Can you elaborate a little bit on what you mean by this:
"Also, most startups don't open source their core business code. Some do, and I think it makes sense for them. I don't think it makes sense for us though."
My understanding is that normally as a business the considerations here would be competitive, right? But that doesn't apply in the context of non-profits. If someone else came in and used your "core business code" to make something which was then helpful to other people, that would be a good thing, right?
Likewise, your statement about the app being specific to you and not useful to others makes sense within the normal parameters of a business considering open source. But I think the idea is not that your code would be a self-sustaining open source project because it's especially useful as code, but rather that people (for example here) would be willing to help you do your work for free because they support the mission of your organization. A sort of "in-kind" donation of their time and energy and expertise, right?
I definitely think that between your admirable mission and the prestige of your network you could certainly be getting lots of free help and resources beyond just cash donations. If you could develop a workflow (via open source or some other mechanism) to take advantage of volunteer engineer labor, you could presumably pursue whatever software goals you have radically faster, I would think.
There's competition in every market, non-profits included. Even though we're not trying to compete for dollars (necessarily) in that we hope to help "grow the pie," we are competing for attention. Anyway, that's probably another discussion.
> If someone else came in and used your "core business code" to make something which was then helpful to other people, that would be a good thing, right?
Of course! My hunch is that that the existing open source systems out there that do the crowdfunding thing would suffice. Catarse is one I can think of off the top of my head. I looked into using it for Watsi but decided it wasn't going to work. My point is is that there is already software out there like ours. The fact that someone could use ours as a base is nice, but not motivation enough to open it up. Are crowdfunding platforms going to become the new CMS? It might already be happening.
> A sort of "in-kind" donation of their time and energy and expertise, right?
Yes, and we are already leveraging that, just selectively. Everything takes time, especially managing open source software. Even though the tools have gotten much better (does anybody remember what life was like before Githug, et al?) it doesn't mean the cost of managing the contributions have gone down to zero. We want to leverage energy where we can, but in a way that works for us. Open sourcing our code doesn't necessarily feel like the right approach to me.
I certainly understand your last paragraph; we have to balance the help we get from volunteers against the amount of time and energy it takes to supervise them. And you know far better than I the extent to which this specific kind of software is easily available or not.
I think the most interesting question here, one with big implications, is the question of how to think about competition in the non-profit sector. Traditionally non-profits compete for resources all the time, money being the obvious example. If my patron philanthropist has $1m to spend this year, every $100k they give to another organization is $100k they aren't giving to me.
Likewise, I understand what you mean about attention. If you believe that you are uniquely suited to grow the whole pie with Watsi, and if you believe that similar charities forming would limit the attention you receive, it seems totally reasonable to think competitively.
My intuition says there are important distinctions to be made here, but I'm not able to suss them out at the moment. I'd love to read more thinking some day about this, especially in the context of internet, start-up-like organizations. How does a motive to serve, put in place of a motive to profit, alter these dynamics?
Early on we were approached by a budding organization that wanted to license our platform. I was initially excited by the potential for revenue, but shortly realized that what we were building would be too custom to us. Coming from a consulting background, I didn't think it would be worth it to the licensee.
> how to think about competition in the non-profit sector
Yes, this is interesting to think about. My personal opinion is that non-profits might be better off moving more towards a for-profit model in terms of needing an actual revenue model. There are a ton of great non-profits out there, but I'm not convinced fundraising is the only way to stay in business in the long term.
Thanks for the discussion!
If Watsi really flies, expect groups like Heifer International to offer similar programs. If the "business" model works, someone else may code up a clone of the backend anyway.