Phillip Smith

Software pyramid for a healthy non-profit

Have you ever seen one of those pyramids that describes food choices? Well, if you're a "good vegetarian" like me, then you've probably seen your share, or have mentally created a few of your own. You might have even caught yourself thinking "Is a conventional vegetable within walking distance better than an organic one that I have to take public transportation to get?" -- before realizing how circular those questions can be. That said, over the last couple of years, I've been thinking how helpful a software pyramid would be... as the saying goes: a picture is worth a thousand words. Why a software pyramid? Because, like food, the choices aren't necessarily easy, or clear. For most of the non-profit organizations that I work with -- and for all of the ones that I hear about through the various non-profit technology communities -- technology is becoming both a bigger priority, and a bigger challenge. The challenges come from myriad directions, like increasing pressure for efficiency, and the constant need to reach out to new sources of funding. In the midst of these challenges -- and the constant flurry of urgency that is the day-to-day in many mission-based organizations -- come the seemingly unimportant decisions: like software, or food.

The software pyramid

But what are the important factors when considering software? Well, like the food pyramid, there are many variations, and the variations all serve a purpose. More often than not, each pyramid represents a point on a "continuum of understanding" of the issue. For a person with unhealthy eating habits, the (recently revised) USDA pyramid provides a starting point. And, for a person who has begun the journey of "eating locally," something along the lines of the Food Pyramid For A Healthy Planet might be stuck to their fridge with a magnet. Pyramids offer simplicity, and provide the opportunity to overlay different layers of complexity on the issue, like politics, ethics, or environmental concerns. All of this can be applied to software decisions too.

So, for starters, here's my current food pyramid (most preferable at the top, least preferable at the bottom):

  • Local organic
    • Local transitional
      • Local conventional
        • Foreign organic
          • Foreign transitional
            • Foreign conventional

The two dynamics at play are the distance the food has travelled, and the production methods employed. One could easily have a similar pyramid for most products, e.g.: clothing, furniture, etc. And, as I become a more conscious consumer, I understand why these factors are important, and how my purchasing decisions impact everything from the environment to human rights. So, if we understand the impact of decisions like these, why do they so often get overlooked in deciding about software?

If you're familiar with my previous rants on this topic, you'll know that I've encouraged people to think about putting people first when it comes to choosing a technology assistance provider, or considering ethical or environmentally-guided Web hosting options. But, papa has got a brand-new rant! Times have changed. Technology is increasing in importance for most organizations. And, more and more, I see technology refusing to be put in a box -- it's more akin to program evaluation or strategic planning, than it is to the phone or the fax. It changes rapidly in unexpected ways and is showing no signs of stopping.

For me, it's this paradigm of constant change that has led me to re-think the dynamics in my software pyramid. Historically, my pyramid would have been based almost exclusively on production method, favouring free and open-source software over proprietary or "not free" software and "mixed source" software (what I'm calling something like SugarCRM that offers both an open-source option, and a commercial option, which is becoming increasingly common). And, the fine folks at Mayfirst/Peoplelink recently released a collection of essays called "The Organic Internet" that explore that dynamic quite nicely. But, lately, I've been trying to define what constitutes local.

Local software is sustainable software

Let's start with: it's the Internet, dammit! We're talkin' about a global network here, where the cost of delivering a packet of data in my neighborhood vs. delivering to Vancouver is about the same. And, if that wasn't the case, the Internet as we know it wouldn't exist in the form that we know it to be. This is the core of the whole "net neutrality" debate: that, historically, the Internet has viewed a packet as a packet and didn't differentiate between a packet headed around the corner, or one headed across the country. Second, as organizations increasingly adopt more complex technology -- moving from access to applications -- the concept of working with a local provider starts losing its relevance, as organizations start to require less on-site support and more support around their strategic use of information technology.

If all that is true, then what does "local" mean for software these days? For me, the local dynamic in food has always equated to sustainability. Local food is sustainable food -- not because it's produced locally, but because local production is a more sustainable practice than trucking in food from halfway across the continent. So, when it comes to software, here's my pitch: if there's one thing that I've experienced organizations struggle with again and again, it's managing their software in a sustainable way. And, if I were to put my finger on the most pressing challenge that will need to be met by mission-based organizations in the next few years -- as they continue to adopt and integrate increasingly complex and important information technologies -- it would be how to make sustainable software choices and investments.

So, for what it's worth, here's my software pyramid (again, most preferable at the top, least preferable at the bottom):

  • Software as a service (SaaS) delivering free and open-source software
    • SaaS delivering "mixed source" software
      • SaaS delivering not-free or proprietary software
        • Installed free and open-source software
          • Installed mixed source software
            • Installed not-free software

In my software pyramid, the "software as a service" replaces local as the key component for sustainability. Software as a service is not a new idea but, as the Internet "pipes" get bigger and the "Web 2.0" user-interface improvements make Web-based software easier to use, the reality is that it's becoming increasingly feasible to rely largely on software that is delivered over the Internet and not running on some outdated PC in the corner of your office (or, even worse, the closet!). What's new for me is the notion that most mission-based organizations have neither the resources (staff), or the interest, to ensure their information technology investments are sustainable.

Sustainable software is software that is:

  • Backed-up
  • Secured
  • Regularly updated to take advantage of improvements
  • And, ideally, has direct support (e.g., more than "community" support)

Unfortunately, the reality in most organizations that rely on installed software -- for example donor or member databases -- has been aging hardware, badly out-of-date software, and virtually no disaster recovery plans or automated off-site backups. And, when it comes to network (or physical) security... Ug, don't get me started! Even the most well-meaning technology assistance provider can only do so much when it comes to emphasizing the need to keep information secure and protected from catastrophe. Take these all-too-often realities and project them into the future of information technology ... a future where member and donor information is moving online, teams are collaborating over the Internet, and Web sites are managed through database-driven content-management systems. I have two words for you: Uh oh.

Enter the technology intermediaries

Even my most technologically adept client struggles to resource their Web operation in this world of 24/7 communications and constantly evolving user expectations. Four years ago, this organization had one part-time Web person; two years ago they added another and a permanent consultant; this year they'll expand by another and add at least one more consultant. And, through all of this, there's still an ever-growing list of ideas on where they could take their Web operation, or how they could move it to the next level (not to mention the growing pool of software and hardware to maintain). This is the new reality. It's not going to get any easier.

So, what's the answer? Once again, as I have before, I come back to the mythical figure of the technology intermediary. Only this time they're not just aggregating the needs of a network of organizations and creating knowledge efficiencies. No. By now intermediaries have also seen the writing on the wall and have specialized in -- wait for it! -- delivering software as a service to their constituents.

Like the organic food movement, the pyramid used to look quite different, and -- until recently -- there were very few offerings at the "local organic" end of the spectrum. But, times are changing, and new offerings are becoming available, as the market becomes viable to serve. For example, just take a look at these relatively new "top of the pyramid" intermediaries:

There's no doubt in my mind that this is just the beginning of a sustainable software for non-profits movement that has the concept of software as a service at its core. And, as the market for these "local organic" software as as a service choices grow, so will the availability of offerings. So, when I think about the shift in my pyramid over the years, it's clear that economics and markets are at play; and the people who support mission-based organizations with software and technology services are realizing that they can't survive on good karma alone. Heck, even the radical anti-capitalist in me has to admit: If the noble free and open-source software movement requires a "gift economy" to keep evolving, perhaps sustainable non-profit information technology requires a viable (and therefore financially sustainable) one too. And, if we believe that the market is a bad thing, and the alternative is organizations locking themselves in a closet with installed free software, then we might as well turn off the Internet and go outside and play.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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