Got a tech need at your nonprofit that goes beyond your skillset?
Then a volunteer engagement is likely on your mind. And what a great time for it! There are tons of tech wizards (many remote) wanting to save the world, and a bunch of websites for finding them.
So I’m not here to rain on your parade. Get that [tech thing] built/migrated/implemented.
But keep in mind that tech volunteer projects are uniquely complicated. Where there’s great reward, there’s also some risk. And we need to talk about it.
Let’s dive into tech volunteer engagements, why they’re different, and how to make them successful.
What makes technology projects different?
Well first, definitions.
When I say “tech volunteering”, I’m talking about any engagement where there is significant impact on your org’s tech platforms or data. Think building a website, migrating a database, or implementing a new tool.
Basically, the stuff that would be too expensive to tackle otherwise.
But there’s a reason that stuff costs. For one, tech is increasingly important for mission. Just ask the 700 nonprofits surveyed by Salesforce.org last year, 85% of whom agreed that technology was key to their success.
Then, there’s complexity. In that same survey, 93% of orgs claimed to not have the technology nor the technical staff they need. And 75% cited data collection as a key challenge. Tech isn’t just pricy, gang: it’s a beast to wrangle.
Which brings us to the real kicker. The margin of error can be higher with technology projects.
Say you recruit someone to design a logo, but don’t like the final product. No biggie. It may push back your timeline, but you can always start the process of getting a new design.
But imagine that your website crashes, or a database automation starts spamming constituents. What would you do? Staff time might need to be diverted to address the fallout. You may need to splurge on developer support or consultants to resolve it quickly. You could even lose donors as a result.
All this to say, tech projects raise the stakes.
Philanthropy Digest has a great summary of those Salesforce survey results. If you’re interested, you can check it out here.
So what are the risks?
This depends on the project and the platform/s. But whether you’re paying for the work or getting it pro-bono, you don’t want a “finished product” that:
• Breaks often or has errors. You’ll spend more time trying to fix it than anything else. And it could compromise your data.
• Is more complex than it needs to be. This is like asking for a glass of wine and getting the winery instead. Solutions that are unnecessarily complex become impossible to modify or sustain in the long-term.
• Is perfectly built, but doesn’t meet your org’s needs. Maybe your org’s needs weren’t clear from the start, or those needs have changed over time.
• Is actually unfinished, with no end in sight.
Yikes! How do I ensure my tech project is successful?
First things first. If your org has the luxury to ask this question, ask. Is this a project you can afford not to pay someone for?
That’s not to say you can’t find a stellar volunteer, or that consultants don’t mess up. They do! But entering a formal work agreement sets a certain expectation of service & professionalism. You’re also paying that for expertise, which can put you at ease.
For the sake of this post, let’s assume volunteers are the main option.
Ensure Success on the Volunteer Side
You’ll certainly want someone with ‘experience’ in whatever skill you’re looking for – meaning they’ve either done it before, or demonstrate a strong & informed interest in gaining the experience.
That could be a database volunteer with a history of running migrations. Or a website volunteer that’s researched Google Analytics and wants implementation experience. You should decide how flexible those requirements are, based on the stakes…and to some extent, your candidate pool.
Also, the ideal volunteer will show an interest in your org/work. After all, the best tech projects stick when someone asks questions along the way and seeks to understand the need. (Be wary of the person who races to build a solution.)
Ensure Success on the Org Side
Success isn’t just about the volunteer: it’s on your org, too. You’ve got to be willing to dole out a certain level of attention and coordination to succeed.
The best things you can do are:
1. Communicate clear outcomes
Visualize a successful end to your project. What should your org be able to see or do once this wraps up?
BTW, this is not to be confused with the work itself.
To give an example: adding Google Analytics (GA) tracking to your website is part of the work. Being able to quickly report on daily site visitors using GA is an outcome. Having staff trained in how to use GA is another outcome.
p.s. Why the distinction? Because certain tech efforts may be possible to approach in multiple ways. Clear outcomes will help you & your volunteer determine the best approach for your org.
2. Document their work
Good technologists (and nonprofit-ists!) know why documentation is important. Even if it’s not super detailed, and even if you don’t understand it all, it’s good to keep a log of what work was done and when.
You’ll be grateful to have this if you ever need to bring on another volunteer or consultant, or if this ‘thing’ ever malfunctions.
3. Watch out for scope creep
A scope is like your north star, mapping your project’s deliverables. Here are 4 quick tips for building your own nonprofit project scope.
But a thorough scope is only half the battle. You also need to resist the urge that is scope creep: a phenomenon where new “requirements” (or requests) get introduced throughout a tech project, causing it to derail from the initial vision.
When projects drag on or start to feel perpetually unfinished, scope creep is the common culprit! So whether it’s a well-intentioned volunteer or an eager staffer introducing it, try to recognize when it’s happening and correct course.
If you were thinking “scope creep sounds a lot like mission creep”, I agree. Safe to say there’s lots of creepin’ that can happen here. 🧟
4. Always ask about the approach
You don’t need to know everything that’s being built, or how it all even works. But you should understand how a volunteer’s decisions bring you closer to those outcomes in #1.
This goes back to the winery/glass metaphor. If there’s better or simpler way to accomplish something, you’ll want to be able to clue in on those moments. That way, you can talk through a volunteer’s thought process and potentially weigh in.
Remember that survey from earlier, where the majority of orgs saw technology as important? Well, only 45% can cite return on their tech investments! And only 23% have a long term vision for their tech strategy.
We can all benefit from better technology planning across the sector.
Volunteers aren’t the answer, but they can be a contributing factor. With a clear scope and the right coordination, the right person can increase your org’s capacity to tackle complex, high impact projects.
Keep that in mind for your next volunteer engagement, so that you walk away from it with everything that you need – and nothing that you don’t.