Open Outreach is a Drupal 7 distribution designed to provide a web solution that small and medium sized nonprofits can just turn on and start using. Today we rolled the beta5 release, which takes some major steps forward in terms of usability while catching up with the latest progress in Media module. We also have a new project website at openoutreach.org, with a growing collection of screencast tutorials on installing and using the distribution.
If you're looking for a leg up in building out nonprofit sites, now's a good time to download Open Outreach and run it through its paces. And if you're a Drupal shop or developer looking to partner in building a great distribution for nonprofits, now's a perfect time to join in.
The whys and wherefores of a nonprofit distribution
Efforts to build Drupal distributions for nonprofits have usually focused in on functionality specific to nonprofits, like volunteer management or donation handling. You can see why--many or most nonprofits will indeed want ways to work with volunteers or collect donations. And specialized applications like Donor Rally and Volunteer Rally are definitely valuable tools.
But groups' main needs in a website are much more basic. They need a platform they can quickly understand, that's accessible to them, that allows them to post content and get their message out. And, usually, they don't have a lot of funds to throw around on the way.
Probably the best researched and documented source on the needs of web nonprofits and current solutions is the 2010 Idealware comparison of open source CMSs. If you build sites for nonprofits, this is invaluable reading.
The Idealware report highlights above all the importance of getting the basics right. Yes, having a powerful and flexible platform is great--but you have to be able to understand and use it. All the extensibility in the world isn't worth a lot if getting and learning to use even a basic website is way out of reach.
The simple conclusion from the report might be: if you're a small group, use Wordpress. This was the basic theme of Jennifer Lampton's insightful and provocative Wordpress is better than Drupal talks: yes, Wordpress is limited in many ways, but it's intuitive and works out of the box.
But as a grassroots organization, can you have it all? Can you get a web platform that just works for you, without dropping thousands of dollars on specialists to help you get going, but that can still be extended in any direction you can imagine if and when you have the need and the resources?
Drupal has a reputation for being powerful but expensive. By building sites off a distribution, we aim to bring a powerful and fully featured site within the reach of the small, underresourced, grassroots groups that are at the heart of social change movements. Drupal + affordable = action!
Getting off the configuration treadmill
If you've built even a few sites for nonprofits, you'll know that a lot of the initial work is pretty much the same each time. By the time you've got the basics in place - social links, a half dozen content types and their fields, views and blocks, a bit of SEO functionality, a WYSIWYG editor and accompanying text formats - you're well into your site building budget--and you've only just got to the part that's really specific to the group you're working for.
If we as Drupal shops or site developers end up in a rut of basically repeating a lot of work with small variations for each site we build, it's not a lot better for the organizations buying our services. They end up paying again and again for basically the same initial work.
This is the basic motivation for building Open Outreach. Like Drupal and community open source in general, it's about building shared solutions to common needs, while allowing groups to focus their limited resources on the new functionality that's truly specific to their unique work and organizational culture.
Is Open Outreach everything you could wish for? Not at all. If you're an experienced site builder, you'll immediately find functionality you'd like to add. You might decide to skip some of what comes with Open Outreach--not every project requires a forum or an event calendar. You might also decide to take some of the features and fork them for the specific needs of a given site. But even if you keep just 80% of what it provides and dig in from there, Open Outreach can save you a lot of rote work--and also provide a consistent framework to base new functionality on.
A different kind of distribution
Many distributions are built to a highly specific use case: an online fundraising campaign (Donor Rally), an organizational intranet (Open Atrium), and so on. In contrast, Open Outreach is intentionally designed for a broad range of organizational uses. As the distribution develops for sure we'll want to see more focused functionality added in as options, or else specialized distributions built off the same base (see below on Debut). But first things first. By focusing on universal or common needs, we're creating a distribution that can be used as either a stand alone site for a smaller group or the base for a customized build for a larger organization.
While many distributions are fairly monolithic, Open Outreach is scrupulously modular. The features that make up the distribution have almost no interdependencies. At install time, you can select exactly which features you want to enable, and then add new ones at any time.
Open Outreach features are built to a common, documented standard: the Debut feature specification. Debut documentation includes notes on how to build out debut features as well as simple instructions for building your own distribution off of Debut.
We at Chocolate Lily have put in the legwork to get Open Outreach to a solid beta release, but we've never intended it as a one-shop project. With some basics now in place, we're actively seeking Drupal shops and developers to partner with. Do you work for nonprofits? Want to be part of planning and building out a great community-produced Drupal nonprofit platform? Talk to us.