In Defense of Free

Pamela Grow is on a mission to eradicate the “free” mindset from nonprofits everywhere.

She has a point. Nonprofits are notoriously stingy frugal.  Because of this mindset, many nonprofit organizations do all sorts of silly things, in the name of saving a buck.

The problem is, in order to make her point, Pamela only tells half the story.  While it’s sometimes true that “you get what you pay for,”  it’s also true that “some of the best things in life are free.”  The trick for nonprofits (as well as individuals and small businesses) is to judge each free solution on its own merits and in relation to specific situations.

Free is Perfect When. . .

you are experimenting

Finding time to experiment with new ideas and tools is hard enough, why make it harder by having to find the money too?

Give yourself permission to play with the free version, consider what might be possible,  and then, after you’ve built a business case for moving forward, consider upgrading to a more robust, paid version.

you have more time than money

Every nonprofit claims to have no money.  In the case of brand-new or tiny organizations, sometimes it’s actually true.   If that’s where you are, spending extra time to make free solutions work makes sense.

That having been said, “no money” is a place to start, not a place to stay.  Focus your time on building your capacity to join the ranks of nonprofit organizations that just say they have no money.

the free option meets your needs

If you find a free product that meets your organization’s needs, there is no reason to trade up just because everyone else is doing it.

If you are relatively computer savvy and/or never use the the most specialized features of your office suite, there is no need to buy the latest version of Microsoft Office or suffer through using software 10 years past its sell-by date.  Open Office does everything you need to do.

If you send an e-newsletter to 300 people once per month, and have no need to expand that part of your marketing efforts, you don’t need an e-mail service with all the bells and whistles.  Vertical Response and Mail Chimp have  free options that will work perfectly for you.  Just be ready to upgrade to a paid service as soon as the free option starts to hold you back.

Free is a problem when. . .

you  spend your savings  in staff/volunteer time

Paying someone to fight with a free solution may seem more cost effective than buying something better suited to your needs, but it usually isn’t. When evaluating the cost of “free” it’s essential to calculate time and money spent, as well as opportunity cost.  Often the free, but difficult, solution costs your organization more than paying for something that just works.

This problem is not solved by having volunteers do the fighting.  Volunteer time may not have the budget impact of staff time, but it is a limited resource.  You don’t want to waste it, and you don’t want volunteers to have a bad experience with your organization.  Unless you have someone who genuinely enjoys the challenge of the fight, asking a volunteer to do something you’ wouldn’t ask a staff  member to do is a bad call.

free limits your future options

Even if the free version meets your needs right now, be sure to consider what will happen when you grow.  If your current free solution makes it easy to move to a paid solution when the time comes, it makes sense to use the free version while it’s working for you.

On the other hand, if there is no way to get your information/work out of the free product and into the paid product of your choice, run away.  Either pay for something that gives you more flexibility, or look for a better free option.

the free version is crap

Not all free solutions are equal.  Thanks to the Open Source software movement there are a lot of excellent, free tools for almost anything you can do on a computer.  There are also all kinds of free programs that run the gambit from pointless to actively malicious.  If your organization has no one to help determine which is which, choosing a free option can be tricky.

Free services can also be crap.  If someone offers to build you a  free website, and six weeks later you still don’t have anything, free was not a good deal.  If “free” means you have no control over content, the speed at which things get done, or if it makes you hesitant to ask for changes, the solution is not really free.

Your turn

What free resources do you love?

Which tools get a line in your budget, no matter how tight things get?

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26 thoughts on “In Defense of Free

  1. Maureen, I agree with you. Whether or not a resource is free is one part of an overall decision about whether to use it. There are wonderful free resources out there, and in some cases they’re even better than the paid versions.

    A case in point is something dear to my heart: open source software. I plan to teach a course to help people create their own marketing pieces, and part of the course will teach them to use Scribus, which is free open source page layout software.

    Another example from the open source software world is GIMP, which is image editing software. The newest version of Photoshop, released last month, is just now featuring some of the sophisticated masking capabilities that the free GIMP software has offered for years.

    “You get what you pay for” doesn’t really tell the whole story. I believe you get what you research and decide on, and it might be free, or it might cost you money. You have to do the hard work of matching your needs to the service or product, and only then will you make the right choice.

    • Hi Pamela–I’m also a big proponent of Open Source software. I don’t know Scribus, but I love GIMP–thanks for mentioning them both!

      I’m looking forward to the opening of your course–I think it could be a big help to a lot of organizations.

  2. Well put, Maureen. While it’s tempting to go the least expensive route, you do need to be selective. I’ve tried free solutions that worked, and others that didn’t. Then again, I’ve also paid for some software that was junk, and some that I couldn’t live without.

    It’s a balance, most often found through simple trial and error.

    • Thanks Lisa,

      The quality of free and paid solutions does seem to be a bit random sometimes, doesn’t it?

      In addition to trial and error, recruiting volunteers with domain knowledge to help organizations make good decisions, and remembering to ask other nonprofits about their experiences with products and services before buying can make navigating those decisions much easier.

  3. I think this is a great point. It really seems to me to boil down to being conscious about your choices, rather than reflexively choosing free because of your biases and mindset, *or* reflexively choosing to pay because of a different bias/mindset frame.

    There are so many good free tools. Squidoo, Gmail, GIMP as Pamela mentioned, MailChimp.

    • Thanks Mazarine for stopping by and sharing your perspective. Sorry it took so long for your comment to show up. Spam filter failure 😦

      Off to read your post. . .

      Everyone else–be sure to click through to Mazarine’s post–she covers the angle of how nonprofit services are valued (or not valued) when offered for free.

      I still think it’s a complex issue, but perception is certainly a big part of the equation.

  4. I think that nonprofits should consider recruiting a volunteer familiar with open-source software and its community to help evaluate software options. They’ll be able to tell, by a project’s state and sometimes its reputation, between generally high-quality open-source products and ones that suffer from developer neglect.

    • Hi Catherine–it’s good to see you here!

      Recruiting a technically minded volunteer is a great idea. In addition to helping to navigate between active and floundering open source projects, said volunteer would also help organizations tell the difference between actual open source software and other “free” stuff that comes with all kinds of hidden strings.

  5. Free resource for all nonprofits, and available via the Internet around the world! is the radio show “The Nonprofit Coach w/ Ted Hart” streams LIVE online and allows nonprofit executives to call for free consultation with Experts. the next show is May 18th @ 12 Noon EDT. The entire schedule is available online.

    Details & set a reminder at

    (also you can listen to the podcasts of all our past shows).

    Listen live from your desktop or call in and ask a question of our terrific GUEST Expert: John Murcott of online fundraising and social networking for charities.

  6. “Paying someone to fight with a free solution may seem more cost effective than buying something better suited to your needs, but it usually isn’t.”

    I just read a chapter in Jason Fried’s ‘Rework’ and he put it perfectly – “Hire when it hurts: ‘Don’t hire for pleasure; hire to kill pain.”

    I think this can be applied to free as well. Pay when it hurts.

    Thanks. Always thoughtful posts 🙂

  7. Interesting discussion.

    I have followed Pamela Grow’s thinking for some time now and find myself agreeing with her far more often than not.

    I have to say that “free” is a complex subject. If you don’t draw on Chirs Anderson’s thinking in his book “Free” then you’re missing out on the very best viewpoint of free.

    One factor that maybe I missed in this discussion is that often people do not value “free” the same way they value something they’ve paid for. Free advice is often thought of as: “worth what you paid for it.” I’ve seen that with NPOs on everything from advice to professional services to software.

    How does “perceived value” fit into this discussion?

    Thanks, great conversation.

  8. Great discussion. I like Steve’s point of “perceived value” because free vs paid can be such a mental issue to wrestle with – either when you are offering it or when you are receiving it.

    I also like the rule that Bryan shared of pay when it hurts. If it’s free and it’s working, then it’s not hurting.

    Thanks Maureen!

  9. Maureen,
    Such a complex subject, no easy answers. Many good points about real value not being based in price, yet it all is affected by perception.

    The bottom line for me is everything in life is complex, and the path we chose at the time is a synthesis of the best we know at the moment.

    • I think you’ve hit it on the head with the complexity comment.

      As is clear from the comment discussion, at the end of the day, Pamela and I are actually mostly in agreement. I wrote the post for a chance to examine the complexity of the situation–I’m glad I got the opportunity.

      (Sorry it took so long for your comment to be approved–it got stuck in the spam filter!)

  10. Thanks everyone for extending the conversation. I’ll have to add “Rework” and “Free” to my reading list.

    Steve–Thanks for bringing up the perceived value element of “free.”

    If paying for a product or service when a comparable one is available for free helps individuals or businesses value it more, I don’t have a problem with them spending their own money on the paid resource.

    For nonprofits, its a bit more complicated. As a steward of public and donated funds, a nonprofit is required (in the spirit, if not the letter, of the law) to make the best possible use of every resource. Paying for something to trick people into using it does not strike me as a good use of funds.

    That is not to say nonprofits should operate from a position of scarcity. By all means, raise as much money as you can to launch and sustain the programs you need to make your vision a reality. Pay your people a fair salary and get them access to the tools they need to do their jobs without undue stress.

    My point is not that free is always better, just that using price as the only metric of value is shortsighted.

  11. Yes, indeed, very shortsighted.

    I agree – coming from a place of balanced choice is the best way to evaluate the true ‘cost’ of anything, free or paid-with-money.

    One thing I am curious about. Since the last few versions of Writer (the MSW equivalent that is the main part of OpenOffice that I use), have patched a lot of the holes that Writer used to have compared to MSW, what is the big difference that you still see? There definitely used to be times I’d still have to (reluctantly) fire MSW up, but that hasn’t happened in a long time, and I’m doing the same kinds of complex pieces that I was doing all along.

    Excellent, well-said piece! 🙂

    • Hi Birdy– Thanks for stopping by!

      The only time I’ve had an issue with Open Office was when I was doing mail merges. They work differently enough from Microsoft Office that I wasn’t able to get them to behave as expected. I’m sure I could have figured it out eventually, but it wasn’t something to deal with while I was under the pressure of a deadline!

  12. I love that you’re expanding this conversation, Maureen!

    What I am opposed to is the “free” mindset. It’s the kind of thinking that has us, hat in hand, rather apologetically begging for dollars … when it is our responsibility to inspire donors.

    My own email auto-responder costs me $29 a month. When I shopped around price was a consideration – so was deliver-ability and customer service. Last I read, Mailchimp’s deliver-ability rate was around 56%; the company I use offers 98-99% deliver-ability.

    If a nonprofit can’t afford $29 a month should they really be in business? If an organization can’t afford a $9.99 monthly web hosting, should they be in business? Do you really want to build relationships and your organization on a free auto-responder? I’m not saying it can’t be done but it does have its own “price tag” in terms of deliverability, the meta-message it gives the recipient, etc.

    Yes, we absolutely need to be selective and make good choices – but we shouldn’t let it paralyze us in the process.

    But my biggest problem with free is that it trains, conditions and perpetuates a stingy mindset…it is a great way of keeping a small nonprofit small. It’s not an abundance mindset.

    There is simply no such thing as a free lunch!

    • Thanks for expanding upon the core of your point Pamela!

      I absolutely agree nonprofits can get stuck where they are based on an inability to imagine what is possible, and that the block to their imagination is quite often caused by training themselves to believe they are financially limited.

      I also think I hear you saying the “free” mindset makes organizations blind to their paid options. If that’s the case, I agree it is a problem–considering only free options will limit an organization’s growth.

      My point is I don’t think it is necessary to close the “free is an option” door in order to open the “paid is an option” door.

  13. One of my clients just scored the entire Adobe creative suite for around $100 via TechSoup (about a $1200 value), so I am not disinclined to shopping around :).

  14. Guess I’m not seeing you or Pamela feeling out different sides of the same issue, just different perspectives that intersect around how nonprofits value resources (non-tech included) vs. how orgs actually use and gain from those resources.

    “Free” (or “bargain” for that matter) definitely depends upon your role, reason for picking, etc. The perceived/intrinsic value of a tool/resource/service/what-not could feel “free” based on how (and how well) the “freebie” works.

    I’m now thinking of a “freebie” like proposal development or strategic planning that saves an org grief, costs, time, etc. How do those savings translate into more resources, better capacity, or some other value that’s applied to other needs (existing operations, new programs, etc.)?

    “What if’s” aside, tool/service providers recognize something that enables them to “afford” delivering a “freebie”. Whether it’s a courtesy or investment, this could be anything from exposure to eagerness to “give back”. Not bad thing if that provider benefits from advocates, testers, street credibility, potential audience (and $) potentially gained en route to good work.

    Along with their interests/passion, good nonprofits (like firms or individuals) providing and/or using “freebies” recognize (hopefully) the value of what they gain/deliver enough also to cover their costs for sustainable use or growth. All the time/effort/resources spent learning, implementing, sharing what’s available in line with (or over and above) their normal work counts for something– even if others might not see it.

    So weigh what that “freebie” delivers (saves time, increases efficiency, tests great, less filing, etc. ) against size/scope/scale/range/duration of the challenge at hand. If free looks good only because it’s a stopgap, that’s not an effective strategy as needs change or increase.

    • Thanks Ryan for adding another dimension to the discussion.

      I’m not sure if this is exactly where you are driving, but your comment reminds me that nonprofits not only benefit from free (or bargain) resources, but they also often deliver free/bargain resources to their community. These services certainly have a cost for the nonprofit, but they are offered for free to the public as part of the organization’s mission.

      As a provider of free services, I think it’s even more important for organization’s to decouple the concepts of “cost to user” and “value to user.” If, as an organization, a nonprofit subconsciously believes all resources offered to them for free are “worthless” what will they subconsciously think of the free resources they provide the community?

  15. Maureen,

    Yup, that’s about what I meant. It says much if groups overlook/underestimate the costs + value in what they seek as well as what they provide.

    Thanks again to you and Pamela, good food for thought…

  16. There is nothing wrong with having both free and proprietary software. It is simply a choice you have to make. There is no reason to go against any one of them.

    For the most part, I tend to favour SSuite Office’s free software. They have a whole range of office suites and business software that are free for download.

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