Do You Need a Volunteer?

Seven questions to ask yourself before you start looking for a volunteer. Helpful also to evaluate whether a consultant would be more appropriate.


Do You Need a Volunteer?

We'll help you make the right decision

By: Anna Mills

May 1, 2000

Volunteers can be wonderful sources of technology support, but there are some cases where they can be more of a hindrance than a help. Before you bring on a volunteer, you should think through which of your technology needs are suited to a volunteer project, and which would be better met by a consultant or a system administrator. A mismatch between the project and the kind of assistance you seek can waste time and resources for everyone concerned. The bottom line is that your use of a volunteer should be a planned and thought-out part of your overall technology support strategy, as you have worked it out in your technology plan. See the Technology Planning section for help with the planning process.

Before you decide to search for a volunteer, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your need short-term or ongoing? A volunteer is almost always best used as a short-term solution for a short-term need. For regular maintenance issues, a system administrator or a contract with a consulting firm are better choices. Can the project you have in mind be accomplished in a few hours a week, spread out over two to three months? Volunteers' schedules are often variable, so it's best not to count on a longer commitment than that. It's wonderful if a volunteer decides to continue on, but it shouldn't be part of the initial plan.
  • Is the project urgent or mission critical? If so, it's best to hire a consultant or a system administrator. A crucial and time-sensitive task puts too much pressure on a volunteer. From your perspective, a volunteer gives you no guarantees. It's harder to keep tabs on progress on a tight deadline, so you are more likely to end up with an unpleasant surprise when the deadline comes and goes, and the volunteer hasn't delivered. However, if you are more flexible on the timeline for the project, a volunteer may fill your need. For instance, if you need someone to repair your database so that you can access contact information about your clients for daily phone calls, you should probably hire a consultant. If, however, you need training on how to use your database to generate reports for a grant deadline six months from now, a volunteer might be perfect.
  • What is your potential budget? A volunteer is a low-cost solution up-front. If what you need is a consultant or system administrator, however, you may be able to raise the money for it, especially if it is a convincing part of your technology plan.
  • Is the project limited in scope? An essential feature of a volunteer project is that you can break it down into specific, achievable tasks, and that you can see a definite end in sight. The project should be a small part of the overall technology plan for your organization.

    For instance, in CompuMentor's experience, creating and managing a relational database is almost always too big a project for a volunteer. However, a volunteer might be able to do a limited portion of a database project, such as assessing an existing database and making a recommendation for how to develop it.

    CompuMentor has also found that most Web sites now require a greater time commitment and follow-up than it is advisable to expect of a volunteer. You don't want to be stuck with an outdated Web site because no one on staff has time or skill to do the updating, and the volunteer has moved on to other things. Volunteers have been most successful with very simple nonprofit Web sites that are not interactive or time-sensitive, but are essentially online brochures. Even if you need to hire a Web developer to create your site, a volunteer might help with part of the process, such as helping you think through what you want the site to offer and who you want to target. For more examples and guidelines on how to define a project with a limited scope, see Defining the Volunteer Project .

  • What time commitment does the project require? CompuMentor's volunteer matching program asks volunteers to commit to twenty hours of work over two to three months. If your project requires a more sustained effort, it might be better handled by a consultant on contract
  • What kind of follow-up will be needed? Does the project require ongoing maintenance? If so, you may want to hire or dedicate a staff member. For instance, if you ask a volunteer to create a Web site with a page of information about upcoming events, you may be out of luck when the volunteer leaves. You may not have the resources or expertise to update it. If the project requires follow-up that is relatively easy, however, you can ask the volunteer to train a staff member as part of the project.
  • How large is your organization? Some organizations find that with more than fifteen or so computers, they need to hire a part-time or full-time system administrator, or contract a consulting firm to do regular maintenance. Volunteers can still be useful on specific tasks, but they should not substitute for consistent, ongoing support from a staff person or regular contractor.

    Basically, for any volunteer project to be successful, your organization must have the ability to manage the project. That means you must be able to define the project in a clear, realistic way; write a scope of work for yourselves and the volunteer; evaluate the skills of the volunteer against the scope; have the capacity to supervise and evaluate the volunteer's work; get complete technical and user documentation, as appropriate; and you must understand the ramifications of the project on ongoing support and cost. Without this ability to manage the project, you'll find that your technical volunteer project will be less than successful.


About the Author:

Anna Mills is a former Project Associate with CompuMentor.


Copyright © 2000 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.  

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