At CEDC, we have a bias towards free and open source software solutions in our web development processes, for a variety of reasons which are both practical and philosophical.
In practice, an open source project shares the source code that makes up the software and provides a license that allows modification and redistribution of the code without licensing fees. Most often there are communities of people that use the software and contribute improvements back to it, which are vetted, discussed, and often included in future versions for everyone to benefit from. Freely available open source projects power most of the web at this point.
Free software often does have costs. You may need to pay someone to install and configure it, do security updates over time, or train you. However, it generally does not have licensing fees or upcharges that kick in as your organization grows, and it provides a freedom that proprietary systems often do not.
On top of that, the primary open source projects we use are tailored to the needs of the nonprofit world. This is generally a much better fit than a proprietary system built for business which a nonprofit workflow is shoehorned into. Backdrop CMS has a specific focus on affordability for small and medium-sized organizations in addition to its technical goals. CiviCRM lists in its vision the goal to provide a quality CRM to groups regardless of budget, to help them achieve their mission and improve the world.
There are debates that split hairs between “free software” and “open source software,” but at the heart of these concepts is a philosophy that resonates. As a mission-driven nonprofit, the chance to participate in open source communities is very appealing since it dovetails with our mission and values in many ways:
By releasing the code to the public, open source projects can fly in the face of traditional economics, attempting to open access to all, not just those who have money. We need money to keep operating, but making money is not our primary motivator. We are trying to help build and to participate in the kind of world that should be (even if it is not here yet). Benefiting from the work of so many and contributing back to the common good embodies the golden rule and is a reminder to have an abundance mindset instead of a scarcity mentality. (This type of philosophy is not restricted to computer code: think of the example of life-saving drug patents that were put into the public domain and saved countless lives, as our partner Faith in Healthcare reminds us*).
Open source communities have a vested interest in educating users and developers to help improve the software. Beyond this, today’s (and tomorrow’s) students have an enormous collection of real-world source code to peruse and study and learn from (and contribute back to).
Following on the educational aspect, users are invited and empowered to become deeper participants in the project. This doesn’t have to be by coding: contributions include creating documentation, reporting bugs, helping answer questions in the forum, and the like. There is some way for everybody to join in if they want to.
A global community of people that comes together to collaborate and produce software is a beautiful model of partnership.
Let us know if you have any further questions, and please, if you’re so inclined, join in!
* "Jonas Salk, for example, declined to pursue a patent for the polio vaccine, saying the patent belonged to the people. The creator of the first synthetic malaria vaccine donated the patent to the World Health Organization." (Source)