I feel compelled to start with a disclaimer: we love open-source software around the Wired Impact office. It’s a bias I’m going to carry through this entire post.
But my love of open-source is (I believe) well informed and rooted in a belief that using open-source solutions typically produces better results for the nonprofits we work with.
Open-Source vs. Propriety Content Management Systems
Before diving into our concerns with nonprofits using proprietary content management systems, it’s important to make sure we’re all on the same page in defining a few key terms.
Content Management System (CMS) – The system your website is built upon that also allows you to log in and make changes to your site, including publishing, editing, managing and deleting content. For the most part, if you use a CMS you won’t need to know how to code to make most changes (or at least you shouldn’t need to if it’s done right).
Open-Source CMS – A platform that’s built using code that is readily available to anyone to use, copy, edit or redistribute in any way they’d like. Such systems are often developed and improved in a collaborative way, relying on input from many people (often hundreds if not more). Some of the biggest players in this sandbox are WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and DotNetNuke.
Proprietary CMS – A platform that’s built using privately held code which is maintained and distributed according to the wishes of the owner. Such platforms are developed and improved solely at the discretion of their owner. Typically you’ll see this when a web company has developed their own CMS to use for their clients. They often charge a monthly fee to use the system and provide updates and support.
Alright, now on to the good stuff.
Open-Source Doesn’t Lock Your Nonprofit In
We’ve heard this story more times than I can count:
A nonprofit builds a website with a web company using a proprietary CMS. Years later, they’re being charged (often substantially) each month to keep working with this web company. But they can’t switch companies without starting from scratch because their site is built on the company’s proprietary CMS.
That’s not to say all companies using proprietary CMS’s are crooks. There are plenty of excellent companies out there. But the fact is with a proprietary CMS you’re locked in for the long haul. If you choose a company that ultimately goes out of business, is bought out and shut down, or just one you’re not that fond of, you may be out of luck.
With an open-source CMS (especially one of the popular ones mentioned above), you’ll likely be able to find plenty of other developers that can work with your code. We’ve made changes to websites for plenty of organizations that came to us with a website built by someone else in WordPress. While perhaps we need to adjust some of the code or make some modifications, we can work with the system.
Choosing an open-source solution gives you a lot of flexibility moving forward.
Open-Source is Frequently Updated
Another awesome aspect of going open-source is that many of the open-source systems out there are updated all the time by their community.
For instance, we almost always use WordPress (a very popular open-source CMS). It’s constantly being updated and improved. So many people use it that bugs don’t go unreported for very long and they’re typically addressed quickly.
By installing these frequent updates, you can ensure your system is taking advantage of the latest technologies and is free of bugs, helping to boost both performance and security.
With a proprietary CMS, you’re relying solely on the company to update their system. If you decide to seriously entertain a proprietary CMS, be sure to ask the developer how often they update it and how you can report bugs.
Open-Source is Often More Cost Effective
That is not to say an open-source CMS is always cheaper. But you can typically get more for your money with an open-source solution.
In my opinion, the main reason using open-source is often more cost effective is directly tied to the community that supports it. For most of the major open-source solutions out there, developers are constantly building new features directly into the system or releasing plugins to extend their functionality.
So how does this benefit you? Let’s say your nonprofit needs an events calendar on your website. Instead of developing one from scratch, we can use a plugin that already exists. While there may be some cost associated with buying this plugin and customizing it to suit your needs, it’s nowhere near what it would cost for us to develop this from scratch.
And such an example can happen 10, 20, 30 times on any given web project.
Open-Source is Often Easier to Customize
On a related note, open-source CMS’s generally present more options when it comes to approaching a web project.
For instance, if we’re working with a client that has substantial budgetary constraints, we may recommend starting with a template. Starting with a template can help cut a bit of cost from both design and development, helping a client get a stellar website for a little less. Such an approach isn’t possible with many proprietary CMS’s out there.
In addition, most open-source CMS’s are built to be extended. They come out of the box in a pretty basic way with the intention of being reworked to suit your needs. They’re meant for you (or more likely your programmer) to build upon them. They’re flexible, allowing you to integrate existing plugins or develop pieces of functionality from scratch.
And, again using WordPress as an example, since the community is so massive new options are popping up all the time. There are companies solely dedicated to building new WordPress templates and plugins, meaning new options and opportunities are constantly becoming available.
Open-Source Often Plays Better with Other Systems
This is another argument for the “strength in numbers” approach. Many of the communities surrounding open-source platforms like WordPress are just too massive to reasonably ignore.
Many software developers create ways for you to integrate your website with their system. For instance, you may use a third-party application to manage your donors or volunteers. Massive open-source systems like WordPress often command some of the first integrations available.
That’s not to say such systems will definitely work with your open-source CMS. It also does not mean if you use a proprietary CMS there’s no way it’ll work. But integrations tend to be more likely with major open-source platforms. It simply makes more business sense for a software developer to play well with WordPress than it does for them to focus on integrations with a smaller proprietary system.
The Open-Source Security Question
By far the biggest concern we hear with an open-source CMS has to do with security. These security concerns are rooted in the same cause as many of the benefits outlined above. If anyone can access the code for these open-source CMS’s, that means deviant developers with unsavory intentions can identify and exploit vulnerabilities in these systems.
That’s a legitimate concern. With the boom in data living online, safety is rapidly becoming a top concern for everyone. Nonprofits are no exception.
But in the right hands, it’s definitely possible to make an open-source CMS very secure. Your developer can start by doing basic things like always using secure passwords and making sure your system stays updated. There are consistently updates to open-source CMS’s to address known security issues. By keeping your system updated, you can help ensure you’re protected. There are also a variety of steps your developer can take and plugins they can add to boost the security of your site.
Regardless of the CMS you pick for your project, ask your developer what they do to keep your website and data safe. They should be able to explain it in a non-technical way that makes you feel comfortable.
Who’s Using WordPress?
In the nature of open-source transparency, I hope I’ve been upfront enough with my affinity for WordPress.
In the past, when I’ve talked to nonprofits, they tend to like hearing what other organizations are using WordPress. While many still think of WordPress as merely a blogging platform, it’s grown to be so much more in the past few years.
Here are a few organizations and institutions that use WordPress to power their websites:
- BBC America
- CURE International
- Georgia State University
- Boston University Office of Admissions
- The New York Times Company
As you can see, these are some pretty big players. And they’re all using WordPress. If you decide to use WordPress, you’re in good company.
At the end of the day, you have to choose the right tool to fit your project. You could choose a proprietary CMS and love it. You could also choose an open-source approach and find it’s not the perfect fit.
However, in our experience, we’ve found choosing the right developer and equipping them with an open-source CMS provides nonprofits the best chance to get a website that’ll serve their organization, today and into the future.
Have you used an open-source CMS in the past? Or have you decided to go the proprietary route for your nonprofit? Please share your experience and what swayed your decision in the comments below.
Image courtesy of OpenSource.com