This May, the University of Michigan held a conference on how Application Service Providers and Open Source Software could help community serving nonprofits achieve their goals. Participants from the nonprofit world, open source projects, ASP's (definitely not Active Server Pages here) and foundations attended several days of intensive talks on how OSS could be applied to help smaller nonprofits realize the benefits of information technology. For a full list of participants, please refer to the conference website. This was a small group, thirty people total, who met in intensive sessions designed to bring them together for the first time. Remarkable for a conference, it seemed to energize rather than enervate, and conference members have kept in contact over the months that have followed.
Community Serving Organizations
Obviously, there are several sizes and varieties of nonprofits, ranging from the mega lobbying organizations of the NRA and AARP, to three people sitting in a kitchen trying to clean up a local river. The Michigan conference was mostly concerned about such smaller organizations that are trying to make a change in the world on small budgets. Typical organizations of this kind include local environmental groups, community theaters, food gatherers, advocacy groups, individual churches and so forth. Basically, nonprofits who do not have the benefit of a huge infrastructure driving their efforts to engage in some community-serving activity.
These groups could benefit from the blessings of information tech as much as their private sector friends have, but see expenditures on technology as drawing money away from their core missions. After all, a Big Deal has been made in recent years about how much donated money actually goes to direct service, so people in nonprofits have been reluctant to increase the money they put into this thing called 'administration,' which includes money spent on computers. The problem is, information technology might be able to help some of these people with their missions -- and in many cases, it's vital.
A computer is unlikely to directly feed a homeless person, but it could certainly connect a nonprofit to a broader range of opportunites to find food and housing for that person. One of the commonalities of most nonprofits is a need to communicate -- either to solicit funds for future activities, or to disseminate information on their particular cause. Use of the Internet and computers in general can go a long way in helping nonprofits seek and maintain a group of supporters, as well as the typical office tasks that all organizations need to deal with.
For most of the community service population, coding their own applications in unfeasible. These are people who want and need to deal in their specialties, and if they have little or no money for computers, they have less to spend on programmers who can work out proprietary apps for the nonprofit. It would suck pretty hard if a homeless person got to the shelter and heard, 'Sorry sucka, we sold the beds so we could hire this programmer.'
Application Service Providers (ASP's)
Lately, a deluge of ASP's have popped up to serve organizations without the money to install of the technology pieces they might want. The idea is pretty simple. For an honest fee, the ASP provides server-side applications available to anyone with an Internet connection. The most common type of ASP offers data storage, but others allow one to use office style products (though pared down for efficient transport). Some very clever ASP's have even popped up that allow people to create forms and collect data, super simple style, over the provider's server.
The problem is, there really aren't any ASPs designed for nonprofits specifically. This is weird, since the nonprofit sector is worth hundreds of billions of dollars in spending every year. Some of the conference members are working towards creating such a business -- ASPs aimed at nonprofits will emerge -- but the question becomes whether that will happen under a proprietary model, or under one of the Open Source style licenses. There is still so much money to be tapped in the private market, where it is easier to find funding, that most ASP's will not turn their attention to nonprofits for a good long time. Finally, the ASP market has become volatile since April of this year, and it would be unlikely for a private company to take on the risk of starting one without more of a measure of success than most people find in the nonprofit sector.
The Role of Open Source for Nonprofits
The obvious connection is that many open source projects are nonprofit, community-serving enterprises themselves. However, there are many positive interactions available between the open source community and the nonprofit sector, and not just free coding for the nonprofits if that is what you are thinking. If there is one thing that the nonprofit sector has learned how to do, it is to get the message out there. Their experience with advocacy combined with the communications experience garnered by the Open Source movement could do wonderful things for both players.
Also, the list of successful Open Source projects is limited in many ways. The best known successes, Apache, Linux and Sendmail, were coded by the people most likely to use them. This is not bad, obviously, it's just that the Open Source community needs to decide if they are going to remain forever in the shadow of a niche, or if they ever want to move into more mainstream endeavors. Working with the nonprofits, developing applications that would bridge that gap between helping ourselves and helping others, would be a great way to burst self imposed bonds. Scratch someone else's itch, as it were.
This isn't high school, so there will be no lecture on how helping community serving organizations is good for the soul, or how one should devote their talents to help those who have not been blessed. Bugger that for a box of rocks. However, it is true that males between 17 and 24 are the group of people least likely to volunteer their time. It's also true that an organized attempt to code an ASP for community serving organizations could allow people to hone coding skills for future personal use. Besides, it's a damned good feeling to be part of something that makes the world better, that makes people better. Not better in that way that they can get their job done a little bit faster, or that their computer crashes less often. Better in the way that they eat, or that get medicine to save their lives, or that there is air for your kids to breathe. It's a very good feeling indeed. OK, that got a little close to preachy, but suffice it to say there are reasons for the Open Source community to consider creating an ASP for the nonprofit sector.
What needs to be done next
There are several steps that need to be taken before the Open Source movement can mesh well with the community serving organizations.
Most people in these community serving organizations are unaware of the potential of ASP's, much less of OSS. We'll need to do some basic advocating for open systems of development. Most of the nonprofits will see the inherent wisdom of the open source method of application development, having a culture much more used to cooperation than does the private sector. On the other hand, they will have the same newbie style questions about a decentralized system of software development. Who is responsible in case it doesn't work? How do I get changes made? How does anything get done with no one calling the shots? Whom do I call for help? Basically, these organizations are a little gun shy about being abandoned with buggy software, and it would be a coup for the open source movement to not only convince them to follow an open strategy, but to make sure they are not hurt by that decision.
The Open Source movement also has some things to learn. Assume that the people in the community serving organizations are not able to change the code themselves, which is a pretty safe assumption. What does open source matter to them at that point? Also, the software will have to be as transparent as possible, something not only uncommon in most open source projects of the past, but rather frowned upon as "un-leet". It would be interesting for someone to manage a successful open source project where the end user is not also the major developer. The nonprofit sector provides a beautiful guinea pig for developing under this slight alteration of past open source success.
There are few standardized apps that are currently used by the community serving sector. This includes both the very macro types of software, like client trackers, or more subtle things, like XML standards for the community. These will be necessary if we want to make the whole schmeckis fit together. Later, there will be a diagram that will discuss the various elements that all need to work together to make an entire system revolving around an open source ASP that serves this target population.
Secondly, it will need to become apparent that sharing these tools will lead to a stronger overall "market" for community serving organizations. Past attempts at sharing tools often became mired in bureaucracy that would cause anyone to start popping Excedrin like Pez. Not only do the benefits of sharing the information need to be made plain, but the security of that information needs to be guaranteed. Nothing is more precious to a nonprofit than their lists of contacts, client information or advocacy materials. They walk a fine line between the proprietary and the open, and need to be helped to draw that line based on the experience of the open source movement, which will in turn learn from the nonprofits own struggles.
A community serving organization obviously needs to get to the Net in order to reap benefits from it. Connectivity for these types of organizations is more essential than for individuals, which has been the main focus of the widely touted "Digital Divide". There is no easy solution to getting the nonprofits to the Net. Many can afford it, especially if their funds are freed up by having access to a good Open Sourced ASP, but some still will not be able to. For some the telecom infrastructure where they are from will not be good, especially for those community serving organizations in poorer parts of the USA, or in less developed countries. All we can do is advocate for increasing ubiquity of the Internet, which should not go against the grain for any person who believes that technology can make a positive difference.
The time is now
Someone out there needs to jump on this. The potential gains, for open source, for the community serving organizations, and for the individual themselves are great. In the coming six months, more nonprofits are going to be pressured by the apparent successes of the private market to seek out more and more information technology. Many are going to turn to ASP's, which do not currently support the special needs of those community serving organizations. Many are going to turn to proprietary software, either out of misunderstandings of the power of open-sourced applications, or out of sheer ignorance that such things exist. Think of this as a few separate open source projects, enough for many of the bright people here. One is the creation of the open source ASP to serve the nonprofit sector. A few more open source projects will devolve out of the infrastructure that will need to spin out of that ASP-OSS project. And one more, that everyone should be involved in, is thinking of open source like advocates, if it is something you do believe in, and trying to recognize how it could be exposed to a broader world. This problem is one area where we can combine self interest with advocacy.
The paper at the the conference web site includes many possible steps that could be taken in the next months. There is also some money possibly available for someone taking this on. Many foundations were present at the conference, and all made committments to see that this thing happened, or more to the point, that if someone tried to make it happen they would not be flying alone. The opportunity here is rich, and it would be a Good Thing (tm) if someone from this population were to make some action happen. You could not find a better time or a more worthwhile enterprise.
The diagram below is something of a summation of the conference proceedings, which, again, are available here. Yes, the diagram is ripped directly from the site, with permission of course. It was initially drawn out by Brian Behlendorf, and immediately became a community property creation, like a center point that created a common vortex for the different working groups. For more information on the subject, you can contact the author of this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.