Tech Talk: What Can Open Source Do for You?

Open-source software carries potential for associations … if they’re willing to go down a different road than traditional paid solutions. One expert explains how open-source software can build flexibility and a community of developers to lean on.

Open source, the concept of building software collaboratively based on freely available licenses, has long been popular among developers (and is a fairly common tech term as a result). In the world of associations, however, it has faced a bad rap over concerns about the costs and complexities of managing development.

But open source isn’t necessarily incompatible with associations—far from it, in fact. The association management system (AMS) platform Tendenci is actually built as an open-source tool, complete with its own repository on GitHub.

It wasn’t always open source, says Tendenci President Nicole Davis. For the first decade-plus of its existence, it was a proprietary tool, but the team decided to convert it to open source to help its users and expand its development reach.

Drawing on Tendenci’s experience in the open-source space, Davis offers these benefits that associations can reap by working with and building open-source platforms:

The value of ownership. Davis says one of the most important aspects of open source is a sense of ownership of the final product. This is especially important when it comes to data, which carries complexities that organizations may run into with software as a service (SaaS) solutions. “Unlike most if not all proprietary solutions, open-source software has great value for associations because they own their own data,” she says. “They can access the database and code at any time, and even export their entire database at a moment’s notice.”

The capability of choice. Because you have direct access to open-source code, you can modify it to your needs. The result: a customized platform unique to your organization, without the price tag of a custom-built solution. From there, it can be modified to integrate with other platforms, including those recommended by the original open-source developers. “Every client is unique, and thus they each have unique needs and desires for their websites,” Davis says. “The choice is in their hands.”

The ability to rein things in. Open-source tools can be robust and versatile, but Davis says that cuts both ways, as outside developers could take things in a direction that may not benefit most users. Davis says that could lead the primary developer to choose not to integrate some “pull requests”—i.e., pieces of code that external users would like to add to the main repository. “Just as the freedom of open-source software and so many possibilities breeds great ideas, it also often breeds some not-so-great ideas from well-meaning individuals who try to design software,” she says. In these cases, Tendenci uses a “benevolent dictator” approach to project management—meaning that it turns down things that don’t match the mission while encouraging those whose code wasn’t integrated to create a separate “fork,” or separation from the primary code base, that the outside developer would maintain.

The power of a community. The strength of an open-source project is often defined by its developer community. And there’s a natural marriage between associations and open-source developers: a desire to share information and resources for the greater good of the community. “Going open source allows [nonprofits] anywhere with any budget to further their cause,” Davis says. Speaking of community, Davis says that visibility is a major consideration when building a hearty open-source network. “It’s so important to stay in front of the community,” she says. After all, that community will help contribute to the longevity and success of the project.

(Maximusnd/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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