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Don't fall for "free" nonprofit hardware or software — take a look at hidden costs

Free! The word likely grabs your attention, especially if it's paired with "technology." But when hardware or software comes to you for free, what are the costs of adopting it? Here are some ways to find out.

Dos and don'ts for donated hardware

Free equipment can be a hassle for your organization — even if it's in good working condition. For instance, computers might be too old for system updates. Or they might not play nice with your existing hardware and software.

For these reasons, some organizations simply refuse hardware donations. A firm hardware donation policy can make it easier to do so graciously. You might suggest that the rejects go to a refurbisher or computer recycler instead. (Microsoft refurbishers often accept Macs as well.)

Not comfortable saying no to donated hardware? Jim Lynch, director of green technology for TechSoup, suggests ways to separate the useful hardware from the useless:

  • Refuse hardware that's more than five years old or doesn't meet minimum specifications for operating system, RAM, hard disk space or version numbers.
  • Require the original license, user manual and other documentation to be included with the donation.
  • Ask for accessories that make equipment functional, such as mouse, keyboard and monitor.
  • Accept broken hardware only if you're certain that it can be fixed.

Also, be sure to delete any personal information from donated hardware before use (or request that donors do so ahead of time).

Considerations for open source software

Open source software has matured into a viable choice for many nonprofits. You might also feel drawn to the motive behind open source software — service to a community that's not driven by profit.

Even so, there are potential drawbacks. To avoid them:

  • Be prepared for software implementation. Downloading the software is just the first step. Then comes hosting it, maintaining it, integrating it with your current software and training people to use it.
  • View open source software as a platform — not a product. Open source software can be reconfigured and customized. For many nonprofits, that's a plus. Doing this requires time and expertise, however.
  • Remember that there's no warranty and no support. Commercial software is guaranteed to work. It also comes with a number to call when you have questions or want to vent frustration. With open source software, those options usually don't exist.
  • Find someone who has the expertise to troubleshoot the software. Look for people who have a track record of implementing and troubleshooting open source software at organizations similar to yours. Do this before you download.
  • Consider your culture. When it comes to technology, some organizations are less adventurous. If that's true for you, then going with commercial software could make more sense.

Beyond the basics

Free technology isn't limited to donated hardware and open source software.

For starters, check the "freemium" pricing options for commercial software. For example, basic collaboration functionality is available for free through companies such as Trello, Asana and Slack.

You might also take advantage of services and programs from high-tech companies. Check out:

  • YouTube Nonprofit Program (allows qualifying nonprofits to post videos with donation cards for direct contributions)
  • Office 365 for nonprofits (includes free and discounted apps and services for qualifying nonprofits)
  • Google apps for nonprofits (offers apps and services to nonprofits beyond the free options already available to consumers)
  • Technology Trust (a technology donation program in the U.K.)

Join the technology community

Communities exist to help organizations get the most benefit from donated equipment and open source software. Several such communities are geared to nonprofits. For instance:

  • TechSoup offers a product donation program along with discounted software, hardware, services and training. Also check TechSoup's blog, webinars, forums, newsletters, meetups and social media.
  • The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) offers similar options along with professional development and research.
  • The TechFoundation pairs IT professionals with nonprofits through its Geeks for America program. TechConnect offers educational seminars, and TechGrants offers funding.
  • In the U.K., Charity IT Association matches IT expert volunteers with charities needing advice or project support.

You don't have to go it alone with free technology. Instead, go online.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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Writer and editor fascinated by knowledge management, behavior change and technology for nonprofits