Tips for a Successful Volunteer Project

Originally published as a white paper for NPower Seattle in December 2007.

Volunteers are a great resource for any nonprofit organization. We’re lucky in the Puget Sound region to have so many technically-skilled individuals looking to give back to our community. Recruiting helpful techie hands is relatively easy. Structuring your project in a way to ensure a positive real impact on your organization and a meaningful experience for the volunteer—that can be difficult. Here are some quick tips for success.

Spend more time than you think is necessary on planning.

Keep in mind that professional consultants often spend between 100-200 hours building a new database, and websites can also take well over 100 hours. We encourage organizations to put in as much advance effort with a volunteer project as they would if they were going to pay thousands of dollars for the same project. For example, if you are asking a volunteer to redesign your website, document as fully as possible what you want the new site to look like: colors, layouts, main content categories, etc. It is relatively common for organizations to hire a consultant to do portions of a tech project, and have the rest done by volunteers.

Plan on spending a considerable amount of staff time on this project, even after the planning stage.

Your volunteer will need help understanding what your organization’s goals are for the completed project. For any tech project to be successful, your volunteer (or paid consultant for that matter) will need a lot of staff input and participation. Make sure a qualified staff member, possibly several depending on the project, is available throughout the project.

 

Do your homework. Make sure you have an understanding of the technology that you are asking to be implemented.

Sometimes our clients get frustrated when something they thought would be a simple addition to their technology infrastructure actually requires many hours of our consultants time. With computers and technology, things are rarely as simple as they seem. Even if it seems simple, ask other agencies how long it took them. Ask NPower how long it would take our consultants.

 

If your project is large, consider dividing it into smaller pieces.

As we said above, some technology projects can be 200 hours or more, and it can be very difficult to recruit a volunteer able to commit to a project of that size. However, organizations have had success with these longer projects bydividing the project into pieces.

For instance, if you are looking for a volunteer to build you a new website, you could start by recruiting a volunteer to help you build a site map and define the organizational structure for your website. Then look for another volunteer that create the visual design, and tap yet another to do the actual implementation. In some complex projects, you may want to hire paid consultants for some tasks and engage volunteers for the rest.

Consider long-term maintenance as part of your overall plan.

Building a network, a website, or a database can take a large amount of time, but just as important, and potentially time-consuming, are the ongoing maintenance activities. Databases and websites often last much longer than any individual volunteer’s availability. If you’re looking for a volunteer to do up-keep and maintenance as well building out the technology, you need to make sure this is very clear at the outset. Even if you do find someone able to make a long-term commitment, it is always a good idea to make sure that at least one of your staff members is trained sufficiently to take over responsibility.

Make sure you have strong business reasons for your decisions, including software choices.

Many organizations come to NPower asking for a technical solution to be built using a specific tool, for example, they want their website built using Dreamweaver or their donor database built in FileMaker. Make sure that you have specific and strong reasons for using that tool, and owning it already isn’t necessarily a strong reason. When you limit your project to being built with specific software, you also limit the number of volunteers who could help you on the project, and you may also limit the productivity and adaptability of your project down the road. You should also make sure that you consider long term support, both the ease of finding it and its cost, while you are choosing your website or database tool.