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  Funding Needed for Community Websites?
How much funding do you need to build an online community website? For example, building a web site for a local community who want to communicate over the web.

Thank you for submitting your question. This is a relevent one to any company or organisation, big or small, or individuals running their own communities. It's a cliché but you can almost spend as little or as much as you have available. However, there are ways of ensuring that building a website with community components doesn't cost the earth, by being careful in assessing and then properly prioritising a) what you wish to provide for your community and b) how you provide it.

To begin, you are going to need to know what the requirements of your community are. This could be a list of community software (chat, message boards, and so on) that matches what you perceive to be the main methods that your community will use to communicate with. If you realise you are on a strict budget then you will have to bear that in mind from the outset and begin to prioritize certain community components.

We also recommend that you start out small with your offerings and add to the site as it continues to grow and as the membership expands. This does several things a) it keeps your initial costs down and b) it prevents you from adding too much too soon; in other words you are not left with components on your site that never get used and have to be removed.

Whatever community components you list out, your biggest upfront expense will be the cost of the website hosting and any design and programming needed. You may however be able to save money here by partnering with a hosting or design company or by finding volunteers to assist you with design.

It's perfectly feasible to find, with the right hosting, good design and some programming skills, that free community tools are more than adequate for most needs.

For example , there are message boards which are free to use that offer just as many features as the ones you could pay for. Significant differences between paid and free boards include the following:

1. Scalability - since paid-for software is often geared to businesses and larger organisations, they often have a proven ability to cope with large scale use.

2. Continuity - although it's possible that commercial software can be withdrawn from sale for various reasons, you are more likely to gain continuity of service and development of the software with commercial software. There are no guarantees a) that free software will still be available in a year's time or that b) it will remain free.

3. Technical Support - sometimes with free software you are literally on your own when it comes to technical problems you might have. Whilst many free tools have good user communities that you can consult, again you may not be able to rely on them always being there or that they are always knowledgeable.

4. Security - since much free software is Open Source, bear in mind this means that the code for the software is freely available and could be vulnerable to security issues. This isn't always the case, but it may be a concern in certain circumstances. Remember, if there is such a problem, then you may have no re-dress unlike with commercial software.

When looking at free software as an alternative, do try to bear in mind the above points. Whilst you may save money at the outset, you may, but not always, pay a price for it later on. By and large, the free software which has been developed for communities IS worth looking at and many of them have proven track records over several years and are being used in many communities.

Another alternative is to consider ASP (Application Service Provider) community components which are hired, rather than bought outright, usually on a yearly basis. This may be a good way to dip your toes in the water, without having to commit to the purchase of software which you might find you do not use later on.

So, to summarize:

1. Research your needs and priorities.
2. Comparison shop - check free software alongside commercial and carefully weigh up the pros and cons.
3. Have a clear plan of action for your community components.

We wish you the best of luck. Should you require a list of software to consider, please do feel free to contact us directly and we will be happy to assist.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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