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.
What free resources do you love?
Which tools get a line in your budget, no matter how tight things get?
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