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Dean Haddock is a veteran IT manager at StoryCorps, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that's also a TechSoup member organization. See our recent spotlight on StoryCorps to learn more and stream one of the organization's stories.
Dean's been working in IT since he was 16, and secured a systems engineer position when he was 19 years old. He's the founder of a couple online businesses, including StreamFist.com, a site that turns related YouTube videos into a continuous streaming content channel (just like the good old days of TV). He also blogs at SystemsConsciousness.com.
I asked Dean for IT tips that I could pass on to small nonprofits, and since I knew Dean was an open source advocate, I asked him his thoughts on open-source solutions for the nonprofit community.
As a seasoned IT manager, what's the most important advice you would give to small or growing nonprofits about adding to or maintaining their IT infrastructure?
Dean: Think beyond the solution. I mean this two ways: Organizations change and grow. What will your organization look like next year? After five years? How does the IT solution you are looking at fit your future infrastructure? The thing to be avoided always is path dependency, which is an economic term suggesting that it will cost more for you to change your trajectory than for you to stay where you are and be unhappy.
The other meaning is that if you work well with your technology, you can get more than just a technological solution. Does the solution you are exploring give you opportunities to reach out to other organizations, such as with open source? How might you partner with an organization for a shared goal? Information Technology is just as much about forging relationships with other organizations as it is about providing useful tools for your organization.
Many nonprofits have so little IT help that it seems open-source solutions might not be viable for them due to lack of affordable support. Commercial software companies like Microsoft and Adobe offer their proprietary software through TechSoup and other charitable channels at extremely steep discounts, along with support. What are your thoughts on the possibilities of open-source software as a viable alternative for nonprofits without much technology experience?
Dean: I'm an open source advocate, but I'm not dogmatic about any particular approach to technology. I like open-source software because it's built and supported by a community, and as such it offers opportunities to extend an organization's mission to that community. We use SugarCRM, for instance, as opposed to SalesForce or Microsoft SharePoint or any number of alternative CRM-like systems. SugarCRM offers a free community version of their application, which is somewhat thinned out compared to the paid version, but it does everything we need it to do. Furthermore, because it's available under the GNU License, we can modify it as much as we like. Our IT team at StoryCorps has built a dozen or more custom modules, some of which we've shared with the Sugar community.
This is a perfect example of thinking beyond the solution. Because we're not only absorbing the technology, but also adding to it, we stamp StoryCorps on everything we do. The first module we developed is a great example. It's an IT HelpDesk module that allows us to track inventory, software, licenses, and support tickets related to any combination of the first three. As of this morning, there have been 3,063 downloads of our module and 1,386 downloads of our supporting documentation, all of which explain our mission and link to StoryCorps.org.
Truly, this isn't possible for every organization. It does take quite a bit more hands-on work to implement an open-source solution, and I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. The disadvantages of open source can vary from stability and functionality to support and upgrades. One of our main obstacles has been working with the SugarCRM API, which allows us to do things like write to the SugarCRM database from web forms on StoryCorps.org. We also use the API for our interviews database to relate certain interviews with partner organizations. It took a few days to really get this working right because, well, at the time there was only one tutorial about how to do this, and it was only slightly helpful. Yet because it's an open-source project, it's an amalgamation of other open-source projects, which means that the answer is out there somewhere. Once I found the answer, I started writing my own tutorials. And from people reading my tutorials I've made a lot of strong allies in the open-source world.
For applications like those developed by Adobe and Microsoft, open-source alternatives might not be so useful. A good website to check out is OSAlt.com, which will show a list of open-source alternatives to any paid software. Anyone who ventures out to try InkScape, GIMP, or SeaShore as alternatives to Adobe Illustrator will be very disappointed, I'm sure. Adobe allocates tons of resources to research and development, and their software is wonderful. These open-source projects can meet a lot of the core functionality of Adobe programs, but ultimately they are only alternatives to the market leader. And as for Microsoft, I think OpenOffice.org is a great free alternative program for word processing. I also like the OpenOffice version of Excel, called Calc, which has a much more robust importing and exporting feature than Microsoft's app. But you lose out on things like pretty charts and graphs.
Regardless of what strategy an organization adopts, the thing to keep in mind about open source is that the more people who use it, the better it becomes and the longer it survives. But if it's not the best solution to the IT problem you are trying to solve, then don't simply pick open source for the sake of it being open source.