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  • Writer's pictureAngeline

Why free technology is anything but cheap

Illustration by Angeline Veeneman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Affordability of technology has dramatically improved in the last decade, making access to modern and powerful digital tools easier than ever for non-profits. Yet, whilst getting something free or discounted is great, it can hide the true cost of technology. For non-profit organisations, this can mean making the wrong choice of technology and ending up paying for it (in more ways than one) down the track.

There’s lots of inexpensive technology out there, ranging from website development platforms, email systems, CRM solutions, digital marketing tools, social media channels, and many more. Non-profit organisations can also access special technology donation and discount programs. Microsoft and Google both have well-known donation programs which give eligible organisations free access to their cloud-based productivity suites (respectively MS365 and GSuite) and other products. Other major technology players like Salesforce, Adobe, Atlassian, Citrix, XERO and MYOB, to name but a few, also have attractive pricing models for non-profits. In fact, as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) becomes more prominent on companies’ agendas, it is fast becoming the norm for technology providers with a core customer base in the commercial sector to offer non-profit pricing.

Of course, this is great news for non-profits; not only this can drastically decrease the level of investment required, it is also a catalyst for NFPs to adopt digital tools they may have otherwise considered out of reach.

Yet, free license does not equate cheap solution, and decisions based purely on the premise of free access can cost organisations dearly down the line. “Surprises” can include high implementation costs, expensive customisation needs, poor user adoption, disappointing product performance, incompatibility with other systems, unforeseen support costs, and so forth. Here’s how to look beyond that initial price tag together with some guidelines on how you can make the most of non-profit pricing offers.

What to check for:

Here are some questions you should ask when looking at free, low-cost or discounted technology:

  • Does the product support the functionalities we need or will we have to spend money on customising it?

  • Compared to another more expensive product, will implementation costs outweigh the benefits of having free/discounted licenses?

  • Are on-going support and maintenance (things like hosting, technical upgrades, infrastructure and helpdesk) included or do we need to budget for those?

  • Do we get access to all the features/modules we need with the free/discounted offer?

  • Does the discount apply to the specific product version we need?

  • Is there a cap on how many licenses (or users or data volumes) we can get under the free or discounted agreement?

  • Is there a risk that the offering get discontinued or that pricing conditions may change?

Making the most of non-profit offerings:

1) Always check if there is an NFP pricing and that you are eligible:

  • check out ConnectingUp (for Australian and NZ non-profits) or TechSoup for donations and discounts on digital products and services;

  • in general, eligibility applies to organisations which have a recognised charity status and are tax-exempt, but conditions vary and you should always check details with specific vendors (for example, some programs apply only to certain countries and / or particular versions of a product);

  • remember that not all vendors advertise they have a non-profit pricing, so ask them directly if they have (or are willing to start) one.

2) Work out your Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and budget for a minimum of 3 years:

Your TCO should include both:

  • implementation costs, which include activities like project management, development costs, data migration, integration with other systems, user training and system set-up;

  • ongoing costs; not just the operational costs to maintain the system (such as technical maintenance, user support, licenses, infrastructure and hosting) but also what you need to provision for continuous improvement.

3) Weigh total pricing in the balance:

  • make sure you take into consideration not only the costs, but also how well the product fits your needs and your organisation’s capacity to adopt it successfully (read up more on the 3 things to consider when choosing technology fit for your purpose);

  • manage your risk: consider what it would cost you if you had to pay full price; whilst it is unlikely vendors would relinquish their donations programs, things can change.

Of course, spending lots of money on a pricey product is no guarantee it is going to be the right solution for you, and NFPs should always look for cost-effective ways of accessing technology. Cost is an important part of the equation when making a decision but it can’t be the sole criteria, and it’s critical to consider the big picture and weigh total costs against benefits. So free is good, but on its own, it’s not good enough.


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