Since over 4 years I am struggling with the contradiction between a Central-East European, absolutely-non-profit budget and the need to work efficiently, to present ourselves as professionally as possible and to keep software security in a good shape. This a particularly tricky job where private contributions to office running costs are even lower than the local bank charges, which you pay both for holding the account and for every incoming money transfer and which are extra high for charities. It probably goes without saying that software and Web administration are increasingly rejected by donors as budget items in projects, which are requested to be tightly goal oriented, understaffed and cost efficient and which are supposed to promote the donor’s brand.
IT work is of a kind that is well done if you don’t see it. I have experienced, however, countless nerve-wracking problems with inaccessible pages and countless breakdowns after updates, and many of them were caused by my stupidity. In fact, if you decide to run your own NGO without the budget for a webmaster, you need to allocate at least ten or twenty hours per week for installation, updating and in-house service, and easily more.
Better safe than sorry. I know. But we cannot afford to have a duplicate web site where we thoroughly test updates in a sand-box before doing “the real thing” on our production site. We simply have to take the risk that, as a worst case scenario, visitors will see for 5 or 10 minutes a horrible error message, while I am returning the system into the state before the unfortunate update.
Taken to the extreme, non-profit means to cope with these and similar flaws all of the time. There is no way out unless you can pay for it.
When I read the manuals and discussion forums of software, both proprietary and free, I quite often come across remarks like: “If you don’t get it working on your cheap provider, simply migrate to a better one”. Or: “Go to your local computer store and upgrade your hardware”. Well, it’s not that easy if you have just spent your last coins for printing 50 leaflets that you desperately need on your next public event. And, after all, yes, you also need some spare money for your lunch tomorrow.
You will have to learn how to operate with moderate means. Don’t expect wonders, but you will survive. You can consider yourself successful when people don’t notice that you do your Web all alone as self-taught volunteer.
Sometimes I stumble upon places where you find recommendations specifically for non-profit users. But still, most of them were written in North America and West or North Europe and they assume that your supporters are able and willing to pay a membership contribution, that technology is affordable with average NGO-incomes, that you have 20 hours per week of free time to fine-tune the code and that companies in your town grew up in a tradition of corporate responsibility. I personally often feel too disillusioned (or should I say: embarrassed?) to reveal that our organization cannot even afford a super cheap 50$ non-profit subscription, let alone the offer from one company in reply to my request: They have decided, they wrote me, to support our good work by offering their software with 50% discount, hence reducing the price to only 200€. With sincere thanks I have had to reject.
So back to the roots. And if you are a bunch of inveterate optimists and don’t want to steal software (even though society often takes your work and “forgets” to pay for it) you have to resort to free software.
I have started here to write down my experiences and try to extract some advices. Hopefully they will help my fellow volunteers out there to avoid the same mistakes and to make their lives easier. Even though we work for free, it doesn’t mean we have time to waste.