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Sure, CiviCRM is free, but lead developer Donald Lobo says there are many kinds of free.

CiviCRM, he says, is free as in free kittens.

Created by Lobo and co-founder David Greenberg as a logical follow-up to their work at the software company GroundSpring, where they worked on donation and e-mail management, CiviCRM is an open-source suite of constituent relationship management tools. Loosely speaking, the "home" of CiviCRM is the Social Source Foundation, the non-profit that collects any donations made to furthering CiviCRM development and subsidizes new features. Lobo and Greenberg are the lead engineers on a team that spans continents. In their open-source model, they do work like fix bugs or security issues for no money, but raise funds from foundations and existing CiviCRM users follow through on major projects like adding new features. Clients can also commission new features specifically for their project, and will have control over whether or not the resulting product goes public.

Open source projects like CiviCRM are free-as-in-free-kittens free because while the software comes at no cost, it requires care and feeding to be as useful as possible. There's a community of developers that will do the work — custom design, maybe add a new feature, training, hosting and the like — but that community does not do purpose-specific work without getting paid. That said, communities around open source software are generally receptive to answering specific questions about specific problems or hurdles for hardy do-it-yourselfers. And an added upshot is that in some cases, you could custom-tailor CiviCRM to do what you need it to do for the same price you'd spend on a commercial out-of-the-box solution.

Lobo says monthly costs are usually quite low — Any money a client is likely to spend will be on time spent customizing or developing software, or training users, while code and server maintenance should be cheap.

Because of the way open source software works, any code a client pays to create that might be useful to other CiviCRM users is usually released back out into the wild. This could be viewed as simultaneously buying software and contributing to a community — or, depending on the consultants and the agreement you reach with their company, it could be viewed as paying for something a competitor might be able to turn around and use to compete with you. It's a matter of perspective. Consultants don't always release code out to everyone, although it becomes far cheaper to maintain if you allow them to do so because the software becomes a public good.

Consultants repackaging and repurposing CiviCRM range widely in usual clientele and degree of customization. offers turnkey hosting, for example, while Lobo could rattle off a half-dozen consultants from around the world who specialize in building solutions for customers ranging from a political campaign to an advocacy organization to a business.

Software Summary: 

CiviCRM comes with event management, donations, e-mail blast and membership components, and analytics for tracking activity across all of those uses. The event management offering allows a user to export events to Apple's iCal or get online calendars to subscribe to an event feed. Membership features include variable levels and rules, customizable self-service membership renewal pages, and customizable lists of members. Contribution information can come in from a third-party database or flow out, such as to an accounting package — but donations with CiviCRM are potentially tricky.

Because all clients get is the software, collecting donations via your organization's website — an out-of-the-box feature with some other products, even where reporting compliance and state or federal regulations are concerned in some cases — won't work without a few steps first. CiviCRM doesn't store credit card information. There is paperwork involved in credit card transactions online, and Lobo said additional security compliance rules went into effect in the United States in 2009. Short of leaning on a service like Google Checkout or PayPal, setting up online donations would require a significant amount of time and effort — but one client, Creative Commons, has prominently reported success using PayPal (see Client Quick-Take).

While most political software providers have moved to a software-as-a-service model, where a set-up fee and periodic fees pay for the firm to do just about anything a customer needs done with the software short of actually using it, CiviCRM is just software. It comes with no promises of support, no hosting, no extra design work and no frills.

"Out of the box, it does I would say about 90 percent of what small or medium small nonprofits [want to] do," Lobo says.

But it really comes alive in the hands of a tech-savvy team member or a consultant, who can take the software, find a place to host it, customize it and train users on how it works. That said, Lobo says he would guess 60 to 80 percent of the people who use CiviCRM do so without customizing it much at all, based on looking at examples of CiviCRM in the wild and the kind of questions people are asking the CiviCRM development team.

The CiviCRM team worked closely for a time with folks working on CivicSpace, the now-defunct Drupal distribution that came out of the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign. While CivicSpace is now kaput, its lead developers scattered to the four consulting winds, CiviCRM tightly integrates with Drupal as a result of the relationship that existed between the two teams.

Ironically, CiviCRM seems to enjoy a measure of popularity on the political right. Several Republican software developers interviewed for this guide mentioned that they had used CiviCRM at one time or another in products they were building for campaigns.

And the CiviCRM team has focused on campaigns recently. Lobo says that applications for canvassing, get-out-the-vote, and generating walk and call lists should be integrated into the product's core release within three to six months of March 2010.

Lobo says that Drupal integration is CiviCRM's greatest strength. Some other firms admit that they have one strong aspect of their product rather than another — that the CRM is stronger than the content management system, for example, or vice versa. But since CiviCRM is tightly integrated with Drupal, a user working woth both — if they're able to get over Drupal's admittedly steep learning curve — gets the benefits of an open CRM and an open CMS at the same time.

One way this could come in handy, he said, was that CiviCRM can pass information about a constituent's level of engagement to Drupal, which can then use that information to determine the groups, permissions and level of access for the constituent's Drupal user account. This way, anyone designated as a campaign staffer in CiviCRM could automatically get the ability to edit content using the Drupal CMS, for example.

A Drupal add-on called Views allows for highly customizable database queries to be built using a drop-down, drag-and-drop user interface. Lobo says this, too, comes in handy — CiviCRM can pass along all its analytics to Drupal for use in reports generated with Views. The CRM itself is already set up to generate about 30 reports Lobo says are typically relied upon by nonprofits, and its e-mail management software will warn the user when analytics' accuracy are compromised, such as when e-mail clients block them by default.

Client Quick-Take: 
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Donald Lobo, one of CiviCRM's lead engineers, is leery of calling his program's users "clients." They're hardly ever his clients because he rarely does consulting work. More appropriately, they'll be clients of one of a handful of consultants who specialize in working with CiviCRM — they keep a list.

As open source software, CiviCRM's strength is its flexibility, Lobo says. Because of community support and open design, CiviCRM can be rebuilt and retooled by anyone, anywhere, who has the programming skill to do so. More and more, he says, people are approaching the CiviCRM project leaders about building in new features.

"More and more large groups are adopting CiviCRM and many of them come to us and say, 'Hey can we support and get this built into core,'" Lobo says.

Quick Facts


CiviServer offers turnkey hosting from $50 setup fee and $100/month, plus $10 per 1,000 e-mails sent; Lobo estimates a pricey consultant might charge between $3,000-$5,000 in setup and customization, design, installation and training, plus $75-$125 monthly

Example Clients: 

Amnesty International; Greenpeace; Progressive Tech Project; Wikimedia Foundation

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