Future of fundraising technology ‘open’

Elizabeth Floyd

Software for fundraising and managing constituents is undergoing a revolution, experts say.

Fueling the revolution is the increasing use by nonprofits of “open-source” software that makes its source code available to users who can modify it, often through collaboration.

The consumer can adjust open-source software, in effect customizing applications to meet its specific needs, and making it easier to add features not provided in the off-the-shelf version, experts say.

The result is more powerful, innovative software that reaches constituents where they are, says Marnie Webb, co-chief executive of San Francisco-based CompuMentor, a nonprofit technical-assistance group.

For staunch “open” advocates like Leo D’Angelo, chief technology officer of MPower, which offers open-source solutions for nonprofits, this means no more endless searches for that elusive “perfect” software that fits a given nonprofit’s specific needs.

“With open-source, an individual organization can benefit from something someone else did,” he says, describing how software can evolve through changes made by its various users.

Because open-source software over time can have many “architects,” it evolves faster than traditional software, D’Angelo says.

A user wanting to add a feature to traditional software must persuade the vendor that the feature would be of value to many customers, he says.

“If you can’t convince them,” he says, “there is no other recourse.”

But with open-source software, a community of consultants and vendor partners can modify the software directly.

A new feature that might take years for a traditional vendor to create can usually be achieved through the open-source community in a matter of months, d’Angelo says.

Open-source software also simplifies fundraising prospecting by allowing nonprofits to integrate separate database systems, the two experts say.

“It’s easier to get money from constituents where you’re not always having to drive people to a unique site,” Webb says.

With open-source fundraising software, for example, a young supporter can give money on a Facebook account, while another constituent can make a donation through Greater Good or a personal fundraising page – all within the same integrated software system.

Open-source systems do have their downsides.

Because a nonprofit’s data may be hosted on a web-based system, “stitching together” data from separate software applications “can be very complex,” Webb says.

Web-based systems may also host data from multiple clients, making security breaches a concern, she says.

Nonprofits considering web-based systems, known as “application service providers,” or ASPs, should be clear on what parts of their data a potential host will be responsible for, how to remove data from the system if necessary, and what happens in the case of a security breach, Webb says.

“If you’re an organization working with a population that is sensitive for some reason, for example people in the U.S. without the documentation that the government considers to be appropriate, do you really want that to be sitting on someone else’s servers?” she says.

“However, most organizations are not in that position, and the information is probably more secure on some of these types of services than on their own computers,” she says.

Open source can be a more attractive option for groups on a tight budget, Webb says, because they get access to more powerful software at a lower financial cost.

Those considering a move to open-source for their fundraising and constituency-management needs should start by recognizing their restraints in terms of risk tolerance and budgeting, Webb says.

She suggests sites like Idealware, a nonprofit that provides Consumer Reports-style software reviews, for help in comparing constituent-management software.

Once a nonprofit chooses an open-source software system, it should be prepared to invest the time and money to configure it, Webb says.

Groups like the Taproot Foundation can help nonprofits find volunteers teams of tech experts to help develop their software.

“Some groups don’t do the hard work of just planning, frankly, and end up spending much more than they intended to,” she says.

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