Monday, January 31, 2005

Open Source Software and Nonprofit Organizations

Doug McKay is a gentleman who has a newsletter for volunteer managers (by the way, most people ask me what a volunteer manager is and what s/he does, so I thought you might want to know more on the topic.. I mean, it's a real job, and it is definitely more than a Human Resource Manager, in that Volunteer Managers also do project development).

His newsletter is a collection of interesting links on topics like volunteerism and nonprofit management that Doug gathers from several thematic listervers.

Open Source Software (OSS) is said to be of interest for the nonprofit world for several reasons:

  1. it is free: this reason is often used as a good one for endorsing OSS, even though nobody really understands (and for sure not me) why the same organization insists to have a free software because of budgetary constraints, while goes on paying pricey nonprofit consultants without blinking an eye...
  2. it is open source: that means that the code, too, is given together with the software you get so that if you want you can modify it. This is an advantage only if your nonprofit organization has software developers among staff or volunteers
  3. its licence: most people are only familiar with copyright, because it's widespread. HOwever, there exist other kinds of licences, such as copyleft and creative commons deed. Main difference between the last two is that while under the latter you can not modify the original work, even when you acknowledge the author, under the former you can.
  4. no discrimination: the software can't be used to discriminate persons, groups, or fields of endeavour (NOT EVEN if it is a for-profit, because yes, sometimes some persons in some nonprofits DO discriminate toward business people).

However, one of the main factor limiting the use of OSS in nonprofit organizations is that OSS often comes with how-tos that are written in technical jargon, and thereby unaccessible to people with low computer literacy.

In developed countries, nonprofits usually have access to technology, but access and use don't go hand in hand (see McDuff & Dwyer-Morgan, 2001). Similarly, Foth (2003) showed how connectivity (in terms of technology access), does not ensure usability. For the same reason, it's braindead to think that just throwing some technology at developing countries will allow them to "bridge the digital divide". Cultural aspects have to be addressed, possibly without cultural imperialism to be involved.

Why are people afraid of using technology?

From a sociological perspective, most scholars, either pro- or against technology, took an ideological black-and-white stand, i.e.: technology is either "all good" or "all bad".

Schuler (1996) took a melioristic stance (that is, belives that improvement of society depends on people's efforts to improve it), highlighting how the consequences of technology has depend on how we shape its use. Under this respect, it's very important to "translate" technical jargon into less threatening (but not oversimplificated) language.

NOSI did exactly this! Its Choosing and Using Open Source Software: A Primer for Nonprofits is a mirable example of non-threatening language making difficult concepts accessible without making the reader feel patronized.

Many thanks to Doug for having brought this link to our attention!


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