Chris Holt [opinions]
11/29/2006

Free software for non-profits?

fsmsh.com/1907 [charities] [case-management] [non-profit]

Today, I sat down with the executive director of a counseling service for child sexual abuse to have a chat about developing a case management application for them. These organizations need to be able to track their activities with the people they deal with, write notes about their interactions, produce assessments, demographic analysis and activities reports and manage documents. Good case management software is pivotal for them. I realized that it's ridiculous how these types of organizations struggle with their technology needs. They are cash strapped, but need software to do their jobs like just about everyone else these days. But, when I asked him why he doesn't look into free software for their software needs, here's what he said:

His comfort level was in using Microsoft because they are:

  1. large and so aren't going anywhere,
  2. there is support for Microsoft from IT departments,
  3. they have a charity discount, and
  4. the promotion and perceived credibility was high.

Good marketing on Microsoft's part! It was essentially the "No one gets fired for hiring IBM" idea. Yes, I'm mixing metaphors... sort of.

The non-profit community touches the lives of one in three of us

Charities get great discounts from Microsoft (up to 90%!). So, the high cost of Microsoft products is less of an issue for them.

What would it take, then, to convince charities to make the switch?

The answer is simple, and yet not so obvious: good adaptable case management software for human services non-profits.

The only generalized case management applications for human services non-profits are expensive and proprietary

At the moment, the only generalized case management applications for human services non-profits are expensive and proprietary. These are four of the best I've found. The fifth in the list is the system I designed and built with my previous company Logiclynx:

Even though these solutions are quite advanced, none of them are free and easily adaptable by the end users.

Charities are in a bad position. Their funders (both government and foundations) don't provide them with the tools or with the funds to build the tools. Organizations are abandoned to find their own way through the software maze, and will ultimately get their funding cut if they don't produce the reports.

If ever there was a community that legitimately needs free software, it's the non-profit community

If ever there was a community that legitimately needs free software, it's the non-profit community. This community touches the lives of one in three of us. That's right. The standard understanding within the community is that one in three people are assisted by a non-profit in some way within a year.

I think it's about time that a large charity or a foundation funded, on behalf of all non-profits, a project to develop a free, highly customizable web-based case management application that is easily adaptable for use by various non-profit human services organizations.

After building one, I know it's not so easy to make it useful to a wide group of different organizations due to the variety of business rules, but that doesn't mean it's impossible, just challenging. And it would make a fantastic project for the free software development community as well.


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