February 14th, 2011
A great observation from Jason Lefkowitz at Sunday’s Organizing 2.0 conference in NYC — while we may all want to be magic and unique individuals on our own, and every nonprofit is special to its mother, following that logic when it comes to technology is a bad, bad idea. Instead, when you’re looking at databases, website technologies, office networks and the like, you want to be as standard as possible.
Why? Because “unique” means “custom,” and “custom” typically means “expensive and hard to maintain.” A decade or so ago, it was common for nonprofits and campaigns that wanted a database-driven Content Management System for their website(s) to have one built just for them by a vendor using Cold Fusion, Perl or some other development language or environment. The problem? Besides the fact that custom software typically costs big bucks, that vendor usually soon moved on, or went out of business, or got hit by a bus, leaving the client with a system that no one else knew how to update or even keep running.
Nowadays, we’re lucky to have a vast array of standardized options out there to choose from on the website technology side, including open source platforms like WordPress and Drupal and commercial products like Expression Engine. Although campaigns and organizations frequently implement these systems in modified form, they’re still based on a core of common code that thousands of techies around the world can work on, meaning that the victim — er, client — isn’t limited to a single vendor to get the work done.
And, we can all benefit from community-created modules and plugins that become part of each technology package, extending the platforms’ potential abilities without (typically) requiring (much) custom work. Of course there are downsides (common platforms can have common bugs that hackers exploit and which take constant maintenance to keep track of, and we’ve all seen waaaay too many WordPress sites that use the same handful of layout templates), but they’re usually far outweighed by the benefits of running on an industry standard.
So, feel free to be a special snowflake all day long on your own (hell, be the most specialest snowflake that ever fell from the heavens). But don’t hold your organization’s website to the same ideal — it’s just not worth the risk.