3 ways open-source software helps nonprofits keep up with data protection demands

As the driving force behind the future of data sovereignty, open-source software is the natural fit for nonprofits seeking to adopt modern digital solutions.

NGOs and nonprofits face many of the same threats to their data and digital assets as large enterprises. The fundamental difference is that they rarely have the budgets to implement the latest enterprise-grade data-protection measures and hire top expertise in the space. In fact, according to the CyberPeace Institute, 86% of NGOs lack cybersecurity plans.

As a result, many philanthropic ventures are highly vulnerable to threats like cyberattacks and data leaks, with half of NGOs reporting being targeted in recent years. At the same time, they face the same pressures from industry regulators as the business world to protect personally identifiable data.

Perhaps the most sobering fact about cyberthreats facing nonprofits is how philanthropic work itself makes them a target. Many cybercriminals make a point of exploiting peoples’ goodwill by launching targeted social engineering scams with a view to stealing donations away from good causes. For example, charities in the UK lost £8.6 million to fraud between April 2020 and March 2021. Naturally, when this happens, donors start losing confidence, with potentially crippling impacts on legitimate nonprofits and their beneficiaries.

Of course, data protection isn’t just about protecting against malicious threats, but also about protecting data from threats like accidental leaks or compliance failures. In a sector that relies immensely on trust, reputation, and accountability, these challenges must be tackled together as one. At the same time, however, NGOs and nonprofits must address the challenges in a way that doesn’t end up interfering with their long-term policy goals.

Why open-source software is a natural fit for nonprofits

Investment in data-protection solutions and expertise is soaring as organizations try to counter a constantly evolving threat landscape.

Just like any for-profit business, the modern nonprofit runs on software, or at least it should in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of its mission. The choice of which software to use is vital to meeting those goals. Not only can the wrong choices end up impeding the work of nonprofits and their volunteers – it can also go far over budget or, worse, leave them exposed to unnecessary risks.

The age old debate between proprietary and open-source software typically ends up with one being lauded over the other as inherently superior. On one hand, open-source software might seem like the natural fit for nonprofits simply because of the fact it’s free. On the other hand, proprietary software might seem like the better choice, especially if it has the backing of a vendor with an excellent track record in data protection.

The real answer is much more nuanced. Open-source software might be the obvious choice for nonprofits due to budgetary constraints. However, it still costs time and money to maintain open-source software. The fact is that the benefits of leveraging open source in nonprofits go far beyond immediate financial considerations. Open source has also come to play a key role in the constantly evolving data privacy and security landscape. This has profound implications for the world of NGOs and nonprofits, which we’ll explore below.

1. Meeting digital sovereignty demands across borders

As NGOs and nonprofits embark on digital transformations of their own, they find themselves facing a new mission in their journeys. In addition to their core missions, they must also ensure strong digital and data ethics, which includes digital sovereignty. In many ways, this parallels what governments around the world, and especially in Europe, are doing to reduce reliance on US-headquartered technology giants and, in doing so, regain control over their citizens’ personal data.

Just like in the business world, any nonprofit entity has to rely on third-party products, services, and other partners so that they can carry out their operations effectively. In traditional closed-source ecosystems, there are various constraints and dependencies involved that can lead to what’s known as vendor lock-in. For nonprofits, which depend heavily on transparency when it comes to enrolling new donors, this can even result in reliance on vendor relationships that run contrary to their missions.

Digital sovereignty is especially important for NGOs since, by definition, they operate entirely independently of any government. However, if their digital operations rely on a closed-source software stack, then those operations are ultimately beholden to the jurisdictions where their software vendors are headquartered. Open-source software presents a clear path out of this lock by allowing NGOs to create their own software environments over which they have total control. This, at least in theory, gives them the opportunity to align with the digital sovereignty and privacy rules and regulations of the countries where they operate.

2. Ensuring compliance with data privacy regulations

Digital sovereignty is just one of the key areas that privacy regulations address. For example, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) generally requires that data pertaining to citizens of the bloc remain in the bloc. This is more complicated than it might sound in the era of cloud computing, where all the major cloud vendors are headquartered in the US. While these vendors do provide data localization services, it’s not always clear exactly where your data lives, which controls are in place to protect it, and which laws it’s subject to. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible to guarantee a high standard of privacy, even if your efforts are in compliance with local and international laws.

Ultimately, closed-source software falls under the control of its vendor. Microsoft, for example, has the last say in which functions and features it implements to protect the privacy of its end users in Windows, just as Apple does with macOS and iOS. With open-source software, you’re the one calling the shots. While that doesn’t necessarily mean that open-source software is more “private” or more “secure”, it does mean that there are limitless opportunities to apply the privacy and security controls that matter to you. Given how much their reputations rely on the transparency of their supply chains, technical supply chains included, it should be easy to see why that’s important for nonprofits and NGOs.

The democratized nature of open-source software is precisely what makes it good for privacy and security. For example, since no one government or business owns open-source software and has complete control over it, there’s a lower chance of encryption backdoors being used. This might sound counterintuitive given the fact that any individual or organization can change open-source code in any way they want. However, for open-source projects that have large and active communities behind them, it’s far more likely that any such vulnerabilities will be discovered and patched quickly.

3. Transforming data protection with low code

Some of the most common criticisms about open-source software is that it’s poorly supported, relatively difficult to use, and lacking in consistency – especially when it comes to data privacy and security. However, these concerns are, for the most part, outmoded and largely stem from a time when major software vendors were trying, in their own interests, to build a case against the open-source licensing model.

Despite these fears, there’s still some truth in them. For NGOs and nonprofits to truly benefit from open source, they need a way to develop their own applications and apply their own data privacy, security, sovereignty, and compliance models and constraints. Since building a team of experienced software developers will probably be far beyond what their budgets can accommodate, it makes sense to adopt low-code and no-code solutions that allow non-developers to create apps too.

Open-source low-code software development is the perfect fit for NGOs and nonprofits, due to the fact that it allows teams to quickly develop apps and digital services with all the benefits we talked about earlier. For example, a truly open-source software stack lets you connect any data source to enable complete visibility into your data without having to rely on third-party software vendors and complex supply chains. Instead, you have complete ownership and control over your entire software environment from being able to choose the underlying infrastructure to host it on right up to the apps you develop to run on that infrastructure.

Particularly if augmented by the expert guidance and support of a dependable consultancy firm, nonprofits can slash the costs of software development and ensure digital sovereignty and privacy no matter their mission or where they operate.

Planet Crust is the principle creator behind the Corteza open-source low-code development platform, which comes with strong out-of-the-box privacy features. We provide training, support, hosting, and consulting services to NGOs seeking to leverage modern digital solutions to further their missions. Try Corteza on-premises or in the cloud today.

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