Ubuntu for Non-profit Newbies (Nice alliteration)

Ubuntu for Non-profit Newbies (Nice alliteration)

In my last post, I was overflowing with praise for the value of Ubuntu for the non-profit world and said I’d discuss “how Ubuntu works” in this entry. Well “how” is beyond my technical expertise and is undoubtedly a complex dance of 0s and 1s and static electricity. What I meant was a little less technical and more practical... just the joy of using it. After working for years in social services, the concept that software should be free, that people the world over should be able to have access to a base level of technology that will level the playing field for communications and potentially e-commerce is a value I share. I once set up a voice mail system for homeless people to maintain communication with their families and physicians based around this philosophy. This is great stuff!

Non-profits need to maximize resources—free software is an opportunity; but just because it’s free doesn’t necessarily mean it’s useful. Recently, you’d have to be an experienced geek to make Linux a functional part of your organization and to be using GNU/Linux as your desktop environment would have been crazy...difficult for the average non-profit user to wrap their heads around after spending the day counseling people with AIDS, helping abused children, training mentally ill people or sheltering the homeless. But Ubuntu has changed that.

A search for Ubuntu through Free Sofware Magazine will give you plenty of information including a good article by Mark Rais in setting up Ubuntu users. One of the things to check out first prior to running this system is whether or not your printers have Linux drivers...check this, I didn’t and one of my printers is sidelined at this point.

After using Unix, Wang, Mac OS, DOS and Windows for twenty years, I was an addict nervously installing Ubuntu on my Dell. I had sweaty palms, stomach butterflies, visions of blue screens of death and the fear of complete confusion. But after the splash music my trepidation gave way to joy and I’ve never looked back. Why? The first thing is the ability to run multiple desktops. With the installation of the Beryl manager I have four desktops arranged on a cube that I can flip around with my mouse wheel enabling many applications to be open at the same time and organized into separate working environments.

The Beryl manager also comes with some eye candy. My application windows have transparency ability, they wobble when moved, have lots of closing and hiding features that make the interface fun to use and are kinda MAC-ish.

Another great feature is the package managers that organize 100s of tested applications for download. Should I wish to install the free equivalent of Adobe’s Photo Shop—GIMP—I select the program under the system/administration directory through the Synaptic Package Manager and the system goes out into the software universe, downloads GIMP and installs it...all without necessitating a reboot or even slowing down. I don’t have to check my budget, requisition the software from Purchasing, plead with my manager or build a use case for purchase. I just click and work.

I can download applications for finding music, books and video through peer to peer systems; there are accounting systems like GNUCash which is like Quicken and other consumer level financial management systems and may be appropriate for smaller non-profits and charities. There are website development tools, databases systems and technical tools for developers.

The most popular from an agency perspective will be the Office Suite. Ubuntu comes with Open Office which provides word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, database development, and drawing. If you publish newsletters, you have access to Scribus a free desktop page layout program for producing commercial grade output.

One of the best features is the security around Linux. I do not worry about hackers, trojan horses and viruses because of the built in security and Linux’s inherent imperviousness to security hacks.

So not only do I not look back, but I am so excited about the future my eyes are getting strained... but I can probably find some free software to fix that too.



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

While a lot of free (as in freedom) software is available at no cost, this is a bonus, and not to be taken for granted - free software developers would be homeless too if they were not allowed to earn money on their free (as in freedom) software. Your article could be improved by making clear this issue. As it stands now, you seem only to praise getting something for nothing, and I can't tell from the article if that was your intention or not.

Terry Hancock's picture

In the context of non-profits, this approach makes sense. Non-profits almost always rely on free pro-bono consulting, so they're liable to get both software and consulting for free.

Of course, there are some non-profits that would have the funding to contract free software development programs.

It may not be the aspect of greatest importance to you, but for people with limited funds (and usually an abundance of volunteer labor), the fact that free software is as a practical matter also zero-cost is a definite advantage.

Lopo Lencastre de Almeida's picture

Although most of the software can come for free you must -- even for non-profit -- count on migration, training and, most important, porting of some pieces of code that can be even made in Visual Basic 3, Clipper (I saw it), or Microsoft Excel or Access and adapt many Microsoft Word templates to other FOSS Office packages.

Also many have very old machines so plain Ubuntu may not serve but Xubuntu may work and many times it is needed to redefine the hardware distribution by the tasks required.

And not even to mention Dual Boots and misc networking models with Mac, Mac OSX, Netware over DOS, Microsoft Windows and even legacy Unix.

And you must count with supporting over time. It can cost money, even if just to cover some beers, food and transports.

This article can be misleading and pro-bono consulting companies could even do it for free (as in gratis) or just for a small fee or other financing tricks like sponsoring deductible in yearly taxes, but non-profit SHOULD never start with the idea that there will be some crazy geeks to hold their hand always and forever.

Just my €0,02

Humaneasy Consulting

Chris Holt's picture
Submitted by Chris Holt on

True...one must consider many things beyond price and philosophy is one of them, but not all of them :)

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

In my experience non-profits want to have MS software (so they have what the big companies have) and companies would like to have open source software (so they can cut down licenses-costs and get out of vendor lock-in).
The strategy for open source advocacy should focus on the profit sector.

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

anonymous coward is not speaking for all non-profits. Non-profits are not trying to have what the big companies have. That's absurd and without evidence. Non-profits like the one I work for are trying to get as much work done as possible for as little money as possible, while operating within legal and moral boundaries. For a non-profit like my employer, free software (free as in "free speech" not "free beer") promotes community which is wholly compatible with our non-profit's mission.

Non-profits need the programs that have the same applications as the big companies but we don't have to have what they have.

Author information

Chris Holt's picture


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.