Photo by Eurleif
I've been working in nonprofit technology since 1992. In those days, I was "circuit rider" where I traveled around New York State to work with very small local arts councils in rural areas. I was Jill of all trades, assisting with a wide range of technology needs, from training to installing local area networks. (Yes, I used to crawl under desks and plug in wires.)
One of the projects I developed and implemented for NYFA in the late 1990s was called "KIT: Knowledge in Technology" where nonprofit arts organizations developed a strategic technology plan. The first step was doing an assessment of existing hardware, software, and work processes. I'd often walk into offices and see computers like those above on people's desks. And even in those days, those computers were antiques. But these donated computers were FREE!
Back then, my favorite question was: "What is the cost of a free computer?" How much time are you wasting having to reboot and redo work because the computer crashed? What's the cost of feeling so frustrated that want to bang cha cha on the keyboard? What's the cost of being one click away from disaster?"
Almost twenty years later, with the price of computer hardware much lower, we don't see ancient computers on nonprofit desktops quite as much. But have seen grassroots groups and nonprofits turning to free, proprietary social media software services and getting burnt when the software company has to start charging or even worse goes out of business.
Last week, Ning, announced a complete end to free services for its users. This includes many, many schools, community groups, and grassroots nonprofits that embraced the free service since it opened its doors in 2007 and will now be forced to pay, or relocate their communities, or say farewell. We've been seeing the end of the era of free social media applications over the past few months. Last November, Causes, a popular and free social networking fundraising application, ditched its Myspace widgets and Ideablob closed its doors.
So, if era of free 2.0 is coming to a close, should nonprofits start to think about the cost of free and take a different approach?
In a post by TechCrunch, those who pay for premium services will be paying more, and those who are getting their social networks free of charge will be asked to pay or move their communities off the platform.
Manny Hernandez, author of Ning for Dummies, nonprofit social media consultant, and organizer of two of the most successful nonprofit communities (Tudiabetes and Estudiabetes) on Ning, offered his two cents to the new CEO of Ning. He is concerned about the small nonprofits and grassroots groups that will not be able to stick with Ning because of cost. Many of these groups are trying to make the world a better a place.
He suggests that Ning rethink this decision and offer a special nonprofit donation program.
Ning has a fiduciary obligation to make the company profitable for the shareholders and you want to make sure the 98 employees remaining on staff can continue to keep their jobs for a long time. But I urge you to consider the impact your decision will have on the nonprofit space and ask you explore options comparable to initiatives like Google Grants, YouTube’s Nonprofit Program and the Salesforce Foundation so that the nonprofit groups that have been increasingly adopting Ning (while possibly buried in the long tail) will not be left to fend for themselves.Start a Petition »
His post sparked a community plea to Ning to keep its service free for grassroots nonprofits and community groups and Amy Sample Ward also wrote about it. Amy's concern is also for the many grassroots activists, community groups, and small nonprofits that can't afford to pay a fee and thus will be denied access. There are over 500 signatures on a change.org petition to Ning requesting that they keep the service free for schools and nonprofits.
A recent article on Mashable, Ning: Failures, Lessons, and Six Alternatives takes a harsher view about the end of free, saying the free lunch is over and we need to start getting used to paying:
And just as we’ve grown used to paying for music through apps such as iTunes and getting cheap access to films online through Netflix, it’s about time we suck it up as consumers and start paying for the bandwidth we use, from web hosting to online storage to site creation and maintenance. As we all know, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The article goes on to challenge online community builders to think about a community sustainability plan.
If you’re the creator of a social network, you should probably be passionate about the hobby, interest, community or business you decided to build a network around. And you should be attracting and enlisting equally passionate users as part of your community management plan. If you and your community can’t find a way to pay a modest monthly fee for the goods and services you use in your network, you might have one of two problems: You’re not passionate enough to moderate a community on your topic, or your topic isn’t inspiring your network to keep it afloat.
What does this mean for nonprofits? For one thing, they have to be aware of the cost of free, especially with software that supports their vital relationships with donors and supporters. In other words, don't put all your online relationships and donors in one free software basket and consider the alternatives before you adopt free technology.
Amy Sample Ward offers some good strategic advice to nonprofits:
- Evaluate your use of social media tools: do you encourage your supporters on other platforms to register on your website, ensuring you have their contact details?
- Evaluate your community: are you reaching a diverse community or operating in a silo?
- Evaluate your relationship with developers: are you using tools that allow you to surface suggestions, ideas, and useful functionality for development? Do you know what the plans are for the tools you are using?
Amy also talks about the potential for nonprofits to build a better marketplace:
It isn’t about having a crazy-liberal or Utopian version of the web. It IS about adopting tools that we feel comfortable deploying to our communities and building on, knowing they won’t close or leave without notice.
What do you think? Do nonprofits need to be more strategic in their choices about online community and fundraising software and understand the cost of free in their plans? Can we build a better marketplace? Or should we inspire and encourage software companies to adopt a philanthropic approach?