November 4, 2013 | Categories Nonprofit Technology

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch… Or is There?

This article was written by Sam Stortz & Nathan Relles of SofterWare, Inc.

The saying “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is just as valid today as it was when it originated some 80 years ago. It implies that even if you do receive something for “free,” someone, somewhere along the way, is paying for it. However, the world has changed a lot since the 1930s. So much so, that some people are beginning to believe that maybe you can get something for nothing.

The recent book Free, by Chris Anderson, distinguishes between “21st century free” and “20th century free”. 20th century free is seen as giving something away for free to create a demand for another product that is, of course, not free. An example can be found in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when saloons would give away free food for any drink purchase. You were allowed to consume as much food as you wanted as long as you purchased a single drink. The catch, however, was that this “free food” was often high in salt (peanuts, crackers, etc.) which meant that the more free food you consumed, the more likely you were to buy another drink. Not so free after all.

21st century free, as Anderson describes, is much different. As consumers, the Internet has given us access to many seemingly “free” services: Wikipedia, YouTube, Google, etc. What price do we as consumers pay for these things? Nothing? Someone has to pay for these, right? Well, our infatuation with “free” has opened the door to thousands of enterprises that would love nothing more than a well-placed ad on the newest YouTube hit, for all of us to see. Free Lunch A more common approach by software companies is to offer a free version with limited capabilities (known as a “Freemium”), hoping that once users see the value in using their free product, they will be attracted to purchasing the fuller and more functional version. For some people, the limited version offers enough features to be fully valuable in its own right. Until they need greater integration with other products, or technical support, or additional flexibility, or taking advantage of newer technology, it can work for them “as is.”

It should come as no surprise that businesses attempting to run on a “no-revenue” model are very likely to go out of business. What appears to be free is certainly being paid for by someone and even then probably suffers in quality. What would you think of an enterprise that claims to do the same work you do, without incurring costs or needing to be paid?

Nevertheless, we’ve come across some examples of “free” tools that perform some single limited function, and do it very well. One that we’ve used reliably for years is meetingwizard.com, an online service (free!) that facilitates the scheduling of meetings by several potential attendees. If you hold occasional meetings that involve people from different organizations (where it isn’t possible to check everyone else’s personal schedule) MeetingWizard does an excellent job, and is remarkably easy to use – for the person scheduling the meeting and for those who consider attending.  Try it!

We’re also aware of the following “free” applications or services that can be useful to all organizations:

Be forewarned: each of these resources has some limitation or ads or extended features that can be purchased at a cost (after all, there really is no such thing as a free lunch). And they generally require you to establish an account – sometimes with a little information about yourself; at least your email address. But under the right circumstances, they might be just what you need for a one-time or infrequent project or event. And if you know of a “free” product that’s been useful to you, let us know about that too or just post it here.

Written by Sam Goldenberg