Nonprofit Web 101: What is an Open Source CMS?
Many nonprofits are looking to Open Source Content Management Systems (CMS) to implement and manage their next website. But is it right for your nonprofit?
What is an Open Source CMS?
In a nutshell, an open source CMS is free web software that can be improved upon by anyone and be redistributed. The goal is to create a community of developers who actively improve the product, resulting in new advances in technology.
There are literally hundreds of free open source CMS that you can use to build your website. Some popular ones are Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress. The world of open source CMS is your oyster! If you wanted to get a PHP CMS that supports MySQL databases, you’d just go down the list….
Oh, did I lose you?
Sorry, it’s just that the whole open source community is pretty much made up of nerds like me. We’re the digital equivalent of car gear-heads. We want to get our hands dirty and build something from scratch. It’s one of the things I enjoyed the most when working on YourPBC.org – an experimental nonprofit community information web project.
Car Analogy: Open Source CMS vs. Proprietary (or closed-source) CMS
Let’s pretend that you need a car and you have two options.
- A FREE car (Open Source CMS)
- Car from a Dealership (Proprietary CMS)
The first choice is the FREE car with only one catch—the car doesn’t come assembled; you have to assemble it yourself. Most of the parts are new and untested; it is up to you to test them and improve upon the parts. There is free help if you are willing to take the time to learn the lingo and dive into community forums. The same is true of most Open Source CMS.
Then we have a car from the dealership. It’s pre-assembled, has been tested and comes with a warranty and support. It isn’t free, but you know it will work. It has been tested and needs to work because the car manufacturer needs to create a great product to stay in business. There is a shared goal of making your organization a success.
So…Should my nonprofit website go open source?
It really comes down to three things: your organization’s mission, what you intend on accomplishing with the website, and what web resources you have on staff.
- Open Source might be right for you if your…
- Mission is to improve web technology;
- Website is going to be an experimental technology platform for social good;
- Staff is made up of programmers and web gurus…
- Consider a proprietary CMS from a trusted web company that understands how a nonprofit operates, if your…
- Mission is to make change in the world;
- Website is going to be a way to communicate with your constituency and solicit donations;
- Staff is made up of non-technical individuals
What if I decide to go Open Source without having a tech mission or on-staff web expertise?
This is what I like to call the “High Cost of Free” cycle. It goes a little something like this:
- Get free Open-Source website software to save on costs.
- Spend weeks (or months) trying to set it up yourself
- Figure out that no one on staff knows how to properly set-up or maintain it.
- Get frustrated, hire a high-priced consultant to see how you can get your website up and running. They will recommend that you get a web company to implement your website.
- Hire an expensive web company familiar with your open source CMS, but not with your mission.
- Launch later than expected, with a website that attempts to fit a “square peg in a round hole”
Now, this may or may not happen to you. But, to avoid getting into this cycle, make sure your organization is a right fit for open-source. If your nonprofit isn’t a fit, seek out a proprietary CMS that can help your nonprofit get to the next level.
I love open source CMS. I have used many throughout the years such as Drupal, Joomla, DotCMS, Plone and PHPNuke to build government, for-profit and nonprofit websites.
In my recent position as the Director of Digital Communications at the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties, I built a nonprofit community information project (YourPBC.org) using DotCMS.
I even used WordPress CMS to build and maintain this blog. That being said, I now work for Forte Interactive to help advance a proprietary CMS for Nonprofits who aren’t Techies. Our CMS is called TrustedPartner and it is designed to help Nonprofits who aren’t tech experts manage their content, online donations, social media and more in the simplest ways possible.
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