Two disparate charities have successfully implemented open source software, saving money and creating happier users in the process. Jane Dudman looks at how open source can give smaller organisations greater control at minimum expense
If you still think of charities as the Cinderella of the IT world, languishing in a corner, with little resources and no budget, working on aged, donated equipment, prepare to think again.
These days, larger UK charities are multimillion-pound organisations, which need top-flight IT and communications skills and technologies to put them in touch with a younger audience of potential donors and volunteers.
Smaller charities are also benefiting from an innovative approach, aided by organisations such as the Home Office-funded ICT Hub.
The ICT Hub is a group of voluntary sector bodies that provides a framework for IT planning and advice, using its £4m funding to set up a website and material that can be delivered to local voluntary bodies.
Open source software has proved a key tool for small, cash-strapped organisations looking to implement cost-effective IT. These two case studies illustrate how two very different charitable organisations have been able to use open source systems.
Established as a charity more than 40 years ago to assist migrants and passengers through the port of Dover, UK charity Migrant Helpline is now one of six agencies providing assistance and support for asylum seekers and refugees entering and living in the UK.
Migrant Helpline’s head office is still in Dover, but it has a second large office in Croydon and 11 smaller offices throughout the UK. The charity has 170 users, and runs fairly straightforward office administrative systems.
Migrant Helpline has opted for open source software not only to save money, but also to cut down on time-consuming red tape.
“We do not have a huge amount of money and all the money we do have comes from the Home Office, so it is not just the cost of the system, it is also about the admin involved,” says James Dayborn, IT manager at Migrant Helpline.
“We have to get purchase orders done and approval from civil servants. It may be standard business practice, but it is very painful.”
The charity wanted to move to a straightforward open source-based administrative system that would be easy for its users to run. “Most of our users are using Openoffice in an administrative role, but our case workers also use it to write letters.
“Our staff are not recruited for their computer skills. They need these systems for fairly simple administrative tasks,” says Dayborn.
“The IT team are all proficient in open source systems, so we were confident about downloading Openoffice. We thought it seemed a good idea, so initially we rolled Openoffice out to a few users, to see how it would work.”
Unfortunately, this initial approach ran into some difficulties, but the problems were not technical. “There was some user resistance,” says Dayborn.
“The IT department has to take this on the chin. We went blundering in without a great amount of consultation and it was a little bit of a battle.”
The answer came in the form of Sussex-based Burningsuit Consultancy, which came into the charity and looked at the problems it was facing. “One recommendation was that we go completely for Openoffice and that we should do that all in one go,” says Dayborn.
“Burningsuit also went further and suggested we should run Linux. When we looked at the extra savings we would make, we agreed.”
Burningsuit also provided training for Migrant Helpline’s staff. “People get a little frustrated when they first use Openoffice because things are in different places,” says Stuart Box, senior partner at Burningsuit. “Once they understand that, it falls into place.”
According to Box, training is vital to the successful adoption of any computer software, but this is especially true with open source applications.
“Many companies try Openoffice but give up because it is slightly different and not an exact copy of what they know. Properly configured, training in Openoffice and other open source applications can overcome these difficulties.”
Migrant Helpline now has 120 PCs running Openoffice and has linked its offices together using open source system IPCop as a virtual private network.
Dayborn estimates that Migrant Helpline may have saved up to £750,000 by implementing its open source systems, although this is a headline figure, based on the savings that the charity would have made if it had been paying full price for its Microsoft licences.
Even taking into account the discount Migrant Helpline receives on some of its Microsoft software, the savings are still substantial, and the users at the charity are now much happier with their system.
“We have a lot more control over the system. It has really cut down on our admin time as well. We can do more interesting things, now we do not have to spend so much time upgrading Microsoft licences and killing viruses,” says Dayborn.
Contact a Family
The UK charity Contact a Family, which provides information, support and advice to families with disabled children, has upgraded its central information system infrastructure for under £50,000, spread over three years, mainly through the use of open source software.
The charity has a head office in central London, employing some 35 staff. It also has a number of smaller offices around the UK, with a mixture of paid staff and volunteers.
Several years ago, Contact a Family realised its existing computer systems were no longer meeting its needs. The charity had grown and needed an integrated infrastructure and a dedicated IT employee.
Ryan Cartwright was appointed five years ago as the charity’s first full-time IT manager and has overseen a systems upgrade, including the implementation of a new database, to give all staff access to accurate information about services and support groups. A list of more than 3,000 medical conditions also had to be included. The database has been integrated into the charity’s main system to ensure information can be shared as effectively as possible.
Cartwright was keen to build a web-based system, which would be easy for staff to use and would require little extra support. But this approach looked too expensive, even with a grant from the Department of Health.
“Initial discussions with suppliers and advisers suggested that a web-enabled solution could be prohibitively expensive,” says Cartwright, who soon realised that proprietary-based systems, running Microsoft Windows 2000 and MS Exchange would eat up a “significant proportion” of the budget on licensing costs.
“This did not bode well for the organisation’s intended future expansion.”
Instead, the charity decided to work with its existing support provider to build its new system on open source. The quote for the new system was a quarter of the cost of a proprietary system, but there were drawbacks. The open source system would not have all the functionality of MS Exchange, but after user consultation, Cartwright realised that with some extra programming, all the main functions needed could be provided.
A further challenge came when there were misunderstandings about the database requirements between Contact a Family and the consultancy with which is was working, and this led to delays, according to Cartwright.
After the database was delivered, further development was carried out in-house by Cartwright.
The system runs on two servers, both running SuSE Linux, one housing the database, web and mail servers, and the other acting as a file and print server within the charity’s head office.
Extra consultancy time for adapting the software was added, but the system was still within budget.
The main advantages of the upgrade have been the integration of the charity’s IT system and a high level of system reliability.
The use of open source software has meant the systems were not only substantially cheaper than proprietary systems, but have been adjusted to the charity’s needs.
External support requirements have been minimised. In fact, by investing in its own staff, Contact a Family has benefited by drawing on a wide set of internal skills, well-tuned to the organisation’s needs, says Cartwright, who is a member of Social Source UK, a group of people from the voluntary sector who seek to promote the use and good practice of open source software within the voluntary sector.
“Another key benefit has been that the systems have been able to grow and adapt to the ever-changing needs of the charity, with minimal additional outlay,” he says.
This was first published in June 2006