Free and low cost tools for your organisation

Lasa Logo  By Lasa Information Systems Team

In hard economic times, voluntary organisations are rightly looking to areas where they could make savings. This article looks at a selection of free and low cost software available to help voluntary and community organisations succeed on and offline.

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  1. Operating system - tired of upgrading to the latest version of Windows and having to upgrade your computer kit as a result? Ubuntu is free, open source operating system software that runs on older and lower specification hardware so can mean your computers run faster for longer.

  2. Office productivity - Open Office - Free, open source software office productivity suite to replace Microsoft's Office suite - includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and more...

  3. Document sharing and collaboration - Need to work with others on a document or file? Save those emails flying around and trying to keep track of lots of people's comments by working on documents centrally - Googledocs and Zoho Docs provide a suite of free web based tools (word processor, spreadsheet and more). Various articles on the knowledgebase including Work Smarter, Quicker and Cheaper with Online Tools look at these in more detail.

  4. Image editing - need a heavy weight image manipulation program? Can't afford or don't want to fork out for Photoshop? The GIMP is a very capable free and open source replacement with much of the functionality and none of the price tag. 

  5. Online surveys - Looking for an easy way of collecting stakeholder feedback or do a bit of research? - free online survey tools such as Survey Gizmo may be the answer - more information in the knowledgebase article Free and Low Cost Online Survey Tools.

  6. Blogs and simple websites - Need an online presence? Wordpress allows you to quickly create a blog or simple website that's easily updated without the need for technical web editing skills.
    Wordpress.com
    - hosted blogging tool - basic version is free and allows for a limited amount of customisation. Lots of free themes and extras available for customisation and additional functionality. Paid for version available for additional features.
    Wordpress.org
    - like hosted Wordpress but installed in your own web space. Open source software free to download and use. This version is more flexible than the hosted version in terms of customising. You may need some technical help to install and set up but easy to use.
    For more on blogging, see the knowlegebase article Everyone's Going to the Blogs. For some useful Wordpress specific tips see How to Set up Wordpress For Your Non Profit

  7. Social networking - A whole range of free, social networking applications such as Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and many others are available to help you connect with existing and potential stakeholders online. But, to be effective, your organisation needs to have the resources to develop these networks, just as you need to for your offline networks. Before diving in take a look at the article Should Your Organisation Use Social Networking Sites. There are also some good guidelines on the Chartered Institute of Public Relations website.
    If you decide this is a road your organisation is ready to go down there are even free tools such as Ning available to help you to discover and create new social networks for your organisations particular issues and passions.

  8. Photo sharing and storage - Want to easily share photos of the great work your organisation has been doing? The basic version of Flickr allows you to do this for free. If you need more features such as  extra storage, upgrade to the pro version at a heavily discounted price for qualifying charities through CTX (Charity Technology Exchange).

  9. Video sharing - Got some great video but don't have the bandwidth to host it yourself? Upload your content to YouTube and easily embed the video on your own website if you have one. If your charity regularly produces video YouTube's non profit program is a free way of promoting your organisation and show casing the impact your organisation has to the world (including funders!)

  10. Presentation sharing - Had a conference or event? Want to share the presentation slides after the event or with people who could not attend? Slideshare allows you to upload PowerPoint, OpenOffice, PDF presentations and Word documents and share them publicly or privately. You can even add audio to make a webinar. You can also easily embed the resulting slideshow on your website, blog or social network page. Popular blogging tools and social networking sites such as Blogger, Wordpress, Facebook and MySpace are supported.

  11. Sound recording - Need to record, create or edit sound for example for your website? Audacity is great, free, open source software to do the job.

  12. Event organisation - Organising an event - If your event is free, take the pain out of organising it with online tools like Eventbrite. If you simply want to share your calendar or diary online tools like Google Calendar.

  13. Video conferencing - Need to hold an online meeting? ooVoo offers free video calling for up to six people.

  14. Polling and voting - Want to create a quick poll for example to propose dates for a meeting so attendees can vote on the most convenient option? - Doodle is a free tool that allows you to do this and more.

Much of the software mentioned in this article is open source. Open source software can be a great option for any organisation, especially those with little or no budget for computers. In practice, many organisations use a mixture of open source and proprietary software although there are also many examples of organisations that use only open source software. If you're new to open source software and want to find out more, check out these knowledgebase articles:

A Word of Caution...

Although the tools mentioned in this article are free to acquire and use, that's not to say they are completely free of any costs. For example:

  • At the very least you may need to invest time in learning how the software works.

  • You may need to spend some money for someone to set up configure and support the software for you if you don't have access to someone with the relevant skills to do it for free.

  • You may need to pay for any extra functionality you might need that isn't available in the basic version of an online service.

Online software and services can be extremely useful however, it's important to read the terms and conditions of use.  If you're not happy about something in the terms and conditions then don't use the software or service.

Some things to watch out for include:

  • Make sure you know what will happen to your files and data stored online if the company providing the service goes belly up. Have a strategy for backing up your important files and data

  • Check how the digital images you upload to that photo or video sharing site will be treated? Photo sharing sites including Flickr and many other sites that host multimedia may want the rights to use your images, audio, video, etc. wherever or however they wish.

  • If you're using a free web hosting service or web building tools, make sure you know who owns the website or domain name - it may not be you.

  • Most free services make no guarantees about their availability and you may have no redress if something goes wrong. It's unwise to rely totally on free services for mission critical organisation functions.

For more on this issue see the knowledgebase article Web Based Services - Tales of the Unexpected.

What's up? Why is there no free Antivirus software on the list?

This article covers a selection of tools and is by no means exhaustive.

Antivirus software is an important area especially for organisations with computers running the Windows operating system. Contrary to popular belief, free antivirus tools like AVG Free, Avira, and other malware prevention tools like Ad-Aware are NOT licensed for use in organisations. They are intended for personal use within the home (though some provide free 30 day trials and reduced cost licenses to not-for-profit organisations).

ClamWin - is a free, open source virus scanner. However it does not provide real time scanning. Scans must be initiated manually - viruses already on your computer can be detected and removed but viruses are not prevented from getting onto your computers in the first place.

There are free online scanning tools which can be used after the fact but again, these do not give real time protection. They are useful to know about in an emergency but not a suitable replacement for a dedicated real time scanning solution. They include:

All is not lost however, as several providers including CTX and Caretower provide security software at discounted rates for qualifying charities. Given the damage that virus and other malware can inflict, this is one area where investing in an appropriate solution is well worth while.

Copyright © 2009 Lasa Information Systems Team

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


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