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Choosing and Using Free and Open Source Software

By Michelle Murrain

"Choosing and Using Free and Open Source Software: A Primer for Nonprofits" is a no-nonsense, easy to read report that helps nonprofits understand what free and open source software (FOSS) is, what options are available for their organisations, and how they can access support for using FOSS.


The primer includes all of the basics, and also discusses how to look at TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) and strategic value in making decisions about FOSS. There are many case studies describing the use of various FOSS applications in the sector.

Many voluntary sector organisations that once relied almost entirely on commercial software in their organisations are now beginning to implement the “open source” or “free software” alternative. Open Source, or Free Software refers to software distributed with the condition that anyone using it must have access to, and the ability to give away unlimited copies of, both the program and the source code that is needed to make changes to the program. We will use the term “free and open source” (or FOSS) from now on, for software that is either (or both) “free software” (free as in “libre” - not just without cost) or “open source.” Free and open source software is distinguished here from commercial software, also called proprietary software, which is any software that is distributed under commercial license agreements, usually for a fee.

Sea Changes

When we first wrote the open source primer in 2021, few voluntary sector organisations had even heard of open source software, or Linux, and even fewer had adopted them. There was a real dearth of information available on free and open source software for the sector (which is why the original primer was written) and most free and open source software that voluntary sector organisations might implement weren't ready. In the four years since, there has been a sea change. More and more free and open source software is ready for voluntary sector use, and many voluntary sector organisations have incorporated free and open source software in their work. Things have changed so much that the majority of voluntary sector organisations running dynamic websites use free and open source software to run those websites. Linux servers in the back offices of voluntary sector organisations are much more commonplace, and there are even some voluntary sector organisations that have converted to using Linux on the desktop.

In this updated primer, we examine how free and open source software is developed, how its costs and benefits are evaluated, how voluntary sector organisations are using it today, and we provide specific examples and resources. We also offer ideas on how to further advance the applicability of FOSS to the voluntary sector, and discuss philosophical issues of FOSS and why it is such a good fit for the missions of many voluntary sector organisations. Further, we provide a list of free and open source software that is ready to be used in organisations today, and a list of consultants and vendors that provide support for FOSS.

How to decide to use FOSS?

Adopting free and open source software can be as simple as downloading one software package, installing it, and using it on a single workstation, or as complex as implementing a Linux server cluster to do complex computing, or anything in between. This section will focus on smaller-scale implementations of FOSS, which are more relevant to most voluntary sector organisations.

All organisations should consider implementing FOSS. But in any organisation, it is necessary to make a case for what can be a significant internal change. This section lays out some of the factors you might need to address in weighing the costs and benefits of FOSS against comparable proprietary solutions. (Later sections of the primer offer more concrete examples.)


There are three concepts to consider when evaluating software that we cover in the primer: Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), strategic value, and mission-based philosophy.

Total Cost of Ownership:

TCO is a familiar term to many people – it represents a calculation of how much technology costs to implement, use and maintain over time.

Strategic Value:

Strategic Value takes additional factors into account beyond the costs connected to the technology itself. In the voluntary sector context this means accounting for the mission-based value that a technology might bring to an organisation. Measuring the impact on staff productivity or on the quality of services delivered to clients is part of evaluating strategic value.

Mission-based Philosophy:

In large part, free and open source software is community-driven and owned, and implementations of FOSS will be able to feed back so that all users of FOSS can benefit (from experience, enhancements, changes, documentation, and the like that arises from that implementation.) In addition, FOSS operating systems can be used on older equipment, extending its useful life, and thus making organisational computing more ecologically (and economically) sustainable. If these characteristics of FOSS are in line with the mission of an organisation, then use of FOSS is thus mission-based.

The simple act of using software builds community around that software, and you, as the user are now part of that community of users. Every time you ask a question or report a problem, you are contributing to the development of the software you're using. If the software you use is affordable to smaller groups or groups with less resources, or if your clients or members can use tools on their own computers to produce media, then you're making accessible software better by using it and building community around it.

FOSS can influence the TCO of technology, as well as the strategic value that it brings to an organisation. Further, it can be aligned with mission.

How can you get support for FOSS?

One of the major questions that voluntary sector organisations have about implementing FOSS in their organisations is “How will I get support?” We outline here a variety of ways to get support for FOSS, as well as the increasing awareness and expertise about FOSS in the voluntary sector sector. We also describe several case studies of technology providers specializing in some FOSS projects, and building relationships with developers, which lead to enhanced capabilities for support.

Technical support for any computing product can come from one of four places:

  • Internal staff and volunteers
  • Technology consultant(s)

  • Software developer or vendor and
  • The larger community (whether it be the community of nonprofit technology workers, the community of users and developers of a particular product, or the larger user community on the Internet). Support for FOSS comes from those same four sources, but the emphasis is different.

There are some ways that FOSS may lag behind proprietary software in terms of support – FOSS documentation tends to not be as user-friendly, although this is rapidly changing, and there are increasing numbers of independent documentation efforts. There are fewer available printed books on many FOSS packages (however, there are many books on the most popular applications).

There is an increasing amount of support available for FOSS, due to the following five factors:

  • Open source applications have developed sophisticated user communities, and have even created free web services and applications (like SourceForge and phpBB) that enable a volunteer-based community to collaborate on answering questions, creating tutorials, and reporting bugs and requests for new features.
  • The voluntary sector community itself, including foundations, independent consultants, and NTAPs (nonprofit technology assistance providers) is recognising the inherent advantages of open source software tailored to the specific needs of the groups they support. In addition, NTAPs are increasingly adopting and supporting FOSS.
  • The producers of mature open source applications (RedHat, Ubuntu, and MySQL are three examples) often sell their software bundled with support. Since the software itself can be obtained for free, “value added” is essential to create the sales needed for a viable business model. Other FOSS producers do not offer support themselves, but refer users to a growing number of small support providers. The cost is often competitive with the price that larger firms charge for support of popular proprietary applications. And it is optional: if you can do without phone support, you do not have to pay for it.
  • Where software developers once dominated the open source community, people with additional skills (technical writers, designers, usability experts, etc.) are now actively participating.
  • Several established corporations have recognised a self-interest in supporting the development of open source options, and are now investing tens of millions of dollars (or more) each year to address the shortcomings that hinder widespread FOSS adoption. Dell is now selling desktops and laptops with Ubuntu Linux.

The primer focuses on the first two of these, which are most relevant to voluntary sector organisations.


FOSS is, on many levels, a good fit for voluntary sector organisations. FOSS can provide less expensive, easier to maintain, more extensible, more secure implementations of software than proprietary alternatives. FOSS development and FOSS communities often work in ways that are consonant with non profit mission (in fact, many FOSS projects are non profit organisations themselves). The development of FOSS specifically for the voluntary sector provides the possibility of freely available community-driven, community-owned software, that can change and grow with organisations as they grow and change.

Free and open source software still, after all these years, provides real promise for the voluntary sector. Our challenge is to find ways to work together to further and more fully realize that promise.

Additional Notes

Choosing and Using Free and Open Source Software: A Primer for Nonprofits also contains a glossary, a list of resources, and a live feed of FOSS toolboxes from Social Source Commons, so that one can find many options for FOSS software to take care of organisational tasks. In addition, it contains a global list of consultants, organisations and companies that provide support for FOSS.


Feed, FOSS, Internet, Line, Linux, MySQL, Open Source Software, Proprietary software, Software

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Published: 12th October 2021

Copyright © 2021 Michelle Murrain

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