It is increasingly important that any serious enterprise—whether startup, media brand, government agency, foundation, or nonprofit organization—have access to cutting edge, reliable, and useful digital tools that extend their reach and accelerate their success. While commercial software continues to play a role for many organizations, more and more institutions are tapping into the less constrained and often less expensive world of open source software for solutions. Open source is vital for the digital community, providing an accessible, predominantly free forum for building everything from websites to analytic data platforms. Open source also spurs creativity and resource sharing among groups that otherwise would rarely connect. It’s a form of collaboration that is becoming mission-critical for many nonprofits that lack the budgets to build robust digital products on their own. When properly supported, open source software can spark innovation, accelerate social good, and ultimately help change the world.
Open source software is a piece of software whose source code is available for others to read, study, modify, and redistribute with little restriction other than that the free access is maintained. Open source software is often developed in a highly collaborative manner with multiple—sometimes hundreds—of people contributing pieces of code using specialized tools to manage their collaboration and the stability of the project. Open source software users work directly with those building it to correct bugs and determine exactly what each new version needs, and often the entire community cooperates to provide technical support. Some projects have corporate sponsors, where engineers spend a certain allotment of their time maintaining code and fixing issues, while others live as side operations or passion projects maintained by developers in their spare time. In fact, some of the most successful open source projects started as mere side projects or experiments and eventually evolved into entire software ecosystems after gaining rapid traction with users.
The concept of open source dates back to the early days of computing in the 1950s and 1960s, when most software was written more for research purposes and freely shared throughout the industry. However, open source projects operated in relative obscurity until the 1990s, when the success of a few projects, such as Linux, brought it into the mainstream. By the end of the 1990s, Linux became the default server choice for the nascent World Wide Web, and today, Linux is at the heart of Google's Android mobile operating system and Amazon's Kindle e-readers.
Now, the widespread mingling of open source projects with commercial enterprises has helped it shed the “for-researchers-only” label it once had. A large enterprise, an upstart venture, or a nonprofit using open source software does so knowing that the barrier to entry for them is significantly lower because the software is freely available, and that the same open code that powers a small effort can often scale with the organization. Today, all of those organizations can come together and collaborate on projects through platforms such as GitHub to produce remarkable pieces of software that are free from direct private interests and beneficial to everyone.
This cooperation has lead to tremendous social sector advances, with open source communities popping up centered around producing and maintaining software for causes and efforts, such as UNICEF’s Innovation Fund, which invests in open source solutions to global problems; Code for America, which organizes communities across the United States to help cities and towns improve civic services using open source tools; and Code Alliance, which is a hub for connecting software developers with open source projects for social good.
As more nonprofits turn to open source solutions, there is an opportunity for it to become a new type of philanthropy—a digital one whose contributions influence the success of many beneficiaries by providing publicly accessible software. Several foundations and major technology companies have also engaged in the open source phenomenon by funding grants aimed at moving the open source sector forward. Mozilla, for example, has funded millions of dollars in open source grants to entities like Ushahidi, Northeastern University, and the American Association of People with Disabilities. Other organizations, like the Code Alliance, have grown into a community of experts who collectively donate their time to work on open source projects.
As open source software proliferates, so do the ways to get involved as an individual and an organization. There are ample meetups and networking organizations, such as Code for America’s many “brigades” across the country, who organize hack nights to solve social problems, and they are constantly looking for both coders and non-coders. These groups obviously need developers to volunteer time building solutions, but more often than not, they also need non-coders to help connect technology to the real problems communities face. These citizen philanthropists give their time and talent as volunteers, and give the product of that labor—code—as a gift to both their community and any other community looking to solve a complex social issue. Such a form of collaboration proved indespensible in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, when Code for America volunteers quickly rallied to assemble digital tools that aided the response effort. In this way, open source provides an incredible opportunity for philanthropists looking to multiply their efforts. By open sourcing your code, you create a virtual asset often unattainable by most organizations. The potential for this medium to improve the circumstances of many is endless within the social sector.
While many open source volunteers lead by example by giving code back to their communities, the majority of open source contributions remain at the individual level and at the level of corporate-sponsored projects. While those projects are incredibly useful to both for-profit and nonprofit entities, the next step for the open source community is to encourage even more nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropic organizations to contribute code. By embracing the idea that giving code is a philanthropic act or form of in-kind donation, organizations can grow the value they bring to their community and cause, and find unlikely allies in other individuals and organizations looking for the same technological solutions.
Like other foundations before us, the Case Foundation plans to give back to the open source community by contributing code to existing open source projects we use and opening up the technology we produce for others’ benefit. Foundations have a unique role as we embark on projects that impact the populations we fund. By the virtue of open source’s inherent collaborative nature, we can truly attack these problems together by sharing our experiments and creating compelling new platforms that can be used for social good.