What exactly do you mean by “Open”?
While some words and terms have multiple meanings, that is not the case with “open software.” So it’s very troubling to see the scores of nonprofit CRM software vendors who, in recent months, have been parading around the term “open” to describe their respective products, with each company using its own definition.
While it’s encouraging that the open software movement is forcing vendors to adopt this posture, there’s simply too much creative marketing spin with little substance. The result is a lot of messaging clutter and – no surprise – confusion about what open means, why it matters and what a nonprofit should do vis a vis its CRM solution.
To try to help nonprofits sort through the clutter, I recently wrote an article (it was featured on NTEN’s Blog, on Fundraising Success and PNN Online) on the three levels of “openness” currently available for nonprofit’s for CRM. Not all solutions touted as “open” are equal in their functionality and benefits for nonprofits. In fact, some definitions of “open” are complete misnomers.
For example, Blackbaud has been talking a lot recently about their new “open” initiatives. They point to new user forums, podcasts, blogs and “sample code” for downloading as evidence of being “open.”
I enthusiastically applaud Blackbaud for finally beginning to try to listen to customers. Engaging in a dialogue with customers can only help Blackbaud – really any firm – become a better company. (It is something we at Orange Leap learned that we cannot live without over the last seven years and I suspect that Blackbaud will wonder why they didn’t do it earlier.)
But, while forums, podcasts, demo sites, etc. are excellent communication tactics and a smart use of the Internet, including social media — they are not features of open software. The reality is that this vendor’s products and services still remain a “walled fortress”, lacking integration, access or collaboration outside of the company with the very community of nonprofit users it serves.
For any company serving nonprofits, an authentic move towards being “open” would involve:
- Eliminating large, up front and version upgrade license fees. If we really believe organizations should be able to ‘try’ before they buy, then we should do away with license fees that cause vendor lock-in. An organization may quickly discover, once they are using a product and not being shown a ‘demo’ that it does not meet their needs. However, when a vendor has extracted huge fees up front, a nonprofit feels held hostage. That is good from the vendor’s point of view, but not for the charitable group.
- Openning up its source code so users truly own the code in which they’ve invested. Open source makes sense for all non-profits, whether or not they ever read or develop a line of code. This is fundamental for transparency, vendor accountability, and innovation and, at the end of the day, makes the product better for everyone. It ends the idea that a software vendor knows more about your mission and needs than you do. And, it allows you to reap the benefits of incorporating other nonprofits’ innovations into your software.
- Freely giving away application programming interfaces (APIs) for all products to allow innovation and creative problem solving by nonprofits and the entire marketplace. This is eOrange Leaping nonprofits and a true sign of “openness”.
- Creating a partner and product ecosystem to provide services. Now customers are not restricted to using only that vendor’s services or products. Choice is power for nonprofits, so vendors should integrate with other products (like accounting packages, Web applications, etc.). Currently, nonprofits and potential partners have to blindly brute force many systems with little or no support from their vendor. Coercing customers into all-in-one software and services solutions meets the vendor’s needs, but not those of nonprofits.
So, let’s applaud the moves by all vendors to embrace an open posture. But let’s also demand that if they are going to call themselves “open,” they eschew the marketing spin and truly live up to that promise in their products and services.