Open Source For Non-Profits
For the first seven years of my life I never had a baseball bat. In fact, nobody in the neighborhood had one. Simple reason was, we couldn’t afford one. Not about to let the kids in Jollyville, the rival neighborhood, get ahead, we put our heads together and came up with a solution. We broke off a few branches from a dead ocotillo cactus, placed a few large leafs over them and wrapped them together tightly together with fishing wire and, and voila, a functional bat. Not a Louisville slugger, but it got the job done. Over the course of one summer that was the bat that most of us learned how to hit with. Our ingenuity became the envy of the neighborhood. When I told my father about it, he smiled at said “well, the price was right.” In those tough economic times, the only price that was right was free. Sound familiar?
Over the next few years many small to mid-size non-profits and art centered project(s) will be facing severe financial cuts that, if not managed right, could lead to loss of revenue, exposure and messaging. Looking for ways to trim budgets while keeping the quality of organizations mission will be on the minds of most Executive Directors and boards. The natural tendency would be to scale back, downsize and “hunker” down. While this strategy may work for some aspects of business, I believe now is the time for smarter, more focused messaging, in particular, a new approach to an organization’s visual communication strategy. There has never been a better time to differentiate one’s organization or project from the crowd. New media technologies mean that you can spend less and do more if you are willing to consider a new approach.
The question is, however, how to do that in this chaotic economic environment. Having worked with non-profit and arts organizations for the last eight years I can testify that there is very rarely a shortage of ideas, but instead a shortage of resources available and allocated to make those ideas a reality. The question then becomes, are there alternative ways to achieve our visual communication goals without breaking the bank? While a conflux of unique circumstances has conspired to break our economy, another “perfect storm” has hit the digital creation marketplace, with much different results.
Let’s back up for a moment and take a look at some of the core ingredients that go into implementing an organizations visual communications strategy (note: at this point I am assuming the organization (or project) has already created an overall communications strategy). The focal point of most communications strategies is the web, as it serves as the main “hub” of your strategy, with all the other elements being the “spokes”, and they work together in concert to provide a cohesive and coordinated presentation to your targeted audience. Those elements would include your visual messaging (photography, graphic design), Multimedia presentations (podcasts, video, powerpoint) and print (brochures, annual reports). While there are many other elements that are often included, I think you’ll find them all sub-elements of the list above.
The budgetary requirements to implement a comprehensive plan with the the elements outlined above is out of reach for most small non-profits or arts organizations. The catch 22 is, if you don’t implement your strategic plan what good is it to have one, and if you implement your plan but it breaks the bank, how can you justify it. My solution for smaller organizations is to embrace Open Source.
What is Open Source? Wikipedia defines it as “a development methodology,which offers practical accessibility to a product’s source (goods and knowledge). Some consider open source as one of various possible design approaches, while others consider it a critical strategic element of their operations.” In addition, Open Source also includes “OSS”, or Open Source Software, which is “defined as computer software for which the human-readable source code is made available under a copyright license (or arrangement such as the public domain) that meets the Open Source Definition. This permits users to use, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified form. It is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner. Open source software is the most prominent example of open source development and often compared to user generated content.” For the purposes of this discussion, we are going to focus on OSS, but framed under the overall banner of the “development methodology”, as I think this can be appropriated by organizations as well.
OSS can include everything from web design applications to complete Content Management systems. The software is free to use and modify, although there are often some fine print in terms of credit and distribution. Most of these programs are widely available on the internet and have a fair amount of documentation. The capabilities rival those from the commercial sector, and are often updated faster than their commercial counterparts because of the sheer size of the development pool and, because it’s users are it’s developers, there is an imbedded need for fast, real-time solutions.
The learning curve of these systems is fairly straightforward. Google and other information resources have made access to user-generated documentation and trouble shooting of most OSS software easy and accessible, which is one aspect that should reassure organizations considering going Open Source. One of it’s early shortcomings was the lack of customer support (and is one area where the commercial products still rule). But, in this age of shrinking financial resources, many organizations will have to rely on human-power to push agendas forward, so the thought of spending a few hours troubleshooting versus paying two-thousand a year for Customer Service Support doesn’t sound so daunting.
Some of the early challenges organizations that went Open Source encountered have diminished with its wide appeal. When OSS first arrived on the scene, many of the programs were inaccessible to those that were not coders or programers. Additionally, the functionality operated about two years behind commercial products, making them somewhat irrelevant for those trying to do innovative and cutting edge work.
In today’s OSS environment, functionality is running about six months behind commercial software, and that gap is confined to only the most complex processes and functions. For the 90% of organizations there is relatively no difference between OSS and commercial software functionality.
Let’s examine one of the main leaders of Open Source software, and look at the practical implications for implementing your digital communciations strategy.
WordPress is the largest self-hosted blogging tool in the world, used on hundreds of thousands of sites and seen by tens of millions of people every day. It started from a single piece of code and, thanks to the tens of thousands of developers who have contributed to it, has now grown into a (small) Content Management System that is more than capable for handling all of a small to mid-level organizations online needs.
Basically, WordPress works as a template system. Okay, I can hear the groans already. Like you, I have a severe dislike of templates as they are generally boring, uncreative and lack the type of innovation that I like my projects to encompass. WordPress’ template system is much different, however. I like to think of it as a “skeleton system”, providing the end user with a working prototype of their site within, say, 20 minutes, and allowing them to expand and build upon that skeleton to suite their own needs. Those with a PHP background can build their own templates from scratch, but I have found that there are more than enough base templates to allow for unlimited customization and creativity without having to build one from scratch.
The experience of setting up and using WordPress is about as straight forward and easy as a web platform can get. First, purchase your domain and set up your hosting plan. I use Bluehost, and I have been very happy with their service. They also provide something called Fantasico, which is a great script that will install OSS programs on your server with the touch of a button. Using Fantasico, is similar to setting up an email account, will allow you to have a fully functional version of WordPress installed and running on your site, all within about 15 minutes.
WordPress’ core functionality includes creating “pages”, which are static pages that you don’t expect to change much, like the usual “about” pages on websites. Also, and this is where WordPress really shines, allowing for dynamic blog posts, which you can display in infinite ways to your audience. Just about every other web function you can think of is handled by something called “plugins”. At last count, there are 3,124 plugins available at WordPress’ home page, and many more scattered throughout the web. On the Good Fight’s website, I am using 22 plugin’s from 22 different authors. They enable such functionality as dynamic contact forms, event calendars, social bookmarking for my readers, and on and on. Plugins are so amazing that I often find myself perusing the WordPress Codex for new and interesting plugins, whether for the Good Fight or for my personal blog. It’s a great way to keep fresh your audience’s experience at your site as well as improving functionality.
What really makes WordPress stand out is the fact that it’s “server side”, meaning the core files and application reside on your server, as opposed to a host computer. By contrast, when a designer or developer creates a site in Dreamweaver, they are working locally (on their computer) and uploading/publishing those HTML files onto your server. While this may work well for the individual, it can play havoc with an organization who does not have a Dreamweaver or web developer in house. Furthermore, the maintenance of a site is ongoing, and many times in smaller organizations this falls to the hands of an office manager. Without the knowledge of coding,or how a particular developer created a site, s/he is basically unable to properly maintain and update a website. Commercial programs like Contribute do an adequate job of proving some of these tools, but in my experience they are far too limiting in their functionality to be truly useful. Try re-editing a blog post and changing the color of the link text in Contribute and you’ll see why.
In WordPress, you can have unlimited numbers of users accessing the “guts” of the program, and you can assign levels of access to various users to “restrict” them from places on the site that are either private or risky for someone to be monkeying around in. For example, let’s say you want your administrative assistant to approve user comments made on your company’s blog post, and also update the sites “bio” page with a new staff member, and finally run a backup of the database should the server crash. In WordPress the process is simple: s/he logs in, hits a manger tab, opens up the page, pastes in the new bio, and hits publish; next s/he hits the “comments” tab and hits “approve” or “disapprove” to moderate the comments, and finally, to backup the database s/he simply hits “manage” and then “backup”, and WordPress starts an automated process. By contrast, should the same type of scenario play out with a traditional HTML site designed in Dreamweaver, it would be a much more complex and tedious process, and one fraught with more serious consequences should there be an error along the way.
Another element to the above situation is that these types of changes (and the thousands of other commands possible) can be implemented anywhere in the world where there is web access. You could, for example, have your communications director uploading a corporate report from home while one of your field executives posts a blog while at an airport. As I mentioned before, you can have as many users as you want, and each of those users can be given a “role”. It’s the ultimate way to manage your web site in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Oh yeah, and it’s free.
From a design standpoint, many people feel “boxed” in by the template system. I know many developers who think their creativity is “stifled” by working within the framework of a Content Management System. While it does take some with CSS and PHP knowledge to properly customize a template, there are some great out of the box templates that costs less than a dinner for four at Outback steak house. And because of the extensive documentation at WordPress, and the easy to navigate interface, a design savvy person can learn the basics of template customization within a few weeks.
For extensive layout customization, however, I would recommend hiring a WordPress designer to tweak your template to your liking. Again, you have to weight the time involved in learning PHP and CSS versus hiring. Up until now everything I’ve covered has been a minimal time investment. Comprehensive tweaking should be contracted. You’ll still be saving money in the long run, as the core functionality WordPress brings, along with it’s stability and usability, is virtually free. Compare that with a web developer creating something from the ground up, and I think you’ll see the costs savings.
WordPress is just one of the thousands of Open Source applications available to organizations and artists on the web. I choose to cover it over other simply because it has the capacity to serve as an organization’s visual communications “hub”, allowing for easy management and maintenance, and can create a framework for company wide involvement. Other OSS programs that I would recommend investigating:
Audacity – sound editing and effects
Blender 3D – 3D modeling and animation
Filezilla- ftp client
Ganttproject – scheduling , resource management, calendaring
Gimp – image manipulation
OpenOffice.org – office suite
VLC Media Player – media player + VLC Portable
Sitesucker – web site copier
In short, my solution for smaller organizations is to embrace Open Source (and contract with a consultant for some limited help with design and strategy). You can cut out thousands of dollars that have historically been spent on programming, technical support, intense re-design, and maintenance. CFO’s and ED’s should rest assured that, through embracing Open Source they should be able to stay competitive with the latest communications tools with minimal investment and risk. Open Source is not without it’s problems, but as my father would say, “the price is right.”