Free Software for Fun and Non-Profit, part 1
"We're trying to do more with less," is a common complaint among non-profit organizations. They often lack the funding, the time, and the talent to put information technology resources to their best use, assuming they have any IT resourced to use! Free Software is a way that these organizations can do more -- a lot more -- with less.
The Free Software Foundation says "'Free software' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer'". The FSF then goes on to list four specific freedoms that Free Software grants to its users: freedom to run the program, for any purpose; freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs; freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor; freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. It should be immediately obvious how this contrasts with the rigid licensing requirements of proprietary software, where the user pays a license fee for the right to use the program but does not actually own the program.
Using Free Software means that non-profit organizations can dedicate their precious resources in much more effective ways. Instead of paying for the right to use a piece of software, organizations can spend money on training people how to use their Free Software. Instead of spending time keeping track of their license compliance in the dreadful event of a software audit, organizations can spend time actually using -- or improving -- their Free Software. And instead of diverting their capital to a corporate headquarters in a different state, organizations can focus on growing local talent and giving back to their own communities.
With very little profit motive, Free Software developers can concentrate on making excellent products, not just excellent revenue streams. Free Software developers listen to their users, and have an active interest in implementing the features they need. Because the software is Free (as in speech), end users are allowed to modify it for their specific needs, adding or removing features as they see fit.
One of the major complaints against Free Software is the lack of professional support. It's true that most Free Software projects lack professional support. Conversely, though, most Free Software projects can provide outstanding technical support for free by email or web-based discussion forum. And in most metropolitan areas, there's another invaluable resource available to Free Software users: the Local User Group, or LUG. LUGs are informal special interest groups that meet semi-regularly to discuss Free Software, offer "how to" training sessions, and generally build community. A non-profit organization could easily earn the affection of a LUG, as well as competent technical support, by providing a meeting facility for the group.
Free Software is not the solution to all of an organization's challenges. But the use of Free Software does allow an organization to better allocate their limited resources in order to achieve effective, socially-responsible solutions.