Taking control: why nonprofits would benefit from collaborative development of management software.



Nonprofits can really benefit from software for managing their organizations. Yet most rely on spreadsheets, while a smaller number use expensive, proprietary systems. The nonprofit sector could save money by collectively developing open source software for this purpose. Such software would also empower agenies and give them greater flexibility and control. To clarify and explain these ideas, we look at one such system, CHASERS.


Nonprofit organizations operate on tight budgets, but are often required to do a great deal of data collection and analysis. They are expected to “do more with less.” Most nonprofits, particularly the smaller ones, do not use specialized software to run their organizations, instead relying on spreadsheets, Word documents and sometimes an access database.

Other organizations will use proprietary software purchased from a vendor, or perhaps supplied by a funder. From a purely economic standpoint, the nonprofit sector ends up paying over and over for the same software. Clearly it would be cheaper to fund the collective development of Open Source agency management software.

Beyond economics, however, an open source solution would provide many benefits. Existing proprietary software tends to be oriented towards the needs of funders and reporting requirements. Agencies often must use multiple funder-driven systems. They are not geared towards making the agency work, and don’t provide the flexibility to adapt to changing needs. Most of all, they leave control of a critical tool in the hands of others. What is needed instead is “software by and for nonprofits.”

As an example of agency management software, we will review CHASERS, which was developed and released by Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC). CHASERS was developed for client and service tracking, but has also been adapted for volunteers and fundraising, and for research projects. After an overview of CHASERS, what it does well, what it doesn’t do well, and how it was developed and used at DESC, we will encourage a lively discussion of the practicality of such a solution, roadblocks to implementation, and potential interest among both nonprofits and developers.

Speaking experience


  • Biography

    Born and raised in NYC, and now living in Seattle, Ken Tanzer has a professional background in the non-profit arena, with experience in the areas of fundraising, public relations, technology, social services and management. Most recently, Ken was Director of Information Services for Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), an innovative, award-winning homeless service organization in Seattle.

    During his tenure, Ken implemented a variety of systems for DESC, and built an infrastructure based mostly on free and open source software. Nearly 300 desktops in the agency are thin clients running Linux, OpenOffice and Firefox. Bugzilla and Mediawiki are integral tools. DESC also developed CHASERS (Client, Housing and Service Entry and Reporting System), which is used by staff across the agency for delivering and tracking client service, collaborative care and case management, data reporting, management oversight and realtime communication.

    DESC also adapted CHASERS to manage volunteers, fundraising and mailing lists. Two additional versions were used for a research project conducted with the University of Washington to evaluate a program providing housing to chronic homeless alcoholics.

    Ken is one of the co-authors of the paper resulting from this project (“Health Care and Public Service Use and Costs Before and After Provision of Housing for Chronically Homeless Persons With Severe Alcohol Problems”), which was published in the April 2009 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

    Ken previously served as Fund Development/Community Relations Manager for DESC, and has experience at other nonprofits including Literacy Volunteers of New York City, Jobs for Youth, and the Radiation and Public Health Project.

    Ken began using computers at an early age (TRS-80 and before), and is completely self-taught. He has been a longtime fan and user of Linux and Open Source. He got started by spending a long night downloading an early version of Slackware onto googobs of floppy disks, and has never looked back. He has also developed an abiding interest in technological politics as well as the new forms of community that are made possible through internet techology.

    Ken received a BA from the New School for Social Research, and anticipates that he will receive a Masters of Public Administration from the University of Washington in June 2009.