Free Quality Software for Non-Profits

Running the “IT department” of a non-profit organization often means that you have to choose free software while, at the same time, you try to avoid sacrificing quality and usability. You often don’t have the time to tinker with a perpetual construction site and your colleagues may not enjoy being overwhelmed by a wealth of advanced options and permanently being reminded of the engine behind the user interface.

I therefore decided to assemble a list of useful enterprise-standard software that offers either a free version to everyone (e.g. in a “Freemium” model) or particularly to non-profits.

This collection represents only my personal choice and I am fully aware that it can only mention a small fraction of all the free and great software. Since privacy protection is essential to the work of many non-profits, I prioritize self-hosted solutions where available.

I won’t mention here generic services like Gmail, Hotmail, YouTube, Vimeo or social media platforms. (Anyway, most of them are free only in the sense that users are offered as part of a product to advertisers.)

You can find a more exhaustive list of special discounts at this website.

Blogs and CMS

In this category there are many well-established offers – you probably know at least WordPress and Blogger – and much has already been written about them. I, therefore, won’t elaborate on them again.

Customer and Community Support

Hesk is a self-hosted help desk with a full-fledged ticket system (i.e. inquiries receive a number, a status and a staff member who is in charge for processing) that even enables you to pull inquiries from a mailbox so that you can offer a dedicated email to your clients. Hesk also offers a knowledge base and the option to use canned replies (i.e. templates). Hesk is free, but you can support the author by paying for the removal of their sponsor link.

Question2Answer is a self-hosted discussion forum that can be used for community-powered support. Upon entering a question, the visitor is presented with similar questions so that she or he won’t ask anything that has been asked before. Users can vote and comment on questions and answers, and the best answer to a question can be highlighted.

If you need a popup widget on your website where visitors can give their feedback, try UserEcho that offers more features in their free plan than User Voice. Otherwise these forums offer largely the same as the above mentioned Question2Answer.

You may also want to consider a Wiki if you need to display useful information online (publicly or to a restricted group) and have many editors who are not ready to use the admin backend of a full Content Management System or blog. Particularly if you want to collect a list of annotated links or let your team continuously develop a manual or write down their experiences, a Wiki may be the best choice. I personally like DokuWiki for its simplicity but there are many other choices as well. If you are adventurous, take a look at TiddlyWiki – a self-contained wiki in one file.

If you need to chat with your customers, Live Helper Chat looks like a very comprehensive solution. I haven’t yet tried it.

File Sharing

Dropbox and Spider Oak both do a good job, and both will frustrate you quickly when you run out of space and check out their plans. If you have many supporters you can try to increase your space through the referral programs. Both services are user-friendly – Dropbox more than Spider Oak, while Spider Oak tries to beat Dropbox in terms of data security. For normal operation of your organization, the free plans are usually not sufficient to host all your files.

For better data security you may want to combine Dropbox with Viivo.

I definitely will give a try to ownCloud.

Update: Tresorit offers a free plan for Non-Profits!

Geo Location

Social Hiking is an amazing service that was initially designed for – you guess it – hiking. Basically it displays the routes of hikers in real time on a map. The option to have also maps for groups and to attach messages and multimedia to your recorded positions makes it very useful for non-profits, e.g. in a cross-country fundraiser or a field trip with reports about the projects.

Newsletters

PHPList enables you to run your self-hosted service – for example because of privacy concerns or to comply with local legislation. Although it runs reliably to send out weekly newsletters I have experienced some problems – notably when the server uses ‘safe mode’ (which it shouldn’t). Also processing the bounces and automatically deactivating dysfunctional addresses has never really worked reliably. Lastly, I have not figured out how to run a multilingual setup with one installation. Summarizing the experiences, I paid for the free software with a considerable amount of trouble shooting.

There are hosted solutions like MailChimp with up to 2,000 subscribers in their free plan.

Office Collaboration

Group Office offers a free self-hosted version with a calendar, emails, an address book, task management and further modules. Users can be assigned to groups and have different permissions, so that each has their personal calendar, address book etc. and additionally one shared for each project team. Group Office also offers a file sharing module, which, however, I decided to abandon in favour of services like Dropbox or Spideroak.

Office Software (Desktop)

For text processing, spreadsheets etc. Open Office, Libre Office and the like are renowned and do a decent job.

You can process your images with Gimp, although the handling of their floating windows (so that you need one additional click to bring the requested window to the front) can be a hassle and I often find myself struggling with uninvited boxes, options and input fields.

Regarding DTP and page layout, I keep an eye on the development of Scribus but found particularly the processing of text still too difficult for efficient work (I often need hyphenation, footnotes, tables and foreign languages). After the free version of RagTime has disappeared, I am still searching for a good alternative to produce flyers and magazines.

Server Monitoring

The hosted service Monitor.us allows you to automatically watch websites and email servers and helps you make sure that visitors don’t see an error message or blank page caused by a defect or by malicious intrusion. You receive notifications when your website is down and again when it has recovered. Optionally you can watch certain key words that must (or must not) appear on your website.

Software Development

GitHub is probably the celebrity among the services that offer collaborative software development in the cloud. While standard free accounts provide only open repositories, your non-profit organization may apply for a free Bronze plan. The application procedure was straightforward but it took some time and several follow-ups until the account was ready to go.

If you need free repositories that are also private (because not all things non-profit are automatically and all time open), it may be easier to go for Bitbucket instead of applying for a discount at GitHub.

Fluidui is a nifty online tool to create drafts of layouts for mobile apps by drag and drop. Operation is very simple and even if you have no clue about the design of user interfaces it allows you to play with a draft version that you “can touch” and may help you to develop a sense for what is possible and what should be avoided.

Lastly I need to mention here Text Wrangler a free editor for code and a true companion during the past years (Mac only). Depending on your project, you may prefer other tools such as Eclipse.

Video

Bambuser offers live video streaming from mobile devices (or web cams) to the Internet. You can use it for reporting during protests, to involve a broader audience during events, to promote a campaign or to inform supporters during field trips from your project sites – with the possibility that your audience can post their questions and receive answers in real time.

Web Statistics

A self-hosted alternative to Google Analytics is Piwik, which over the years has developed to an impressive piece of software. If your non-profit uses campaigns to direct visitors to your website, or if you need to know which keywords on search engines or referrer pages lead to the best conversions in terms of sign-ups or donations, Piwik can help you analyse problems and improve your performance. There are also mobile apps available.

 

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