Free Software: Too Good to Be True

Free software may cost more than you think.


Imagine you’re in the market to buy a car. When doing research, what do you look for?

Does it have to be sporty? Have 4-wheel drive? Will you only consider blue cars? Or cars with leather seats?

As with any major purchase, if your only criteria are “What can it do for me?” and “How cheap can I buy it?” then you will end up disappointed.

So how do you make the best decision? You take a look at the total cost of ownership (TCO).

For example, let’s take a look at three hypothetical cars:

  • The first car is priced at $18,000, but the price includes all standard maintenance for 5 years and the vehicle gets 40 miles per gallon.
  • The second costs $12,000, maintenance is included for one year and it gets 13 miles per gallon.
  • The third one costs $10,000, no maintenance is included at all and it gets 26 miles per gallon.

To choose the right car, you must consider many additional factors. Do you spend a lot of time on the road? Is your cousin a mechanic? What is the cost of a gallon of fuel? What about taxes?

Trying to determine which car is the best deal requires you to consider the TCO. (And remember, as we’ve discussed before, price is not the same as cost.)

The same reasoning and evaluation processes apply to buying software as well.

As the NonProfit Times recently pointed out,

Nonprofit techies like to say that open source software is free the same way that puppies are free. People give them away, but you’re going to have to pay for food, veterinary appointments, and the occasional doggie daycare. You have to train it and wake up during the night to let it out, and cover the costs of the inevitable chewed up shoe or chair leg along the way.

In the nonprofit world, free software is never actually “fee-free.” And for larger scale software like constituent relationship management (CRM), donor databases, and online fundraising, there will always be maintenance required to keep it running smoothly.

Think about it. Technology is constantly changing, evolving, and improving.

Your operating system requires updates. Your browser requires updates. Why wouldn’t your nonprofit software?

And it’s more than just purchase price. You also must factor in the amount of time and effort needed to get your staff familiarized with free software as well. Multiply the number of users by the number of hours needed for training and there is one more cost to consider.

And what if you decide to make the switch to free software, discover it not a good fit for your organization, and are forced to switch back? The costs keep adding up.

Nonprofit Times recommends three questions to ask before choosing new software.

  1. What is the purchase cost?
    • i.e. can you get free software to do what you need it to do at the “promotional” price? Does it work “out of the box” or will you need to buy extra tools and services to integrate with another system? Does it offer features which will cost an additional fee?
  2. What is the implementation cost?
    • Can you migrate your data yourself? Will you need to hire an auditor? Do you know how to make the different APIs play nicely with each other? Does your staff have the training or will hiring a consultant be necessary to ensure everyone is on-boarded properly?
  3. What are the long-term support costs?
    • The free software you use today might not be sufficient for where you want your organization to be 10 months, or 5 years, or a decade in the future. Are you prepared to have a plan in case the “free” software stops being supported or goes obsolete? Who will you be able to contact if you need troubleshooting?

These are all excellent questions that deserve thoughtful consideration. Your organization will no doubt change over time. Will your free software be able to keep up?

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