Free software for non-profits?

Free software for non-profits?


Today, I sat down with the executive director of a counseling service for child sexual abuse to have a chat about developing a case management application for them. These organizations need to be able to track their activities with the people they deal with, write notes about their interactions, produce assessments, demographic analysis and activities reports and manage documents. Good case management software is pivotal for them. I realized that it's ridiculous how these types of organizations struggle with their technology needs. They are cash strapped, but need software to do their jobs like just about everyone else these days. But, when I asked him why he doesn't look into free software for their software needs, here's what he said:

His comfort level was in using Microsoft because they are:

  1. large and so aren't going anywhere,
  2. there is support for Microsoft from IT departments,
  3. they have a charity discount, and
  4. the promotion and perceived credibility was high.

Good marketing on Microsoft's part! It was essentially the "No one gets fired for hiring IBM" idea. Yes, I'm mixing metaphors... sort of.

The non-profit community touches the lives of one in three of us

Charities get great discounts from Microsoft (up to 90%!). So, the high cost of Microsoft products is less of an issue for them.

What would it take, then, to convince charities to make the switch?

The answer is simple, and yet not so obvious: good adaptable case management software for human services non-profits.

The only generalized case management applications for human services non-profits are expensive and proprietary

At the moment, the only generalized case management applications for human services non-profits are expensive and proprietary. These are four of the best I've found. The fifth in the list is the system I designed and built with my previous company Logiclynx:

Even though these solutions are quite advanced, none of them are free and easily adaptable by the end users.

Charities are in a bad position. Their funders (both government and foundations) don't provide them with the tools or with the funds to build the tools. Organizations are abandoned to find their own way through the software maze, and will ultimately get their funding cut if they don't produce the reports.

If ever there was a community that legitimately needs free software, it's the non-profit community

If ever there was a community that legitimately needs free software, it's the non-profit community. This community touches the lives of one in three of us. That's right. The standard understanding within the community is that one in three people are assisted by a non-profit in some way within a year.

I think it's about time that a large charity or a foundation funded, on behalf of all non-profits, a project to develop a free, highly customizable web-based case management application that is easily adaptable for use by various non-profit human services organizations.

After building one, I know it's not so easy to make it useful to a wide group of different organizations due to the variety of business rules, but that doesn't mean it's impossible, just challenging. And it would make a fantastic project for the free software development community as well.

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Comments

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

isnt this what the Open Source, free software movement is supposed to be experts at ?

i thought this was the king of thing, where you would post your functional spec of your application to SourceForge or whatever, create a small group of experts who should be able to develop a usable application and system for your customers requirements. ?? !!!

i mean, if linus Torvalds can write "GIT" in a week, it must be possible to to ge the coding done for a case management system.

actually help others, and increase their productivity.

you also state, that they are not interested in the initial cost of the software, u should know that applies to just about EVERYONE in the world.
they will (AND DO) pay for a quality product, when there is similar produce availble for free, (but not as good).

cost of software is a VERY small issue in considering USING that software.
failure to realise this is a major failing.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

software starts with a spec.

define the spec and that'll gives us something to chew on

if you were already involved in production of a similar system, you already know something of the spec.

?

Chris Holt's picture
Submitted by Chris Holt on

Actually, a spec may be on the way. This post has generated some interest in this as a project.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Just start this idea as a project and I feel there will be people willingly to contribute.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Hi there,

I just wanted to chime in that desc.org is an NP homeless shelter that is run on 100% free software. I would recommend contacting them to see which tools they use for case managment, since there is a lot of overlapping functionality.

Thank you for your time,
Frank Russo

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Remember about free software that you should focus on the freedom aspect and not the price. Focus on the freedom to use, tinker, and distribute software.

In my business, I only use free software. Unfortunately, the commonly available free software apps don't adequately solve my business needs so I needed to hire a vendor to document the software and improve the deficiencies.

I can tell you now that it would have been cheaper and quicker for my situation to buy licences for non-free software and be done with it compared to hiring the vendor to fix up the free software.

I chose to not buy non-free software for the purpose of not being subjugated to the vendor(s) of that software. The cost of freedom my this case was more than just a bit of money but also time and convenience.

Focus on the freedom aspect of free software. This may cost you more money and time compared to convenient non-free software but with free software, you're not going to be subjugated by a vendor.

Chris Holt's picture
Submitted by Chris Holt on

Your points are well taken and free is not necessarily the best solution; but can often be a start. It's not much use to anyone if the software is free and also not very good; but if it's usefulness is high, is flexible and scalable and secure...then you are at least starting with a solid base. In my experience with case management software, there were no off the shelf systems that worked out of the box. All needed some customization for each agency..so there was always additional costs, time delays and many many meetings to get this stuff done...which half the time (or more) was much less than successful anyway.

Terry Hancock's picture

Note that the poster you are responding to said that proprietary software would've been cheaper, he didn't say "better". In fact, as I read it, he says the opposite: he chose the better alternative, even though it cost a little more.

I think that this can also be stated in terms of long-term versus short-term costs. Proprietary software costs more out of the box, but free software may cost more to integrate into your system. After that, though, free software is likely to be cheaper to maintain for the long haul, over proprietary software which will have to be periodically replaced and re-integrated. Free software grows with you, while proprietary software is like a set of clothes you have to keep replacing as you grow.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I work for a nonprofit and have developed programs using open-source standards. we serve about 50,000 clients a year. And have a shelter, family service, and a day care program. It has taken me over three years to develop a information system to support all of the programs. Each one has to meet its federal and state reports and with standards changing so quickly it can be quite hard to do it on your own.

Most of all the systems run on Apache PHP and two forms of SQL, my SQL and PostgreSQL. I hope to add some Ajax to the mix next year.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Folks,

looks like I'm late arriving at this party and most good points have already been made.

Quite a co-incidence that I approached this after starting to write a Case Management application pro bono for a local Caring organisation in the UK. Then decided to re-run my checks for existing software.

Will monitor this BLOG for specs / projects / goodhearted people with bruises (experience and ability).

Russ

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I am a case manager...i am with one of the largest nonprofit organizations that support families and individuals with development disabilities. We have been field testing DANIC and it went south quickly. We are flirting with other related software and I don't think anyone has a clue what they are doing. Please direct me to a site with recommendations on free or opensource software to recommend to my people.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

So what happened with DANIC..looks like a limited set of services. I know of several proprietary systems like Danic including Kinterainc http://www.kinterainc.com; but I don't know how well they perform..others include Harmony http://www.harmonyis.com/
and my product which I sold last year www.sectorlynx.com...though if you contact me prior to them I can make a referral for you and who knows how to help you get a deal :)

as far as free software goes..well that's another story; but I'd have to know what specific pieces you're looking for.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I think that Free software has no future, because anything that worth something has its price...
Alex

guydjohnston's picture

We're talking about freedom here, not price - http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.

--
GNU - free as in freedom

Author information

Chris Holt's picture

Biography

Chris Holt specializes in consulting for Government and NGO public health and social services organizations about software to assist with case management and patient management systems.
Check out his site at http://www.intuitech.biz.