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The Balsamiq Software Donation Program

In 2009 I had, for the first time, the idea to donate our software to do-gooders. It became our favorite company policy over time, and we've been donating our software for years. We don't typically toot our own horn, but we make an exception for the Software Donation Program because we'd like to inspire other software companies to launch their own version of this kind of program.

If you're a teacher, work for a non-profit, contribute to an open source project, or are a do-gooder using wireframes to make the world a better place, we'd love to donate our software to you!

If you're none of the above, please share this article's link with the decision makers at companies interested in starting a donation program. Applications are submitted here.


Background

I was shown the value of volunteering from my friend and former boss Robert Tatsumi back at Macromedia: he and his wife Sharon often organized volunteering outings: sorting items at the San Francisco food bank, packing sandwiches for the homeless at the Glide Memorial Church, etc.

I had never done anything like that before, and I remember being amazed at how much a group of motivated people could achieve in just a few hours, and how easy it was to make a difference in someone else's life.

I decided then that volunteering and donating were going to be part of my life going forward and that I wanted to make it part of my nascent family's values and traditions.

In preparation for staring Balsamiq, I read Guy Kawasaki's The Art of the Start (required reading for any tech startup), which he starts off with the "Make Meaning" chapter. Here's a short video in which he talks about it:

When working on the Balsamiq for Confluence pricing, I had copied and pasted Atlassian's pricing page for Confluence and used it as a starting point for my own. At the end of it was a section about Community Licenses.

confcommunity

I remember reading it thinking: that's a very nice way to do it and I'll certainly match their policy, but is this it? Who will want my software? 🙂

The answer came to me a few days later, in the form of an email:

Hey,

Just found your software.

My wife and her friend have started a small nonprofit to alert local groups about climate change impact.

I'm a software person but do Java server software, not UI. As any nonprofit, they're starting on the cheap. My wife put that site together using Google Sites.

They want to get a friend to do a 'real' site for them and are having trouble deciding on a design.

I've tried to give them help but they're visual, I'm verbal and I can't draw.

[...]

I remember thinking: whoa, interesting! Here's someone who's clearly doing some good for the World, and all I have to do to help them is generate a license key - a 45-seconds operation: copy+switch+paste+click+switch+paste+send.

Something that took me less than a minute to do could have a material impact on someone's efforts in helping others and making the World a better place. The reward/effort ratio was extremely high.

I liked that feeling, a lot.

That's when I decided to institute our software donation policy as well.

Ramping Up

As Balsamiq gained popularity, the number of do-gooder requests I received each day rose proportionally. After about five months it got to a point where I couldn't keep up with it by myself, so I asked my wife Mariah to help me with it.

She did a wonderful job for a few months, but it become too much for her to do with a little help from me as well. Over time, we have trained our whole Customer Support team to be able to do this task, because it's so rewarding.

Stats

After 14 months, we had donated 2,366 keys for our products, 1,561 of which were Balsamiq for Desktop single licenses. After that, we lost count.

We only know that we sure donated more than 10,000 licenses over the last 8 years and collected dozens of success stories about it.

Too Much? I disagree

If you think we're donating too much, I'd like to try to convince you of the opposite. In fact, if you're a software business owner, I'd like to persuade you to do more than what you're currently doing.

Here's the way I see it.

It's a moral duty

We believe non-profits and other do-gooders should spend their money on doing good in the world, not on software. We feel very privileged at Balsamiq, and giving our software to educators and people who do good is one of the ways in which we try to give back.

We also donate 3% of our profits to charity each year, for the same reason.

It's extremely rewarding

We get the best emails from our donation program! It's really heart-warming.

Each of them reminds us every day that humans are generally good, generous people.

The wide breath of causes we hear about is inspiring, for our whole team. It really spans the gamut, from large groups like Amnesty International to a single guy working on a new website for an orphanage in Honduras. From tech-y organizations like Mozilla.org to the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada, we hear from literally hundreds of people every week. Jump to the comments to read A LOT of stories or share your own! 🙂

It's really heart warming. Who wouldn't want to receive emails like these every day?

It's good for business

Having a program like this is a way to show people that we're serious when we say "We're good people, and we care."

It also helps with recruiting the kind of employees we want to work with.

This is a case of the more you give, the more you get.

By donating your software:

  • you get the best kind of word-of-mouth publicity. Non-profits regularely meet with corporations and other people who won't qualify for a free license. If your software is good, they'll likely recommend it to them.
  • you improve the Triple-Bottom-Line: I heard this term for the first time in this Startup Success podcast episode. Basically as products and services become commoditized, customers start caring more about how what they buy impacts the World, both from an environmental and social aspect. Showing your commitment to making the World a better place sets your company apart from your competitors who are just in it for the money.
  • you get great street cred with the open-source community: if I wasn't trying to make a living as a software vendor, I'd very likely release Mockups as open-source. I also benefit from open-source software every day, so IMHO donating to OSS projects is the least I can do to give back. People on the OSS community respect that, and that's a very powerful endorsement.
  • you have a convincing arguments against hackers. Every few months we notice someone cracking our software and posting license keys or even key generators to the dark corners of the Web. It's ok, it's normal and it's a sign of success. So far, we have always convinced these smart, usually young people to take those keys down with this simple argument: look, we're good people, why are you trying to hurt us?
  • you might be able to treat part of your donations as a tax deduction (ask your accountant).

In general, I think everyone will agree that having a good reputation results in more sales.

Now, the beauty of this is that even if you don't believe any of the moral-duty, feel-good arguments I wrote about above and decide to start donating your software purely as a marketing move, the end-result is a big WIN for the recipients of your software anyways, so go right ahead!


We hope this post will inspire you do start donating your software as well, it's really a whole lot of WIN.

Note: this post was originally published in 2009 and was updated in 2018 to add the introduction and include new information.

Peldi for the Balsamiq Team

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