Here is my suggestion: Donate your technical skills for community welfare. Find your local charity, civic institution, school, or library and ask if they need help with a knotty technical issue. You could upgrade their software, create a blog, design a database, create a Facebook page—the possibilities are endless. This appeal will resonate the strongest with those of you that frequently wonder: can I do more than simply give money? Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing irrelevant or ineffective about “simply giving money.” Money can help organizations buy much-needed skills and resources. But sometimes organizations face problems that cannot be bridged by throwing money at them.
There are a couple of reasons why organizations don’t optimize the use of technology in their operations. The first is that technology changes rapidly from one generation to another. Before we have had time to digest all the features of the cool electronics we bought this Christmas, there are already a slew of new devices and websites available by spring break. The second problem, that sometimes tends to go unnoticed is—even if technology stayed suspended, the amount of information that is being digitized is growing rapidly. From government records to personal financial information to literature, information is quickly jumping off the page and into electronic pathways. Someone who does not understand how to access and organize this digital landslide will easily become buried by it.
To tackle this arsenal of technologies and data, companies have built entire departments devoted to areas like data mining, operations research, social media, and CRM. Now imagine a nonprofit whose entire IT department is one, often part-time, employee, who has to use the storage closet to house the email server in (I’ve seen a place like this, honest!), and you won’t be surprised if that organization has not even thought of investing in technology.
Where do you come in and how can you help?
I first jumped into this in the same way one starts any project nowadays—by searching the Internet (Guidestar.com offers an excellent directory of all nonprofits in the country). I typed in phrases like “technology volunteer,” “nonprofit technology,” and “pro bono technology consulting” into my favorite Internet search engines. The rest has been a fascinating, fruitful, extremely educational (and sometimes frustrating) journey for me of discovering the many avenues available to someone interested to give freely of his or her time.
Here are some ideas to identify ways in which you can match your talents precisely to the organizations that need them the most. Websites likeIdealist.org, VolunteerMatch.org, and OneBrick.org organize groups of volunteers for all types of community service, including technical assistance of various kinds. Some nonprofits, like TechSoup, NTEN, NPower, the Mozilla Foundation, specialize in technology, by providing software licenses, organizing contests, conferences and other platforms where technical talent can get together to take on challenges in a united manner.
You might find more resources via these organizations that are specific to your area. New York City’s New York Cares caters to nonprofits in the Big Apple, San Francisco’s Volunteer Center has a volunteer match database similarly focused to the area; in Chicago, United Way runs a program called Teaming 4 Technology (t4t Chicago); and Seattle’s Social Venture Partners offer grants and volunteer support funded by Seattle area philanthropists.
Some organizations like the Taproot Foundation have offices nationwide for recruiting volunteers locally to match them with qualify with qualifying local nonprofits with readymade projects that only lack access to technical consultation and support.
Following individuals and organizations who share their volunteer experiences and opportunities on Twitter and Facebook is a great way to get to know some of the pioneers of this area, as is going through profiles listed under the Nonprofit category of online Twitter directories like Twellow.com andTwitdir.com. Craig Newmark, Amanda Rose, Beth Kanter, and Mark Horvath are a few of the many inspiring social entrepreneurship and technology enthusiasts who share a wealth of information about how nonprofits can benefit through the use of technology.
Your first step will be to find as many opportunities that you can and send them a note. Remember that most of the organizations you will write to are severely under-staffed, so if you do not hear from one promptly, do not despair.
Before you connect with an organization, take some time to get to know the nonprofit and social service sector better. If you have always been engaged in the business and commercial world, you might find the first few interactions tough going because you might not share the same motivations that fire up someone who works in a world where profit does not play any role in deciding priorities. Spend some time getting to know the organization’s mission—chances are, if you express any interest, you will be deluged with information.
Once you have identified an organization to work with, remember that you will probably be the most technically knowledgeable person in the room. I noticed that the assumptions that I made while I interacted with colleagues from the IT world simply did not hold true when I had to help someone whose main mission was feeding the homeless, or greening city spaces, or providing educational opportunities to inner-city youth. When even the most basic technologies can potentially look like magic, your first challenge is to stop from leaping into an intensive course on the information highway. Pick the elements you need from the vast portfolio of technology available, and break them down to their simplest components. Interacting with organizations where technology is a peripheral concern taught me to view the world of technology itself in a different way. There is a great scope for creativity available when you can mix and match virtually anything in order to solve a problem, something that may not be possible in your day job.
An organization I worked with wanted to improve collaboration between its board members, donors, and constituents (inner-city youth participating in the organization’s after-school programs). Everything had previously been done via email. We conducted interviews with staff and the youth and uncovered a rich list of ideas on how everyone working for and served by the organization could share information about their lives to benefit each other. I was not surprised to discover that the most interesting ideas—like using SMS to continue conversations begun in support group meetings, and connecting with alumni—came from the youth themselves.
Once you are past the initial stage of introductions, you will find an embarrassment of riches when it comes to potential improvements you can make. Your next step is to prioritize, which is invariably the greatest value you can provide. With the youth organization, it was clear that the first need was to make the website an attractive destination for donors and government organizations that were potential sources for grants. The incredible work that the organization was doing was not obvious from the previous website and, moreover, it was not easy for busy staff members to update the website every time they had new photos to upload or a new program to create applications forms for. In the end, creating this functionality formed the bulk of the work I did for the organization.
Working through the specific and pressing needs of various organizations exposed me to a reality that is easy to ignore—how a product/service can be freely available but still be very expensive to implement. Gaining this exposure first hand taught me more about product design than I had imagined possible—a truly humbling experience. For example, when one organization wondered how they could be the first website that came up when someone in a personally distressing situation searched for help on the Internet, I realized how inadequate search engines still are. (Do you know that if you type in “help in San Francisco,” or any other location name, the first few results will probably be for hired help, and not emergency hotlines?)
Community service that is connected so intimately with one’s own professional skills is thus a terrific example of a gift that keeps giving. There will always be an inexhaustible supply of both difficult problems and effective advances. The next decade is exciting not just for its prospects of technical wizardry, but because of all the opportunities you will have to use these advances to affect the lives of people in your community.
It’s been two years since I stepped into the world of technology volunteering, helping folks enhance their websites, figure out how to get onto Facebook, and communicate with their well-wishers. I have discovered that once you teach someone to use some technology, they are excited to discover more on their own. Once when I taught someone to collaborate on documentation writing online, it was really cool when they called me back to say that they had published all their past newsletters online, and ask how they could turn on commenting, so that they could invite everyone on their donor list to read and discuss their events. This was a manner of reaching out to their constituents that they had not thought of before.
It is a truism that the greatest wealth of any company is its people. Nowhere is this truth more evident than in a social services organization. Such organizations live and die by their network of donors, constituents, and community members. The Information Age has created a business model that has reduced the cost of accessing and transacting data so drastically that we can track and interact with data in complex ways without having to make big investments in fixed assets, like hardware and even software licenses. Nearly all services and modes of communication are becoming pay-per-use. If something does not meet an organization’s needs, they can stop using it and not worry about losing sign-up and installation fees.
The piece that completes this puzzle is, to put it simply, you. There is a world of data that needs just the right experience to unlock its potential in increasing an organization’s capacity and empowering its mission. Just as we connect two worlds culturally because of our status as immigrants in the United States, so also can we act as ambassadors in bridging these virtual worlds of information technology and human services. I can promise you, this will be the trip of your life!
The author is a software consultant in the United States.