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Two Open-Source Applications Custom Built for Nonprofits

For nonprofits and public-serving organizations on a budget, commercial software can sometimes be prohibitively expensive or unnecessarily complicated. Yet by teaming up with software developers, nonprofits around the globe are creating free, open-source applications to suit their own needs — and are releasing them out to the community for anyone to use.

By: Rohish Lal


Such collaborations have recently resulted in several notable applications specifically designed for the nonprofit sector. The Mifos Initiative, a project of the Grameen Foundation and several open-source developers, is designed to help microfinance organizations better manage information. Meanwhile, Sahana, a project spearheaded by the Sri Lankan open-source community, aims to help nonprofits more efficiently plan disaster-relief efforts.

Even if these two open-source projects don't pertain to your particular organization's needs, learning about how they were developed might inspire you to apply open-source principles to your own mission. Read on to find out how these two innovative projects were created and how they benefit their respective communities.

The Mifos Initiative: Helping Manage Microfinance Projects

The Grameen Foundation assists microfinance institutions that help bring small loans to impoverished people (mostly women) around the world so that they may escape poverty and improve their quality of life. According to Priscilla Dosiou, program manager of marketing for the Grameen Foundation, microfinance institutions give loans to people developing countries to help them establish or expand sustainable businesses. Loan recipients are not required to put down any collateral to secure a loan, but instead are organized into small groups to ensure success; if one borrower defaults on a payment, the entire group is penalized.

Grameen Foundation also helps microfinance organizations provide borrowers with services such as savings accounts and insurance policies. Typically, microfinance organizations also staff loan officers, who go into communities and handle transactions such as collecting loan payments and opening new accounts. However, according to the Grameen Foundation, nearly half of all microfinance institutions are still using paper or spreadsheets to keep records of these transactions. Even those microfinance institutions that have implemented an electronic database often find these to be constrained, inflexible, and costly to maintain.

To address this problem, the Grameen Technology Center helped create the Mifos Initiative, banking software specifically written to help microfinance organizations better manage their clients' information and stay organized and efficient. Through an open-source framework, microfinance institutions can use Mifos to customize, maintain, and implement additional services to support their specific needs.

“This software helps [microfinance institutions] to manage their portfolios,” said Dosiou. She added that the software's largest potential impact is that it will create a standard for the microfinance industry.

Mifos: An International Collaboration

To create the Mifos software, the Grameen Foundation's Technology Center in Seattle partnered with Indian company Aditi Technologies, which developed the initial code using a MySQL database and the Java programming language.

Because Mifos is built on an open-source framework, other microfinance institutions can customize the software to fit their needs, said Dosiou.

“[Mifos] has a very flexible configuration that enables MFIs (microfinance institutions) to adapt the software according to their product offering, client model, and taxonomy," she said. "In addition, the software code is freely available for all developers to review and contribute to.”

Dosiou said that the Mifos Initiative is working with a global network of IT professionals to provide local support to microfinance institutions. She added that there is large pool of paid and unpaid developers in multiple nations working on maintaining the software and adding new features.

“We are building up a network of Mifos developers that will be able to service MFIs should they wish to further customize the software by adding new features or functionality,” said Dosiou.

Software from the Mifos Initiative not only benefits microfinance organizations but also their clients in developing nations, according to the Grameen Foundation. For example, Mifos will help lower transaction costs and assist loan officers in keeping information updated. Mifos will also help reduce paperwork and automatic calculations that can lead to human error, resulting in a reduced risk of fraud and theft.

Finally, the Grameen Foundation believes that Mifos's operations-management features allow microfinance institutions to run more efficiently, which will in turn lead to more funding.

Sahana Increases Efficiency During Disasters

In earthquakes, fires, floods, and other disasters, nonprofits may find themselves playing a major role in coordinating relief efforts. Having a disaster plan can help you stay organized, while an open-source tool called Sahana can help you coordinate your efforts.

Sahana, a free Web-based collaboration program, helps search for missing people as well as manage relief aid and volunteers during emergency situations. Sahana was originally created to help manage relief efforts during the 2004 Asian Tsunami and was deployed by the Sri Lankan government’s Center of National Operations.

After the tool successfully proved its large-scale disaster-management capabilities during the tsunami, The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) — Sweden’s government aid agency to third-world countries — funded a second phase of Sahana development in hopes of generalizing its use globally during other disasters.

Don Cameron, who sits on Sahana's board of directors, said that the project was specifically designed for nonprofits to help people in times of need.

“Sahana can benefit NPOs by providing a toolkit designed to aid the management of disasters and disaster victims, and by creating an environment where the sharing of mission-critical data is not an impossible task,” he said.

Cameron said that prior to Sahana, a free disaster-management application that could be used unilaterally by nonprofits did not exist.

“During a disaster, the local fire service may use one software program; the police another; the Red Cross a third; other aid organizations a fourth; and government departments a fifth," said Cameron. "All [the applications] were proprietary so nothing was shared. Sahana offers the means for organizations involved in disasters to simplify and collaborate effectively."

Sahana Tools and Features

Sahana was built using the PHP programming language and the MySQL database, is designed to run on Windows XP, Mac OS X, and Linux platforms. The latest version can even be loaded onto a USB drive for portable use in the field. In addition, Sahana can be translated into different languages for global localization and includes photos, maps, and even voice-based name searches.

Sahana's major features include:

  • A missing persons registry.
  • An organization registry that helps coordinate and balance relief efforts in affected areas by connecting organizations.
  • A request management system that tracks requests for support and helps donors locate relief groups.
  • A camp registry to track victims who may be housed at shelters.
  • A volunteer-management tool that helps organizations find and contact volunteers based on skills.
  • An inventory-management tool that tracks the location, quantity, and expiration dates of stored emergency supplies.
  • A situation-awareness tool that provides a geographic information system (GIS) overview of the emergency area.

Sahana is available for free download; you can also watch a demo once you have created an account.

With a little creativity and help from savvy developers, organizations can build their own open-source applications to address a need that commercial software cannot. Spearheading an open-source software project can not only help your organization get work done more efficiently, it can also allow you to give something back to the nonprofit sector.

About the Author:

Rohish Lal is an editorial intern at TechSoup and a student at San Francisco State's journalism program.