Five Steps to Achieving Success with Pro Bono Techies

Taproot

There’s no shortage of demand in the nonprofit sector for help with projects that require volunteers with programming, graphic design, or other technical skills. On VolunteerMatch.org, there are currently more than 5,000 listings from organizations seeking assistance with creating or updating their website. When the well-meaning techie or other skilled volunteer approaches the under-resourced nonprofit to provide pro bono services, it should be a win-win for both sides. But too often, what begins as a match made in heaven turns into a purgatory of endless revisions, misaligned expectations, and dissatisfaction for both nonprofits and volunteers.

Getting the most out of skilled volunteers requires a bit of work, but a wellspring of value is available to those nonprofit organizations that invest significant time in cultivating these pro bono relationships. By adhering to the five steps outlined below and treating volunteer hours like the assets that they are, nonprofits can improve their odds that such a partnership will yield benefits for both the organization and the volunteer.

1. Be clear on what you’re looking for and why.

If an organization is muddled about what it wants to achieve and how to articulate that need, no amount of technological savvy will make up for this lack of clarity. Scope creep—when an organization asks volunteers to provide services beyond the original agreement—is a common problem that sabotages volunteer engagements. But beyond communicating the project’s scope to the volunteer at the outset, an organization should also articulate the project’s value to its mission and how this impact will be measured.

Joel Bashevkin, executive director of Taproot Foundation’s San Francisco office, advises nonprofits, “Don’t just have the individual be handed a task without including them in the organization’s culture and mission and how this project connects to the organization’s theory of change.” By building some impact measure into the project, organizations can articulate how success will be measured. “Giving the pro bono volunteer a measure of something that they personally know they had value in creating and whether it had the impact that they had hoped will go a long way in engaging them,” says Bashevkin.

2. Recruit for talent and commitment.

Nonprofits need to understand the skill sets of volunteers and whether they have the talent—and commitment—to fulfill the project’s needs. This can be tricky for technology-related projects. On the skills front, a volunteer adept at website programming and graphic design may not be good at copywriting. On the commitment front, a volunteer may disappear mid-project because of a personal or professional conflict, so it is important that the organization have a backup plan; this might include being prepared to augment or substitute volunteer hours with paid hours if the need arises.

Whether the issue comes down to skills or level of commitment, it is crucial that nonprofits avoid the volunteer who comes forward to work on a project but has not yet proven their reliability in a professional setting on providing the specific skills that a project requires. “Because then you’re just a playground,” says Bashevkin, “and you as a nonprofit leader are not in the position to supervise someone’s learning.”

Nonprofits owe it to themselves to be forthright with volunteers and give everyone the opportunity to get the project right. The staff member in charge should be comfortable with giving candid feedback to volunteers and potentially ending or reframing the relationship if it doesn’t work out. “I call it the gift that keeps on taking,” says Bashevkin. “The death knell for pro bono projects is when the nonprofit doesn’t get what it needs and they know it and they don’t do anything because it’s a volunteer. The bottom line is that you should treat every engagement as a paying engagement…In nonprofit economics, time spent on a pro bono project takes away from time you spend on your other important programs.”

3. Cast a wide net.

According to VolunteerMatch spokesperson Robert Rosenthal, finding technology-savvy volunteers requires a multifaceted approach to recruiting talent. “Organizations should start by working within their local network,” says Rosenthal. “Among your staff, board members, and donors, ask, ‘Who knows who? Which of your constituents also has these technological skills?’ Tap those folks or go with people you know first.”

In addition, organizations should distribute their needs as widely as possible through online volunteer posting boards and networking sites. Nonprofits may also consider partnering with corporate programs. For example, over the last few years, corporations have provided 40 percent of all volunteering on VolunteerMatch (which has 160 corporate partners), as many corporate employees prefer to use their professional skills in their volunteering activities. Corporate volunteering is often tied to corporate giving, so enlist the assistance of development staff in identifying opportunities for seeking both grants and skilled volunteers. Finally, organizations may also consider working with intermediary groups like Taproot Foundation, Catchafire, or Spark.com that specialize in volunteer matchmaking.

4. Turn your marathon into a sprint.

Developing and executing a project that relies on highly specialized skills, such as a branding strategy, can be a daunting task for any organization, and one that often requires an extended timeframe. For CivicActions CEO Ian Rhett, getting the most out of skilled volunteers meant ratcheting up the intensity and focus of the work. Rhett resides in Nashville, Tenn. (the Volunteer State) and his professional services firm provides technology development for nonprofits. “Unlike the very protracted nature of most pro bono work where people meet for two hours every other week, getting everyone to compress their work in a short period of time allows everyone to go really deep, really quickly. The feedback loop is so tight and the cycle of communication is so tight that the work becomes very efficient.”

Putting this theory into action, Rhett organized a designathon in which a group of volunteer marketing professionals worked intensely for 24 hours to create a branded set of marketing tools (including a website, brochures, and a social media strategy) for a local nonprofit. The volunteers then documented and shared the process on the GeekforGood blog. “The designathon is a very different model than working with an ad agency that is providing pro bono services,” Rhett says, in that the nonprofit doesn’t suffer from being “the last priority of everyone who needs to make a living.” Similar models of volunteer engagement include hackathons that convene groups of techies to fervently work on creating an app or technology tool for a nonprofit or group of nonprofits.

5. Maintain the relationship throughout the project and beyond.

Sometimes, if things go well, a sprint runner will return for another race. "The real value of hackathons and designathons is often the relationship that is developed that continues beyond the initial event,” says Rosenthal. “After the project, the organization needs to cherish and shine a lot of love on its skilled volunteers and understand the best way to communicate with them, keep them informed and show appreciation,” says Rosenthal. To do so, an organization may want to enlist an experienced volunteer coordinator, if they have one. This person can guide the skilled volunteer in navigating the internal channels of the organization to get the resources they need and can maintain the relationship after the project ends.

The ultimate goal of engaging pro bono tech talent is to become a conduit for involvement by people who care about your organization’s cause. The more time nonprofits spend on developing friction-free ways to engage volunteer networks in this way, the more effective they will become at fulfilling their mission.


 

John Hoffman is director of business development at ZeroDivide, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization. He has more than 15 years of experience in marketing and development with the high-tech and nonprofit sectors.

About

John Hoffman is Director of New Markets at ZeroDivide, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization. John's editorial contributions focus on the intersection of technology, philanthropy, and social justice. He has more than 15 years of experience in marketing and development within the high-tech and nonprofit sectors.

  • Annastasia Palubiski, Vantage Point

    I think your 5 points are spot on! AND they apply to ALL the people not-for-profits engage in volunteer work (not just techies). I think your most important point is recruiting for talent. Whether you’re proactively recruiting for a specific volunteer role, or reactively developing a role for an individual that wants to contribute to your cause, it’s key to make sure you assess that they have the right level of skills and expertise to get the job done. Not simply put “bums in seats”. At Vantage Point we clearly state that we expect excellence from ALL our people (salaried staff, board members and volunteers – aka knowledge philanthropists). There are two myths that are so prevalent in the not-for-profit sector they obstruct us from capturing ALL the talent that is available to us. The first myth is that if a volunteer is doing a task, it will not be as well done as if a salaried employee did it. The second is that volunteers are not accountable and we cannot ask them to be responsible for delivering mission-critical work (and/or fire them when they don’t deliver). Once our sector puts these myths to rest, and begin to invest the time required to engage talent through the 5 steps you’ve laid out, we will all “become more effective at fulfilling our missions”. Thanks for the great article!

  • Marc Baizman

    These are useful tips, and as the other commenter points out, these aren’t especially unique to technical volunteers, although they are certainly applicable.

    I would add a few more bullets to this article:
    6. Overcommunicate. It’s tempting to simply hand off the technical project to the volunteer and assume that things are good if you don’t hear anything for a while. Resist that temptation – make sure everyone’s on the same page by having regular check-ins, emails, etc. Don’t be afraid to use a project management tool, like Basecamp, Gantter, or good old Word/Excel. That way everyone will be in regular communication and well-informed about the state of things.

    7. Keep the project scope limited. Especially when working with pro-bono volunteers, the challenge of (for example) “implement a new CRM system” can quickly become daunting, especially if the volunteers don’t know or understand the internal business processes of the nonprofit they are working with, and the nonprofit risks losing the talented volunteer because of the large scope of the project. It’s much better to focus on a specific area and/or piece of technology, because then recruiting for the project will be simpler, managing the project will be hopefully less complex, and the deliverables will be much likelier to actually happen.

    Hope these tips are helpful, and good luck to all those nonprofits who are recruiting technical volunteers, it really can work well!

  • Heather Guichard

    Hi John,

    Thank you for giving such wonderful tips (this goes for Marc Baizman too)! Tip number 1 especially resonated with me. As a former volunteer coordinator and current volunteer, I know that “scope creep” is a slippery slope. I’m also coming to learn the true value of measurable impact!

    Thanks again!