(Sally Crowley is the communications director for The John R. Oishei Foundation.)
Did you know that less than 10% of all charitable foundations h ave a website? It seems unbelievable in this day and age, but research conducted by Glasspockets finds that it’s true.
When you think about it, though, it’s actually understandable. Building a dynamic, professional website can be a daunting task. Maintaining it with up-to-date content can be even more daunting. Plus, some price tags will just give you sticker shock… and maybe a bit of angst.
So was the case with ours here at The John R. Oishei Foundation.
When I first started working with the Foundation in 2006, its website was built in HTML and had about three pages, basically listing contact information and directions on how to apply for funding. This was a typical foundation website at the time.
In 2007, driven by the goals outlined in our strategic plan, we set out to create a more contemporary, content-rich site… a site where we could feature the work of our grantees, share information and disseminate key research findings. We worked with a website design firm that used a proprietary Content Management System (CMS), which, at the time, was a standard way of building websites. The process was extremely labor intensive for us and involved a somewhat substantial investment.
By now, most people know the meaning of a CMS, but just in case, here’s a quick definition:
Open source software is developed by a global community and is typically available at no charge. It is developed and upgraded in a collaborative way, relying on input from thousands of people from around the world. Here’s an example.
Proprietary CMS is developed, owned, and promoted by a private company and is updated/improved at the company's discretion. Here’s an example.
Many proprietary CMS website developers offer a “handcrafted CMS” which they claim is better than their competitors’ products. In the past, this was the primary method used to build websites. The open source alternative was not yet mature, so vendors who wrote their own software provided a unique product with relative reliability for that time.
By 2012, the site we had built at Oishei using proprietary CMS was outdated. We wanted to update the site and be “cutting edge,” yet fiscally prudent. Luckily, by then, things had changed in the world of web development. Reliable open source website platforms had become commonplace. Today, I would say WordPress, which the Foundation Center uses for its web hosting services, is probably the most well-known, followed by Joomla! and Drupal. (Our site uses Joomla!) Some open-source platforms have even become so easy-to-use that sites can be created by non-technical staffers with no actual coding, a little bit of know-how and a fair amount of determination.
I am huge proponent of open source websites. Here's why:
- I want to own my organization's site and I want to be in charge. Using an open source CMS vendor means that I own my website, and that the code and content are portable. There's no proprietary code that can't be shared with me. The website hosting is also under my control. If I become "disenchanted" with my CMS vendor, s/he can't walk off with my site. I can hire another vendor to maintain it for us. We also asked ourselves, "What would happen if our vendor goes out of business"? These days, that could happen to any company, no matter what its size. With open source, another vendor could take over our site with little disruption.
- I refuse to pay an arm and a leg for substantial site changes and upgrades. The Oishei Foundation recently changed its logo, core branding elements and moved its offices. This meant many changes to our site to match our new colors, replace the logo wherever it appeared throughout the site, etc. This was too much for me to handle on my own, so our web group handled it for us. Because they use Joomla!, the cost was minimal. (Note that when it comes to spending on communication efforts, we are "uber" frugal -- we'd rather use the funds to support our community.)
- We want to stay up-to-date. In the ever-changing digital world, new design standards develop frequently; new website features pop up all the time. In addition, there's the human element. People just get bored with what they have over time. So, even though our audience might not be tired of the Buffalo skyline photo featured on our home page, our staff and board might be. Plus, who doesn't love a new bell or whistle on their site from time to time? Open source CMS vendors have a large team of active core developers, and many more third party extension developers as well. They are much more likely to offer new technologies and features faster.
Our website is an extremely valuable tool that helps us communicate with our varied audiences. As our ideas of how and what to share continue to grow, a website that keeps up with our pace has become that much more essential. Open source platforms are always improving, with developers constantly and collectively experimenting with new ideas. This means that as we become more open about the work we do, our technology is right there with us, helping us to communicate even more effectively.
What has your foundation’s experience been with proprietary vs. open source?