The Case for Technical Volunteering

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute, over 1.5 million non-profit organizations were registered with the IRS as of June 2012. (Only nonprofits reporting $5,000 or higher in annual revenue are required to register, and religious congregations are not required to register, so the actual total is higher.) About 960,000 registered organizations were public charities (501(3)c), and of these, almost 350,000 reported less than $25,000 in annual revenue. In the San Francisco Bay area alone (including San Francisco, Oakland, and other cities along the peninsula) there are nearly 12,000 registered public charities, roughly a third of which reported less than $25,000 in annual revenue.

That’s a lot of non-profits competing for donations and volunteers.

A while back I represented Salesforce in an event put on by the Community Technology Network as part of a program (HandsOn Tech) to help small non-profits increase their effectiveness using technology. This is a great program, as there are many benefits to small non-profits in using free or discounted cloud-based tools like WordPress, Salesforce, and Google Apps: the costs are low, there’s no hardware infrastructure to maintain, and staff and volunteers don’t need to be collocated. Being able to track the effectiveness of services, reduce time spent on administrative tasks, maintain contact with past donors, and reach potential donors and volunteers through an online presence are critical in competitive environments, and non-profits face the same challenges as any business.

I’ve been thinking, though, that there is one major challenge facing many non-profits moving to these technologies, and my experience at this event further confirmed it: while non-profits can learn to use these tools as easily as any desktop software once the tools are in place, it’s the getting set up part where people need the most help.

Most people I’ve spoken with from small non-profits have a similar story: they have a skeletal staff or are volunteer-run, and have limited technical resources. They don’t usually have technologists or business analysts on staff, and they don’t always know what they need from the technology or how it can help them. They often wear many hats, and don’t have time to learn business systems analysis and design. And for smaller organizations in particular, hiring consultants comes at the cost of delivering services.

This means that volunteers with technical skills are desperately needed. One study (which I find frequently cited, but I can’t find the actual study online) states that over 40% of non-profits feel that they lack sufficient technology to serve their constituents. Yet a 2009 study on volunteering by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that the majority of people who volunteer don’t perform service activities that relate to their professional or occupational skills: in both the business and computer science categories, most people reported that their main volunteering activity was fundraising or selling items to raise money.

Why don’t more people volunteer their technical skills? Technical projects generally require a bigger time investment than fundraising or menial tasks. And it can be harder to find a skill match for technical positions with non-profits. But I think that the lack of understanding on the non-profit side of what they need from the technology, resulting in a lack of clear goals, also makes it harder for these types of volunteer efforts to succeed. (In an informal survey on volunteering I did last year, more than a quarter of the participants said they had worked on a volunteer project that had poorly defined goals and/or where the non-profit didn’t know what they wanted/needed from the project.)

This means that there’s a demand not only for volunteers who can implement the technology, but for business analysts and interaction designers who can translate a non-profit’s business needs and processes into technical requirements, so that we’re not implementing technology for technology’s sake. Which means that, much like any other software project, there’s room for a team-based approach to technical volunteering.

Three Ways to Volunteer Technical Skills

  1. Pro bono opportunities: Agencies like The Community Corps, Catchafire and The Taproot Foundation provide services to match skilled volunteers with non-profits who need their help. (I particularly like Catchafire, with its clear scope, prerequisites and checklists for each type of project — and the fact that these are all plainly laid out on the website.)
  2. Hackathons: Hackathons and code jams benefiting non-profits are popping up more frequently and are a time-boxed way to contribute your skills. Salesforce held a hackathon in May, where a few dozen developers gathered in a room for 12 hours to solve challenges set forth by three non-profits who had been chosen by the Salesforce Foundation. If you can’t find one, consider starting your own code jam. There are also longer term projects like Random Hacks of Kindness and the Code for America Brigade, which are not necessarily specific to a single non-profit but work towards social good.
  3. Team-building: As part of a project aimed at increasing volunteering by the User Experience team at Salesforce, three of us piloted an “Adopt a Non-Profit” program, where we partnered with a local non-profit to help them set up their Salesforce implementation. After gathering requirements, our team worked on the initial setup, customization and data import and built out a custom application for managing the non-profit’s programs.

August 10, 2013 · Tags: ,

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