An Interview with Jayne Cravens

An Interview with Jayne Cravens

Online volunteering

By: Sarah Hawkins

March 10, 2003

Editor's Note:

Forum hosts are a vital part of the TechSoup community. The responsibility of a message board host in the TS Community is to answer questions, facilitate discussions, and provide resources to community members. As host of the Volunteers and Technology Forum, Jayne Cravens offers tips on making volunteer programs stronger through the use of technology. Cravens works for the United Nations as an online volunteering specialist.

TechSoup: How and why did you become involved with nonprofit technology?

Jayne Cravens: I got my professional start in mission-based organizations in the marketing department of a performing arts center, then in a similar department at a nonprofit theater.

While at these and subsequent arts organizations, I learned that such nonprofits live and die by their database of donors and people who have attended performances; this information is the key to forming any strategy at such organizations. In addition to managing this information via computer, the Macintosh arrived at California nonprofits just as I got there, and we could design simple display ads and flyers in-house --something that cut costs and gave us a lot more flexibility.

Computer technology played an increasingly important role in every job I had after that, arts-oriented or otherwise. But I always seemed to be more interested in it than other people at nonprofits where I worked.

TS: You joined MyTechSoup in September of 2001. How did you find the site? What made you become a part of the community?
JC: I was a big fan of CompuMentor, having had a wonderful experience with a couple of their volunteers that helped to develop a technology plan and budget at the nonprofit where I worked. I was really excited about the launch of TechSoup, having had a long passion for helping mission-based organizations use technology effectively, and, therefore, I wanted to support TechSoup anyway I could.
TS: According to your profile, you are an online volunteering specialist for United Nations Volunteers. Can you tell us more about your position?

JC: UNV sees online volunteering as an innovative, exciting resource for its own volunteers serving in developing countries, as well as to help people and communities directly in those countries.

UNV also sees the Internet's growing importance as an essential tool in supporting and involving its on-site volunteers in new ways.

Finally, UNV sees online volunteering as a way to create collaborations and avenues of service beyond (and in addition to) traditional long-term, on-site volunteering. In my role as online volunteering specialist, I help UNV's internal staff and on-site volunteers in using the Internet to interact with each other, in involving online volunteers, and in building community. I do this through developing materials, conducting workshops (my favorite was to hold a workshop just a short distance from the Pyramids in Egypt -- wow!), and training staff to conduct workshops themselves regarding online volunteering.

I also help UNV manage its online volunteering service, hosted at NetAid . This free online tool not only matches online volunteers to assignments in developing countries, but also helps host organizations manage their online volunteers, and allows all parties to evaluate and report on each other. Unlike other online databases of volunteering opportunities, this one is focused exclusively on helping communities in the developing world, and has a growing amount of data on the very real impact online volunteering can make.

Finally, I help with UNV's UNITeS initiative , which is working to build the capacity of people in developing countries to use ICTs, and to help volunteers apply ICTs to various thematic areas (health, agriculture, education, HIV/AIDS, etc.). For UNITeS, I manage the online community of affiliated volunteers (more than 100 folks), manage online volunteers supporting UNITeS (more than 60 people), develop various materials for the web site, and participate in numerous online communities.

TS: What differences are there between IT for social change in the United States and Europe?

JC: In Europe and the U.S., there's not much difference between IT for social change. The developing world, however, is very different from the U.S. and Europe regarding IT for social change. In my opinion, the developing world seems to embrace open source and Linux-based operating systems and software more readily than their counterparts in the North or the West. The struggle to get women to access ICTs is much, much more difficult in developing countries, largely because of the huge amounts of time these women have to devote to managing their households and generating income -- often, they simply don't have time to access these technologies, even though they represent a group that could benefit most from its social change aspects. These obstacles are in addition to the obstacles regarding cultural beliefs regarding women's roles, and a reluctance by many men to share their access to these technologies.

Community tech centers play a much more important role in developing countries than they do in the West. Finally, the other big difference is the barrier of literacy to tech access, which is much more profound in the developing world.

TS: How has your knowledge of technology enabled you to help nonprofit organizations?

JC: I was lucky enough to be a part of several nonprofit organizations just as they were delving into computer technology and the Internet, and I got to see technology successfully adopted and applied in a number of different ways. Nonprofit organizations are mission-based organizations, and they value anything that can help them meet their mission. Computer and Internet technology is something that can help anyone at a nonprofit organization, whether it's the receptionist or the executive director. I'm seeing nonprofit organizations become ever more efficient and productive because of ICTs, in a way that for-profit organizations should envy and try to learn from.

I have never taken a computer class -- just seen a few demos of new software. I've never focused on computers and Internet technology as much as I've focused on more effectively supporting clients or volunteers, or reaching new and diverse audiences. I think that comes from both my background in arts management and working in community development projects in California and Texas. For me, it's always about people, not about tech.

TS: What is the most important thing for nonprofits to know about volunteers and technology?
JC: Technology will not make a poorly performing volunteer manager a better manager. Technology will not make a substandard volunteering program a better program. Supported, fully trained, enthusiastic people make a volunteer program successful; technology will augment such people and programs to even greater heights of success.
TS: What are your career plans for the future?
JC: Today, my plan is to stay in Europe and with UNV through the summer of 2005, six months after my contract can no longer be renewed (oh, those fun-filled UN regulations), and then, I hope, either go on to another U.N. agency in a Spanish-speaking country, or, go back the U.S., somewhere in a Western state, and work for a nonprofit or government agency in some area of community development, in a region that has a sizable Spanish-speaking or American Indian population. But this plan changes daily. I never planned on working at the UN, never planned on living in Germany... The only thing I am planning for sure is to continuing to take Spanish classes and to continue my pursuit of a Masters Degree in Development Management. My career has never turned out the way I planned, and for the most part, that's been a very good thing. Focusing on building meaningful relationships and learning new things -- and getting extremely lucky -- has almost always lead me to the right job. I'm hoping that system still works for many years to come.
TS: Describe your perfect computer-free day.
JC: Camping somewhere in the American West, with my boyfriend and my dogs, far away from anyone else, particularly RVs. We rise with the sunrise, we hike, we talk, we sit silently watching whatever comes along, we cook the food we've brought and we eat way too much, and we watch shooting stars and satellites in the brilliant starry sky at night.

About the Author:

Sarah Hawkins is a freelance writer and former TechSoup associate editor.

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