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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



November 16 2011


Getting Results from High-Skills Based Volunteers

In tough economic times marked by cuts in funding, many nonprofits remain in need of technology and business solutions that are beyond their grasp. According to the Community Corps, 40% of the 1.5 million U.S. based nonprofits claim to lack the technology they need to effectively serve their constituents. 

This post will continue our series on human capital and explore how nonprofits can effectively leverage high-skills based volunteers to build their capacity. I recently blogged about the power of limited-term volunteering, including several opportunities where nonprofits can leverage short-term pro-bono human capital to accelerate their mission-driven work. High-skills based volunteering leverages highly specialized skills and talents of individuals to build the capacity and infrastructure of nonprofits. Projects can range from a one-day marathon event to ones that last several months. 

While limited or stretched resources can certainly make volunteer or pro-bono services a desirable way to build organizational capacity, nonprofits often find that getting tangible and usable outcomes from volunteer experiences also remains out of their reach. Managing even basic administrative or clerical volunteers can often become a resource intensive task they don’t in fact have the capacity to undertake.

Some nonprofits won’t even consider pro-bono due to skepticism about what tangible value volunteers can possibly contribute. Others are increasingly not looking just for basic clerical volunteers, but rather for highly skilled professionals who can help them accomplish sophisticated and often complex technology and business goals.  At the same time, a nonprofit’s needs may range from undefined or loosely defined technology wish lists to well defined technology road maps. A nonprofit going into the volunteer experience with adequate preparation can make for a more rewarding experience all around.

With high-skills based needs to meet mission critical goals, the bar is higher but there are steps the organization can take to increase the chances of having a game-changing experience and even getting a competitive edge. Remas, a start-up nonprofit, has largely been built by tech volunteers. Read about their experience and how their technology wish lists became a reality at a high-skills based volunteer event.

Here’s a few resources and tips we have pulled together to facilitate tangible outcomes for nonprofits from high-skills based volunteer opportunities:

  • The Nonprofit Readiness Toolkit -- The purpose of this Toolkit from the Corporation for National and Community Service is to assist nonprofit organizations assess their internal needs and readiness to leverage the expertise of high-skills based human capital (free registration and login required).
  • Making Skills-based Volunteering Work -- Practical tips from New York City based Arts to Grow, a nonprofit that has leveraged over 150 volunteers in 21,500 volunteer hours to support its core work.
  • Pro-Bono Competencies Map -- This great interactive online tool created by the Taproot Foundation provides a catalog of information mapping nonprofit needs to the professional expertise that potentially could be provided through pro-bono service.
  • Making Pro-Bono Work (PDF) -- Both nonprofits and companies can use this great resource, also from the Taproot Foundation, to select the type of high-skills volunteer model best suited to their organization. Includes eight proven models for outcome oriented pro-bono service and case studies to show real-world impact.

Effective high-skills based volunteerism connects available human capital with social-benefit projects so they can bring their passion, energy, and expertise to create tangible value for a nonprofit. At the same time the participating nonprofits must bring something to the table to get the results they need. Pro-bono really does not mean “free” if viewed in the spirit of a solution space where accountability for outcomes is shared.

We hope you find these resources helpful if you are considering engaging high-skills human capital in a volunteer setting. Stay tuned for the next post in this series!

And as always, we would love to hear your thoughts and learn from your experiences:

  • Have you been able to get a tangible outcome from a high-skills based volunteer experience?
  • How was your experience of working with the volunteers?
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