Should Non-profits Seed Software Development?

There were a ton of interesting side topics that came up at the Salesforce Non-Profit Roadmap event, but a few hit on some related themes that have long interested me, and they can be summed in two basic, but meaty questions:

1. Why isn’t there more collaboration between non-profits and open source software developers?

2. Should non-profits seed software development?

You’d think that open source and mission-focused organizations would be a natural fit, given that both share some common ethics around openness, collaboration, sharing and charity, and, let’s face it, both have challenging revenue models that often depend on the charity of others. And I think that’s the rub — simpatico they may be, but non-profts need partners to satisfy their needs, not share them. So when Microsoft, Salesforce, Cisco or some other high-powered tech company throws a significant bone (and these companies are very supportive), they can take it without putting their sustainability at risk. And I like to think that their charity is returned in more ways than the obvious support of our missions. Non-profits can take risks and do some creative things that profit-oriented companies shouldn’t. When it became strikingly clear to me that Salesforce had data management goals way beyond CRM (The evening that Marc Benioff told me that he was very interested in Goodwill’s inventory management challenges), it pretty quickly occurred to me that there would be a mutually beneficial opportunity if Goodwill wanted to pilot some of Salesforce’s development in that new territory.

The Roadmap session was stimulating on a number of levels – if I weren’t about to get extremely busy on my own sustainment pursuits, I could probably blog non-stop on it. One of the fun things was systematically determining exactly how non-profits are different in our software needs from the software-consuming world at large. There are clear needs for fund development, case management, grant reporting/management, and advocacy that aren’t germaine to the standard business world. And the general market for non-profit specific software has some limitations, as I often mention. At Goodwill, I searched high and low for a Workforce Development case management system that sat on an open platform. It doesn’t, to my knowledge, exist – every option out there limits the clients ability to integrate data from and to other systems. Most of them have severely limited reporting capabilities. Ironically, one of the worst offenders is the system that Goodwill International commissioned and sold to the members.

If the time hasn’t come, then it’s about to – non-profits can no longer afford to lock up their data in inflexible systems. Business management is not about silos. Success lies in your ability to learn from the data you collect, and inter-relate data between disparate systems. It’s not about how many clients you served. It’s about the cost of serving each of those clients and the effectiveness of your methods. You need systems that talk to each other and affordable ways to correlate data. So if the existing vendors don’t value this — or, worse, have built their business models on keeping you locked into their platforms by limiting your access to the data — then you need alternatives. And since Microsoft will discount their own software, but won’t fund other vendors, you need to consider if you shouldn’t be putting aside some of your hard-earned donations toward funding that development.

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