Managing Technical Volunteers

Starting and maintaining a good relationship

By: Anna Mills

May 30, 2000

A volunteer position can be rewarding and beneficial to both sides of the relationship. The technology volunteer gets to meet new people, practice their skills, acquire new talents, and generally feel good about what they are doing. Nonprofits benefit from cost-effective technology help and can therefore expand their overall capacity. Volunteer projects, however, can also be a frustrating and time-consuming experience for everyone involved if not properly managed.

Getting Started

  • Determine the scope of work: A good rule of thumb is to keep all volunteer projects under 20-30 hours over 3 months. Why? A number of reasons. Most volunteers will not sign up for anything larger, since it would be too time consuming. Most volunteers have full time jobs which not only prevents them from volunteering a large number of hours, but can also make unforeseen demands on their time. Also, tech projects have a tendency to "scope creep" and a bigger project has an even greater chance of turning into something that is unruly.
  • Make sure there is one point person for the volunteer: When a volunteer helps you with your computers and something goes wrong, you don't want to barrage him/her with five separate help requests during the week -- instead, think about combining your requests in one call. The staff point-person should also be available to meet with the volunteer when convenient, which may mean having the flexibility to work occasional evenings and weekends.
  • Schedule a first meeting: When working with a volunteer, it's a good idea to schedule a first "get to know you" meeting; don't plan any work for that first visit. This will not only give the volunteer a chance to get a better idea of resources and equipment s/he might need, but gives you an opportunity to teach the volunteer a little bit about what you do. Here are some good points to cover:
    • What is the purpose of the organization?
    • What population or community do you serve (bilingual students, homeless, people with disabilities)?
    • Who are the main contacts for the volunteer (including on-site computer literate people)?
    • What is the budget? Many people working in the technical field are used to having substantial computer budgets. Even if they feel their budgets are constrained, technical volunteers are often surprised at how much less a school or nonprofit has budgeted for their computer systems.
    • What is the purchasing process?
    • Where is everything, including the phone, tools, sign-in/sign-out sheet, rest room, coffee, and so forth?
    • Get acquainted. Keep in mind that most people volunteer because it feels good; the best volunteer projects offer opportunities for making a significant contribution to an important cause and for meeting new people and having fun.
    • Go over the work plan. Make sure both you and the volunteer understand the work to be done, the timeline and when you will next check in about progress.
  • Make sure the volunteer understands your nonprofit context and culture: If the volunteer has never worked with nonprofits before, s/he may make recommendations that are not appropriate. If they walk into a school, for example, and discover a bunch of five year old machines, their first reaction might be to want to upgrade everything, even if those machines are doing the job they are supposed to. See the article Working with Corporate Volunteers and Consultants for ideas on ways to orient people who come from a corporate environment. Nonprofits are also used to working with volunteers who are committed to their mission, which may or may not be the case with technical volunteers; some may just want to get more computer experience and meet new people.

Tracking Progress

  • Check in regularly: The staff liaison should communicate with volunteers regularly to talk about their progress and any problems or changes to the plan. Technical volunteers may be used to a very rapid pace at work. If your organization needs to take things more slowly, you can communicate this while keeping the project moving toward completion with regular meetings, emails, or phone calls. This is also a great way to let volunteers know you value their time and energy.
  • Accountability: Volunteers should understand that even though they are giving their time away, it doesn't mean they can blow things off, not show up, and so forth. Some organizations have their volunteers sign letters of commitment, and others rely on the volunteer's devotion to their cause to keep them interested and coming back.
  • Setting limits: With accountability comes a lot of responsibility, and although volunteers should feel like they can "own" their work, they shouldn't be made to feel burdened with responsibility. Volunteers should know they are allowed say no, or "That's all I can do." Volunteers can burn out after one or two projects because they put in tons of hours but didn't know it was OK for them to set limits. After your first meeting the volunteer should re-evaluate the work and see if it looks realistic to him/her.
  • Documenting work: Make sure the volunteer keeps records of the work that they did. You might want to set up a system for this, such as a log book or spreadsheet.

Maintaining Security and Liability

In case of the odd situation where it might come up, you should be aware that you are responsible for:

  • Volunteer safety and liability in case of an accident on-site.
  • Security of your organization's confidential information. If you keep confidential information about your clients or donors, make sure you communicate to the volunteer what s/he can and cannot access.

A well-managed volunteer program can offer a great experience for both the volunteers and the organization. Sometimes lasting relationships develop between volunteers and their favorite organizations. Good luck in developing yours!


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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