Benefits of open source software for charities

We love open source software, and all the solutions we create for our clients are based on open source applications. In this post I look at what it is, what its advantages are, and what some other chariites are saying about it.

What is open source?

Open Source Software (OSS) is computer software with its source code available to anyone to study, change and distribute - and for any purpose. This right is granted by the copyright holder, usually the first person to develop the code and license it as OSS or an organisation set up to look after the interests of the project.

The vast majority of the work we do building charity websites is done using Drupal, which is distributed under the terms of the GNU General Public License (or "GPL"), which means anyone is free to download it and share it with others.

OSS products and applications are very often developed in a very public and collaborative way, sometimes by hundreds or even thousands of people. As an example, Drupal is maintained by a community of more than 650,000 users and developers including some of the members of our development team here at White Fuse.

What is source code?


To fully understand what open source means we first need to understand what we mean when we talk about ‘software'. Just in case you're not familiar with the term, here are the basics:

  • Computer hardware is the stuff you can touch: the monitor, printer, the computer itself and the bits inside - the hard drive the processor, the motherboard etc.
  • Computer software is all the stuff you can’t touch: the applications and programmes like iTunes, MS Word and Excel, Chrome Browser etc.

Software is comprised of basic computer code (binary) - just zeros and ones. Although computers can process this binary code very fast, people find it difficult to communicate in this way so we developed programming languages allowing people to more easily read and understand each other's work.

These written programmes can be in a number of languages such as Python, C#, Html and Java. This is what we call the source code - the bit we can read. This source code is then compiled by computers into the zeros and ones it can understand to execute the programs and become the application, website, CRM, Word Processor or whatever it is that we look at and interact with on the screen.

The important part here is that once the source code is compiled it is hidden and can no longer be read easily by other people. This is the bit that proprietary systems keep secret and under licence to prevent you tinkering with it, changing it or using it in a different way or for a different amount of people than you have already paid for.

Does open source mean free?

Open source does not necessarily mean free but open source products (like Drupal and CiviCRM) are very often free to use and this is one of the reasons we tend chose to use them when building websites and CRM databases for charities.

Our clients still need to pay for our development time but the advantages are that there are no set up costs or continuing license fees. You don’t need to pay more money to make the CRM available to more people in the organisation and you won’t need to find extra budget next year to continue using the product.

What are charities saying about open source?

The ethos of OSS ties in with that of the charity sector. It's dependent on collaboration and communication, underpinned by the belief that multiple voices and skills can create a better service than those of individuals.

Here’s why some of our clients chose OSS:

When looking to upgrade our website, we knew we wanted to use open source software. This would allow us the opportunity to benefit from new functionality as it is available, for free, including integration with Salesforce. Being widely used, we can access support from a number of companies for a competitive price when we need to update the site. We have found Drupal easy to use and can do all the day-to-day tasks ourselves.

- Hayley Cartwright, Projects Manager at The Cranfield Trust

When we launched our new website, we wanted a system that would be cost-effective to run, easy to use and flexible for the future. Open source software seemed like it would fit these requirements – we did some research and opted for a Drupal-based system.

The main advantage of open source software is that there are so many users around the world, who all share their knowledge. This means we benefit not just from the expertise of White Fuse Media but also from the knowledge and experience of the wider Drupal support network.

- Eleanor March, Communications and Fundraising Manager at Transform Housing & Support


2 February 2014
Crispin Read