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[personal profile] karlht
First of all, to take advantage of something, you have to have heard of it in the first place. Some of your younger or more plugged-in friends may have heard of Linux, the poster-penguin for copyleft and free software. They may even have heard of Richard Stallman and the GNU Project. But if you ask a typical non-techie "What's GNU?" be prepared to have him ask if you've got something stuck in your throat. So the first major obstacle to adoption of free software is lack of awareness that it exists.

Once they are informed about free software, the first reaction I typically see is skepticism. Non-profits, especially small non-profits, have been burned by technology an awful lot in the past twenty-five years. What started out as the promise of labor-saving, cost-cutting, mission-enhancing tools has all too often turned into more hoops to jump through, incompatible data formats, training and re-training with exhortations to 'think like a business,' endless re-typing and re-entry of data, and a distraction from their mission. My friends working at non-profits have learned to dread the words 'Oh, we're building a new system to deal with that. It'll be great!' So the second major obstacle to widespread adoption is technology burnout.

Related to this is the difficulty that most small non-profits don't have a dedicated techie. At best, they have an 'accidental techie,' a person working on the core mission who has some interest in technology, who thereafter gets drafted to deal with new technological issues and systems. Every non-profit has someone in the office who you go to when the copier's broken, before you make the expensive call to the repair guy. These 'accidental techies' are frequently overloaded as more and more technology comes in to the office, and they frequently feel tremendous pressure to continue volunteering for the tech work even long after it's ceased to be rewarding or fun, simply because of the knowledge that no one else in the organization can or will do it. So they start to resist new technologies, as well, knowing that a new project or system is just going to wind up being more work for them, possibly jeopardizing their work on the actual mission of the organization. So the third major obstacle to widespread adoption is lack of dedicated staff and adequate division of labor.

I mentioned Microsoft's 'philanthropy' in my last article. There are many software houses out there developing software for non-profit use; Microsoft is just the biggest. Have a look at this list of software providers to nonprofit organizations. Do you see a single open source project on that list? Of course not. And that's not even including the nonprofit-serving ASPs (Kintera, GetActive, GuideStar, Convio). With the introduction of just one truly usable, friendly, and well-supported open source project in non-profit funding and development, all of these companies have two choices: either transform themselves into a service organization selling support services, or watch their customer base erode over time. Their clients may be non-profits, but they certainly are not. It is in their business interests to keep open source and free software out of those markets for as long as they possibly can. How do they (including, emphatically, Microsoft) do this? With money, of course. It's their one big advantage, so they use it like a club. Take a look at the websites of three self-described "providers of technology assistance to non-profits": NPower, the Non-Profit Technology Enterprise Network, and CompuMentor. Notice anything interesting? Each one of those organizations has a prominent link to Microsoft or its products on the front page, usually with mentions of discounts. And none of them mention so much as a peep about Mozilla, Firefox, Linux, GNU, or any other open source or free software project. Since most small non-profits have no technical staff of their own, they are essentially at the mercy of the technology providers for advice and consulting. How long would Microsoft maintain a deep-discount relationship with a technology provider who openly advocated using free software? How many of these technology providers' budgets are being underwritten by people who see non-profits as an essentially captive market? This helps to explain the lack of widespread adoption of open source and free software among non-profit and non-governmental organizations in a simple and classically capitalist fashion: The money's on the other side.

Later in the week, I'll look at ways that grassroots non-profit organizations and socially-minded techies can help each other overcome these obstacles.

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