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December 07 2011


Working With Technical Volunteers

Elliot Harmon, Staff Writer at TechSoup recently wrote a great, information-packed blog post that we want to share to wrap up our series on human capital. Our goal was to share tips, resources and examples of how civil society organizations can best tap into the human capital potential.  In this post Elliot shares key ingredients to make technology volunteering projects successful as well as some additional useful tips and resources. 

-- Originally posted on the TechSoup Blog --

Over on the NetSquared blog, we've been running a great series of posts by Bari Samad about ways that nonprofits, NGOs, and public libraries can leverage the power of human capital. He's written about limited-term volunteering, high-skills volunteers, and tips and resources for managing human capital.

If you're looking to work with technical volunteers more effectively at your organization, I highly recommend TechSoup's Working with Technical Volunteers: A Manual for Nonprofits. It's a great resource, full of ideas and common sense we've picked up from the nonprofit community over the years. It outlines the steps of a technical volunteering project, from designing projects for technical volunteers to recruiting volunteers to managing a volunteer and closing out the project.

Here are a few tips on getting the most out of technical volunteers. For more, check out the manual.

Screen volunteers' skills and interests. How do you manage volunteers who know more about technology than you do? To put it bluntly, how do I know whether a volunteer can do what I need if I can't even do it? That's a common question. But if you give a volunteer a framework for assessing her own skills, then it's easier to start a dialogue with her about where her skills and interests intersect with your needs. There's a sample self-assessment worksheet in the guide.


From the sample questionnaire.

Keep a short-term schedule with specific deliverables. Although there are certainly exceptions, "general" technology volunteers sometimes have a way of fizzling out. Assigning volunteers to well-defined, time-bound projects helps keep both you and the volunteers on track. It's also good for a volunteer's development: checking in with a volunteer at the end of each project is an opportunity to make sure the work still aligns with his goals and interests.

Don't make volunteers waste time navigating your organizational hierarchy. Let's face it: nonprofits can be confusing places to work. We all spend time trying to figure out who owns what and who's responsible for which decisions. That comes with the job, but it's not a great use of a volunteer's time. Give your volunteer the gift of a flexible liaison who can save her the time and connect her with the right people.

Be sensitive to the volunteer life cycle. There's a certain art to understanding where volunteers are in their development, how much guidance they need, and how they expect to be treated. Consider an excellent series of blog posts (part 1, part 2, part 3) by Chris Jarvis and Angela Parker on the three phases of a volunteer's life cycle: tourist, traveler, and guide.

The Tourist: Tourists are excited, enthusiastic, and a little stumbly as they figure out what they're looking for. The space is new and the potential is endless. Tourists want to love their experience, but first impressions are paramount. If it doesn't meet their needs, they'll probably never come back. No problem. This is the group from which you will discover the best and most loyal of your volunteers. Do not expect long-term commitment from this group — they're not ready yet.

The Traveler: Travelers have been here before. They know where to go when they arrive and what they like doing best. At this stage, volunteers begin to invest in the cause. Because the space begins to feel like "theirs," they will ask hard questions and even begin to complain a little (which is a good sign that they're connecting emotionally.) Travelers want to be seen and heard. They want someone to confirm that they belong here. Discover them; give them space to continue to the next stage.

The Guide: Guides know they are home and will show the way for tourists and travelers. This group is as dependable as the executive director, and maybe even more committed. There are only a few of them, but they will lead your organization into the future. Do not treat these volunteers like first-timers; do not give them buttons and trinkets as thank you's. They own the space; treat them as such.

Have you managed a great technical volunteer, or been a technical volunteer for a great organization? What makes a technology volunteering project work well? Tell us about it in the comments.

The slides above are from a talk I gave last year at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service. You can download the slides and handouts here. 

Elliot Harmon

Staff Writer, TechSoup



August 25 2010


Global Digital Activism: This data set has a waiting list!

(This post originally written by Mary Joyce for the Meta-Activism blog. You can see the original post here.)

The Global Digital Activism Data Set is the first attempt to quantitatively study digital activism as a global phenomenon.  It is an all-volunteer project to create an open case study database under a Creative Commons license that will be accessible to scholars and activists around the world.  It currently has 342 cases, with over 1,500 cases waiting to be entered… and that’s our challenge.

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