This is not a popular point of view, but hackathons and other short term tech volunteering opportunities bring on my anxiety rather than my enthusiasm. I think of these situations as drive-by volunteerism, and potential disasters for nonprofit organizations.
Let’s switch to a less violent metaphor than a drive-by shooting – we can talk in terms of the perinatal year. (I’ve worked with programs for teen mothers and their babies, which gave me the idea for the comparison.)
The birth of a child and the completion of a nonprofit technology project have a lot in common:
- Planning (This does not always happen, but it’s advisable.)
- Conception (I admit that this generally more fun in cases of human reproduction than in cases of nonprofit technology projects.)
- Gravidity (This often includes nausea and stretch marks.)
- Labor (This is usually painful.)
- Delivery (This can involve emergency surgery.)
- After care for mother and child (This often includes a hand-over from one specialist to another.)
Perhaps it’s not a perfect analogy; however, it illustrates my point that it’s realistic to think in terms of a twelve-month cycle for the successful implementation of a nonprofit technology project. A technology implementation does not begin at the labor stage, and delivery certainly does not mark the end.
Skills-based volunteering, especially skills-based tech volunteering, is simply different from spending the afternoon stuffing envelopes on behalf of your favorite cause.
Moreover, volunteer management is a professional skill set in its own right; it requires experience and knowledge of best practices. It’s not something than just anyone can do spontaneously.
Unfortunately, the sort of nonprofit that is most in need of volunteer assistance with its technology – a small, under-funded organization – is the least likely to have a professional volunteer manager on staff, or an IT professional who can take long term responsibility for the tech implementation.
This is why the thought of a short term tech volunteer project for a small, under-funded and highly worthy nonprofit fills me with horror. The likelihood seems so strong that the long term implications haven’t been considered, and that it might actually be a disservice to the organization.
This is also why I’m deeply grateful that Common Impact, a wonderful nonprofit based here in Boston, has developed a model for skills-based volunteering that is highly effective for tech implementations. Fortunately for all of us, they are willing to share what they’ve learned. Tomorrow, Patricia Vaccaro-Coburn of Common Impact will be our featured guest at a TNB Roundtable session on best practices in managing tech volunteers, and I am confident that this will be an enlightening experience for nonprofit professionals who see short-term volunteer tech projects as the solution to their problems, rather than the beginning of new set of challenges.