Foundations Choosing Open Source: The Annenberg Foundation Selects Drupal

On the heals of our recently released survey that looked at foundations and their websites, I spoke with one of our clients, John Theodore, a Technology Officer at the Annenberg Foundation, about their choice to go with Drupal for their website redesign. The Annenberg Foundation, founded in 1989, provides funding and support to nonprofit organizations in the United States and globally. They have a number of web properties that serve different aims and programs. The Foundation decided to begin migrating their web properties from a variety of mostly proprietary or home-grown systems to Drupal in 2010. The work is ongoing and CivicActions is working with the Foundation on the project.

Why Open Source?

John admitted to something of a bias against proprietary systems based on the Foundation’s experiences as well as his own personal history as a developer and vendor. Proprietary systems often don’t communicate well with each other and thus become their own silos. Vendor and support options are also more limited for proprietary systems.

Annenberg decided they wanted to explore open source to leverage the broader community and to be able to own their technology and manage it over time.

As John said, “We spent a lot of time researching… reading the websites for the open source projects… you get a heck of a lot of information sitting out there on the web about these things, way more than [for] any of the proprietary systems.”

Strategic Value of Open Source

John sees Annenberg’s decision to choose an open source content management system as an expression of their organization’s mission, as he told me:

“The mission of the Annenberg foundation is to advance the public well-being through improved communication… in my mind, open source software is an improvement in communication. In choosing this, we are setting an example [by saying] ‘Hey, this is the way to move forward if we are going to advance public well being through improved communication.’”

We have certainly seen a dramatic expansion in the popularity and adoption of open source technologies in the last decade, from the software that runs Wikipedia (Media Wiki) to Drupal and other content management and blogging platforms that all foster greater communication between people, organizations, the media, and government. Open source projects like Drupal also help to foster better communication among the contributors to the project. In the six years that I’ve been involved with Drupal I’ve seen Drupal related events grow by two orders of magnitude and bring together thousands of people from all over the world to share ideas and solve problems together. 

John said, “From a strategic perspective my long term goal is to begin integrating a bunch of open source systems to share data universally across all of the software that I’ve got here.” Drupal’s APIs, and rich contributed module ecosystem are fertile ground for integrating websites not only with other open source tools, but also those proprietary tools and services that offer APIs. While this is not a characteristic exclusive to open source software, it is certainly easier to make two applications talk to each other when you are free to view and modify the source code.

Why Drupal?

John and his team started by creating a list of potential open source content management systems. Through thorough research they winnowed the list down to just three: WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal. These are widely considered to be the top three open source CMSs today (though some will debate whether WordPress should be considered a CMS or a blogging platform.) Our research in December shows that they are indeed the top three choices of Foundations.

After further consideration, John knocked WordPress off the list (because it is a system best suited for blogging and simple websites) and then compared Joomla! and Drupal head to head. As John said, “At the end of the day… I’d rather place my bet on the Drupal community… Drupal looked like it was more robust and more capable of handling the multisite requirement.” Drupal won in large part because of the developer community, but also due to its robust feature set and ability to handle multiple sites off of one code base, and for sites to talk to each other and share users.

“The question of Drupal vs WordPress is very common. I looked at it by saying ‘WordPress is a blogging platform. Its kernel is a blogging platform. Whereas Drupal’s kernel – in my understanding – is web content management.’ If you are going to have a complex site, I fundamentally don’t understand why you would use WordPress over Drupal. I know that WordPress could do it, but lots of things could do it. I want the best tool for the job, one that’s built from the ground up to do web content management – I don’t understand why you wouldn’t choose that.”

RFP and Vendor Search

The Annenberg Foundation spent a considerable amount of time preparing an RFP for their project, going through at least two iterations. John estimates that he spent between 60 and 70 hours alone preparing the RFP – creating a document that reflected the needs of the organization which could be easily understood by vendors.

The next step was to identify those vendors. Rather than put out an open call, the Foundation decided to pre-select specific vendors and invite them to respond. To aid in the selection process, John identified a set of criteria including Drupal expertise, United States based company and preferably one located in California. John solicited referrals from other people at the Annenberg Foundation and researched vendors on In both cases he evaluated vendors based on his criteria, visiting their websites and reviewing their portfolios. Ultimately four companies submitted bids for the project.

A small committee reviewed and evaluated the proposals together and individually providing specific feedback about them. The team then conducted phone interviews with each vendor. After the phone interviews, the committee discussed the proposals again, and ultimately selected CivicActions.

Deciding who was going to get invited to submit an RFP was “a critical question” and one that a lot of organizations overlook. While it was important to have an open process, so that people within the organization could make referrals, ultimately John did not want to be overwhelmed with dozens of RFPs — some of which likely would not have have made an initial cut. Preselecting vendors and inviting responses made the task of reviewing and comparing proposals much more manageable for John and his team.

“You really need to invest the time internally to figure out your needs and then craft the RFP in such a way that makes it easy for the vendor to understand what you are looking for and that it is something that they can actually provide.”

Lessons Learned

  • Take time up front to plan and craft an RFP that reflects your project goals and is easy for vendors to understand and respond
  • Set aside enough staff time to review proposals
  • Research the vendors and invite vendors to submit, rather than rely on cattle calls, This will ultimately save you time and energy
  • Once you have selected a vendor, spend the time to focus on some of the foundational issues, like working on your site’s information architecture and get your stake holders on the same page

“Information architecture is a critical component to the usability of any site… It is the first thing we are tackling. And it is extremely valuable as an organization for us to tackle taxonomy, categorization, terminology, nomenclature.  All of those things are critically important to get everyone on the same page from a language perspective, but also so that we have a coherent message going out to all the people that visit [our website].”


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