Saturday, November 11, 2006


Nonprofit Open Source
by pam ashlund

I didn't know what "Open Source" was until I left the nonprofit world. In the for-profit technology world "open source" is almost a religion. In the nonprofit world it's almost unknown.

If you wanted to understand it at a deep level you could get comprehensive coverage at the Open Source Initiative (OSI) website ... but IF, like me, you just want to cut to the chase... it's been around for almost 25 years, but wasn't known by the name "open source" until 1998. Known as free software before '98 it suffered a public relations problem. The analogy used on the GNU website is: "free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer”. You can see where there might have been some misunderstandings. "Open Source" communicates the function without confusing newbies.

Like most ideas, the concept evolved over time. Fueled by a desire to:

  • do anything to destroy Bill Gates and/or Microsoft; and
  • prove that if you shared your knowledge that it would end up benefiting everyone.

Now, I know #2 might sound like Communism, but the "open source" philosophy didn't propose spreading the wealth, just the knowledge, it doesn't exclude business or capitalistic motives at all...theoretically.

Want to know more? See the OSI site, GNU or Wikipedia.

The idea now has a wide following, one example being that (almost) everybody has heard of Linux now-a-days (even if they don't know what it is), and most people know that the PC took off after the architecture "became" open (albiet not voluntarily). Thus the "PC clone" began to flourish. Maybe IBM isn't the best example of the success of open source, because in the short run it almost destroyed the IBM empire (or was that when the silicon chip replaced the "Selectric"? There would be no Dell or Gateway without IBM's idea. But MUCH more to the point, the open architecture allowed a huge software development industry (and still does).

Most people behind the scenes knew that the Mac was infinitely superior, but it lost the market race because it wasn't open source. OK, that's a biased comment, but...the point stands.

You may wonder where I'm going with all here it is (again my introductory paragraph comes in the middle of the blog darn it!):

What happens when the Nonprofit world meets the Open Source world? Maybe it will be Blackbaud's Infinity project (but probably not); maybe it is eRider's (a group of open source folks helping Non-Profit's with technology); maybe it's just a local non-profit using a Linux Server instead of a Microsoft Server.

It was listening to the pitch for Blackbaud's new Infinity platform that get me thinking about all this, because there was a lot of lip service given to open source (or API or SOAP, but I still have no idea what THOSE are). It was almost as if the idea of open source has become cool and they wanted to jump on the band wagon...OR maybe it was a the voice of the programmers filtered through corporate and marketing that I heard. Maybe it was like Horton hears a who, with us, the Blackbaud Users audience saying "wait, I heard it, I know I heard it!".


Start with From Here to Eternity and then move to the NonProfit TechBlog and read Allan's three excellent posts:

Blackbaud Infinity Plus 1
Part Infinity of Infinity


The Open Source Philosophy have the following criteria (cribbed from open source web site):

  • Free Redistribution
  • Source Code Included or Available
  • Derived Works and Modifications Allowed
  • Maintains the Integrity of The Author's Source Code
  • No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
  • No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor
  • Distribution of License
  • License Must Not Be Specific to a Product
  • License Must Not Restrict Other Software
  • License Must Be Technology-Neutral

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Taran Rampersad said...

Let's clear up a few things.

Free Software (reference: ) is much older than that, and was *never* called 'freeware'. It started in 1983 with the GNU project.

The OpenSourceInitiative started much later when a few people differed on philosophy and started using the term 'Open Source'. Today, they are often combined as FOSS (Free Open Source Software) and FLOS (Free, Libre Open Source). That's apparently where you got 'less than 10 years old'. It is, in fact, over 20 years old.

If you want to know about Free Software/Open Source in the context of non-profits, I think you should start here:

pam ashlund said...

Retraction - Don't know what the blog protocol is for erasing history, but I've made some corrections above (too bad it wasn't wiki-able).
All in all my first take on the whole topic came out of ignorance and thanks to Taran and my brother-in-law, I stand corrected.

I'm tempted to take the whole thing down because now that I've been introduced to the ideas of Richard Stallman, it's a whole different ballgame.

Thanks for setting me on the right path!

Gayle said...

Hey Pam,

Just discovered your blog and have subscribed.

Have your read Peter Karoff's work? If not, you might be interested in his essay titled "Open Source Philanthropy." You can download a copy at:

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