How open source start-ups can benefit from NGOs


As mentioned in my last blog, I’ve been working in the NGO sector the past few months and also following Alfresco, the first open source Enterprise Content Management system. Through my contacts in Alfresco I’ve been talking about potential partnerships between Alfresco and the NGO sector. First of all, I have to dispel a myth, not ALL NGOs are fans of open source software! A lot of the CIOs of the major NGOs have originally worked in the commercial sector and are very pragmatic when it comes to choosing new technology and software for their organisations. One CIO for a HUGE NGO regularly debates with me about open source, me being a big believer in the model, and him being very sceptical!

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of NGOs out there that don’t support open source. The fit between the two areas is obvious, they share similar values, and potentially help the same people, one through aid work, the other through free access to powerful software. Additionally, many NGOs have limited budgets, so even with grants many major software companies (particularly Microsoft) give to NGOs for software, they can very rarely beat free!

So NGOs need access to cheap/free software to enable their organisations to function, and small open source start-ups which rely on a handful of developers to develop core features and the open source community to develop the others, need a large open source community behind it for their business model to work. This is where the fit comes in that I discussed with Alfresco. Some of these NGOs have huge delivery centers around the world packed with developers who create software for their organisations. If these open source companies can work with NGOs to give them access to their software, not only will they get a huge user base to use their software, but free developers to continue developing their software essentially for free! As NGOs have limited commercial/proprietary interests, very few NGOs would have a stigma about giving any improvements/code they developed back to the open source company, so the company substantially speeds up its development efforts for free!

This has actually been going on for years. Oxfam took Plone, an open source content management system, and developed a whole load of features to enable it to publish its websites and their own Intranet. The sites have been very successful and Oxfam is still developing it internally. But the great thing for Plone, is they have released most of their code back to the open source community. Web content management, an essential enterprise feature of any content management system, was effectively developed and since maintained by Oxfam developers, for free to the Plone community!

So if you are part of an open source start-up and need to speed up your development, why not get in contact with some of the large NGOs, if you have something that can truly help them in their cause, and their CIOs are looking to use open source in their organisations, you could really help a good cause and dramatically help your start-up grow fast! Alfresco also mentioned they have been working with some educational institutions that also offer similar benefits. Why not allow students to develop new features for your software for their final year projects, and maybe even recruit them straight into your company when they graduate?