flexible, and has greater longevity. Developers can work on features they (or their clients) really want — shareholder opinions don’t limit them. 

Open source and non-profits: What’s the connection?

Besides its technical definition, the term “open source” has become synonymous with a transparent way of working. According to Red Hat, the open source movement “uses the values and decentralized production model of open source software to find new ways to solve problems in their communities and industries.”

This objective pairs particularly well with the mission of most non-profit organizations that hope to bring awareness to issues or groups that need attention. Like for-profit organizations, non-profits have a choice in the software they use. Their decisions can greatly affect their budget, efficacy, and impact on their constituents.

5 benefits of open source software for non-profits

Open source software has significant benefits for for-profit businesses. Still, those benefits carry even more weight for non-profits — usually understaffed and underfunded institutions. The five top benefits of open source software are:

  1. Low cost - Open source software isn’t always free, but it’s typically cheaper than licensed software. Non-profit organizations can often cut technology costs in half by choosing open source over proprietary software.
  1. Security - Like for-profit businesses, non-profits must abide by privacy regulations and maintain digital sovereignty. And while open-source software isn’t inherently more private or secure, it offers non-profits boundless opportunities to implement privacy and security controls that matter specifically to the individuals or groups they serve — no matter where they are in the world. 
  1. Low or no-code - It’s tough for non-profits to compete with top tech for talent. Low or no code open source software solutions empower virtually any non-profit team member to update day-to-day applications without leaning on developer resources.
  1. State-of-the-art technology - Unlike other proprietary platforms with quarterly or annual releases, most open source software projects have an active, talented community that constantly makes improvements, updates, and vulnerability patches. For non-profits, that means they can use the latest and greatest technology without having to develop it themselves or pay a third party to do it.
  1. Collaboration - As puts it, “open source is basically democracy written in code,” giving everyone equal access to technology and knowledge. Many contributors are willing to talk shop, and since code is available for anyone to see, non-profits can brainstorm new use cases or find inspiration for customizations. 

4 non-profit organizations currently using open source software to their advantage

When many people think of open source software, they think of a software engineer’s pet project. But today, there are plenty of platforms built on open source technology. In fact, 79% of IT leaders want to build up their use of open source in the next few years.

For non-profits, open source software is used for:

  • Building applications
  • Building and managing a website
  • Managing customer relationships
  • Sending email marketing campaigns
  • Tracking volunteers
  • Newsletter creation

…and more. Below, we’ll share four examples of non-profits using or contributing to open source software.

1. CURE International and HospitalRun

CURE International is a global network of children’s hospitals that provide surgical care. A few years ago, they faced a major challenge: a lack of electronic health records (EHR). Because patients often lived far away from CURE hospitals, follow-up and long-term care were near-impossible — physicians and staff were spending precious time loading paper records onto vehicles and distributing them in the field. The team at CURE International needed a way to look up and update EHR on the go.

So they enlisted a small set of software engineers who built a modern, cloud-based healthcare information system (HIS) called HospitalRun. HospitalRun is designed for use in the most rural clinics, collecting records when there is no internet and syncing them to the cloud when there is. HospitalRun’s intuitive UI has helped clinicians, admins, and medical staff onboard quickly and provide better care to their patients. And HospitalRun is always improving — open source contributors continuously add new capabilities, using their skills to support healthcare in underresourced and underserved communities.

2. Humanitarian Crisis Data Collection and KoboToolbox

Open source software has also opened the door to critical data collection during humanitarian crises. Gathering data post-earthquake or typhoon has been notoriously hard, but it is a crucial exercise. Data helps emergency teams deploy to areas that need the most help and gives NGOs the information they need to prepare and send the right resources.

Faculty at Harvard created KoboToolbox, a free, open source software, to enable aid professionals and researchers working in developing countries. KoboToolbox users can create complex forms, share projects with colleagues, collect data on and offline, and analyze data with robust reports and visualizations. The data KoboToolbox collects prevents third-party access and has strong safeguards against data loss.

In September 2014, KoboToolbox partnered with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) — saving lives in some of the biggest humanitarian crises. Today, KoboToolbox is trusted by over 14,000 organizations around the world.

3. National Hispanic Voter Educational Foundation and CiviCRM

Customer relationship management tools, or CRMs, are essential to non-profit organizations that need to track their members and donors. Unfortunately, most CRMs on the market are expensive, difficult to implement and maintain, and don’t always meet the specific needs of non-profits.

CiviCRM is an open source project that produces software specifically for nonprofit and civic sector organizations. With CiviCRM, non-profits can build and manage their donor base and membership, centralize constituent communications, and integrate with other tools in their tech stack, like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and Backdrop. Like other open source projects, CiviCRM is improved and sustained through the support of its community. 

One notable CiviCRM user is the National Hispanic Voter Educational Foundation (NHVEF). They needed a system to manage their growing list of 600,000+ contacts and create a database architecture to create household records. With CiviCRM, NHVEF successfully segmented its large audience to dramatically increase Foundation pledges and reduce their overall lag time.

4. Entidad, the UFWF and Mendix

The United Farmworkers Foundation (UFWF) advocates for more equitable farmworker policies and provides emergency relief and immigration services. However, accomplishing these major feats isn’t easy, and it’s especially tough without the right technology.

Over the past few years, UFWF has partnered with Entidad, a web3 digital transformation firm, to build blockchain-enabled solutions for data collection, farmworker communications, relief fund distribution, and immigration casework. All these solutions are powered by the open source software provider, Mendix.

Entidad benefits from using Mendix’s low code, integration-forward solution and contributes actively to the codebase. Just recently, Entidad publicly released several valuable connectors on Mendix’s app exchange to give other non-profits a leg up in their app development:

  • Twilio
  • Smarty
  • Docspring
  • Hellosign
  • Trinsic
  • Google Translate
  • Copomex
  • Bitly

Open source software helps NFPs do more with less

By embracing the open source ethos, we’re already seeing NFPs do more with less. They’ve gained access to well-maintained, secure software at a lower price while learning from their peers.

Open source is just starting to infiltrate the non-profit sphere, and its potential is tremendous. Itching to be a part of this movement? We’d love to hear from you. Apply to join Entidad’s latest open source software project here.

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Julette Martinez

CEO, Farm Worker Organization