At a recent seminar, a member of the audience, a nonprofit staff member, was visibly angry that "none of the discounted databases on TechSoup come with free technical support". While I can understand how frustrating it is to try to learn how to use the mostly non-intuitive database programs out there, I was struck by the thinking behind that comment. To me, it is like being angry that a car someone donated to you did not come with free gas and repairs for life.
Like a car, a database (and most technology for that matter) needs regular care and maintenance. It requires resources, both human and financial, to maintain it in good working order. Like a garden, there is planning to ensure you use your space well and get out of it what you need, weeding to remove undesirable elements, watering and feeding to provide needed inputs, as well as appropriate harvesting to glean what you need. All of those tasks require spending money on human resources to carry them out. It may also require spending resources on tools, education or consulting. The point is, if you have no resources to put into managing a database, you will get very little out of it that is of use.
Many software programmers out there donate hundreds if not thousands of hours to make free and open source software, like CiviCRM, Drupal and many others. Those folks could be making lots of money working for commercial operations but instead make less money and contribute to the nonprofit community in some powerful ways. Providing technology tools that work for nonprofits is a difficult job that comes with very little tangible reward. As I've heard many well-respected nonprofit software experts like Robert Weiner and Allen Gunn say, free software is free like puppies. The puppy might be free initially, but the vet visits, shots, medicines, food, time spent training and caring for the puppy are all not free - just as it is with software.
So, if your organization does not have the resources to both acquire and maintain your database, the problem is not with the software providers and their lack of free resources. It is the responsibility of every nonprofit to raise the proper funding to properly maintain the organization, and to me the lifeblood of an organization is its data and the systems used to manage that data.
As I have often said, "after people, data is your most important resource". You'll get out of it what you put into it. If you don’t' have the resources needed to do a good job of maintaining it in good order, then the first order of business is raising more or reallocating funds. The more realistic organizations are about the costs of technology and software, the more appropriate they fund those tools, the happier they will be with their tools and the more benefit they will derive from their use.
(Images Flickr: marsmet481, Deviantart: 280dg)