Five technology volunteers in a cramped room

Notes from “Decoding Tech Volunteerism” at 501 Commons

On September 20, 2016 at the Pacific Tower, 501 Commons gave an important presentation on managing technology volunteers. As it says on Nonprofit WP:

…having a nonprofit volunteer build your website comes with a number of tricky issues you need to consider first.

This presentation was about those tricky issues and considerations your organization can take when trying to avoid them. It’s an extremely important topic, and the two presenters were well-equipped to talk about this. Both from 501 Commons, Dave Forrester is the Director of Technology Services & Consulting while Jan Burrell is their Volunteer Engagement Manager.

Technology Volunteers = Skilled Volunteers

One of the first points made was that technology projects require skilled technology volunteers with specialized experiences and training that probably aren’t available within a nonprofit’s own staff. Getting the most out of them requires planning and a lots of structure for any project.

Importantly, Jan noted that these volunteers aren’t just coming to do a highly-prescribed role—like serving food in a food line or pulling a specific weed in a forest—but come with the expectation (probably a reasonable one!) that their work will influence the direction of an organization or the way it works.

Types of Technology Volunteering

There are various levels of commitment for volunteers which include highly-variable levels of commitment:

  • Long-term: Technology advisors and board members
  • Medium-term: Technology planning and strategy, project advisors, user adoption & training
  • Short-term: Technology coaching, Hackathons, Online Support

When thinking about the type of work you want a technology volunteer to do, make sure the scope and importance of the work matches the commitment and skills of the volunteer.

Jan mentioned that volunteer engagements of 4-6 months requiring 10-12 hours a month is a “sweet spot” for requesting a commitment with volunteers. It’s demanding (see the next section), but won’t scare off every potential volunteer.

When to Not Use a Volunteer

Mission-critical work for your organization—like implementing a new email server or donation platform—may not align well with a volunteer-led project. If you really want to use a volunteer on a project like that, consider a hybrid approach having a volunteer work with a consultant or staff member.

Make Sure You Do These Things

  • Get ready. Having a plan is key to avoid volunteer frustration and increase the odds of a successful volunteer engagement.
  • Be specific. You will get more volunteers when you post a specific project with specific required skills over a specific time.
  • Be demanding. For large technology projects, it’s important that you ensure the volunteer is both well-qualified and ready to commit to a serious project.
  • Take it seriously. If you expect a volunteer to meet deadlines, respond to emails, and finish the project, then you need to do those things too! Make sure your organization has the capacity to take this on.
  • Thank them. Say “Thank you.” Send them a card. Give them a gift! Give positive and constructive feedback.
    • Jan made a great point that good technology volunteers with nonprofit experience are few and far between. Thanking a volunteer is the best way to keep them around!

Vetting Volunteers

Jan spent quite a lot of time discussing how to find the right volunteers and offered great specific tasks to increase the likelihood of finding a good one:

  • Write a volunteer engagement description just like you would a job description.
  • Advertise your volunteer job description. That might be on the volunteer-matching sites below, but you should also look for referrals from professionals, your board, etc.
  • Vet your volunteers. Make sure they really know how to do what they say they do. This might involve doing an interview, calling references, or engaging another volunteer with similar skills.

It’s Not Just the Skills

Just like hiring a consultant, you want a volunteer that’s a good fit between your organization’s mission and your volunteer’s goals and beliefs.

As mentioned on the volunteer page on this site, it’s also really important to understand why a volunteer wants to help out. Is it to learn a skill? Is to work with your organization? Is it because they are required to volunteer? Don’t be afraid to say no to a volunteer so you don’t waste either your time or theirs.

Know Your Existing Volunteers

This may seem obvious, but many people overlook it: If you have an existing volunteer base, do you know what their skills are? Consider surveying your volunteers to learn what specialized skills you may already have access to.

Using a Technology Volunteer to Scope a Volunteer Project

Jan made the great point that it can be hard to start a technology volunteer project because “you don’t know what you don’t know.” It’s almost like a chicken-egg problem: You can’t get a volunteer without a project description but you don’t know what project to ask a volunteer to do!

While it’s important to plan a project well before starting with a volunteer, many nonprofits aren’t equipped to select software, scope project functionality, or estimate the time required to do the work. In these cases, consider bringing in a technology volunteer to work with you in defining the scope! This is a great, limited-commitment project for a skilled volunteer seeking to make a real, lasting impact on your organization.

Don’t Start with the Software

As I always say, start a project by identifying your organization’s goals. Saying “Our organization wants to use Software X” is really different from saying “Our organization needs to accomplish Y.” Let the goals define the project requirements.

Where Does a Volunteer Leave You?

Once you have identified the software you hope to use, consider how that decision will impact you in 1, 2, or 5 years. Dave made a great point that you always need to consider what happens when a volunteer leaves you. Having a volunteer build a custom piece of software (like a content management system) or using an obscure system (like Plone) probably is a bad idea. Make sure you’re considering what happens if a volunteer disappears or even if they just finish a project and move on.

Using a popular system—like WordPress!—leaves you in a good position to move forward with another volunteer or consultant!

Sites to Pair Technology Volunteers with Organizations

Dave mentioned quite a few websites and organizations that attempt to match nonprofit projects with appropriate volunteers. These included:

What 501 Commons is Doing

501 Commons does a lot of important work around nonprofit volunteering and technology, but their Plan IT program deserves a special call out. This cohort-model program helps Washington nonprofits work with volunteers to assess their current technology and make specific plans to improve them (either with consultants, volunteers, or internally). This is exactly the type of work that will make volunteer technology engagements more successful!

Take This Stuff Seriously

This was a jam-packed 90-minute session for a topic that could easily fill a day. If your organization is hoping to use a technology volunteer, it is crucial that you take these considerations into account and invest a lot of time planning for your volunteer and project up front. This will take a lot of time and feel like a hassle, but the nearly-inevitable alternative is wasting even more time—and often money—with a project that fails to finish satisfactorily and may even harm the organization.

Thanks to David Forrester, Jan Burrell, 501 Commons, and the United Way of King County for putting on this event!

Photo courtesy kalabird on Flickr. In the photo, attendees of the Nonprofit Technology Conference volunteer to assist communities affected by Hurricane Katrina.

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