What is Free and Open Source Software?


  • Free and Open Source Software has a natural philosophical fit with the non-profit sector. Promoting a ‘gift culture’, where contributions are given in the faith that others will do the same, in turn creating greater mutual value.

    With conventional software—mostly known as ‘proprietary’, such as that made by Microsoft or Adobe—it’s not possible to see or change the source code, the nuts and bolts that make up the programme. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) however, is made with exactly the opposite goal in mind. Not only is it possible to see and change the nuts and bolts that make it work, but the community who developed it actually encourage it and rely on this philosophy to see the software spread and grow beyond its original creators.

    It’s not just technical people who benefit from this approach, as an alternative form of software development it has much wider implications. Because of the way it is licensed, it has the potential to be legally given away for free or for very little cost and copied and shared with others. In addition, it has far more scope for being available in multiple languages and for being adapted or tweaked to particular needs. This can be very useful for NGOs wanting to use legal software that is appropriate to their needs and fits within their modest budgets.

    The nature of FOSS development practices means that some tools are extremely professional and even exceed the functionality of proprietary solutions. This is possible to see in applications such as Firefox for Web browsing, or Thunderbird for email. But other solutions are small-scale, low resourced efforts and are still quite inaccessible to non-technical users. For this reason we try our best in each of the NGO-in-a-box toolkits to choose solutions that are tried and tested, and in cases where we feel there is still a long way to go, but there is very little choice, we try to make it clear before you get started.

    Places to find out more about Open Source for non-profits:
    An introduction to open source software for non-profit organisations, Open Source Africa.
    How Open Source Can Open Doors for Nonprofits, TechSoup.

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