Large Scale Change, Training, Volunteering, and Software
Jesse Salinas is the Director of Technology at the Atlanta, Georgia based Hands on Network, an organization that helps 55 affiliate organizations around the US recruit and manage volunteers. The Network facilitates a staggering number of volunteer projects each year. Integral to their work is a commitment to helping train volunteer managers to maximize the meaning, accessibility and impact of the volunteering experience.
Salinas and the Hands on Network have developed a web based software suite and educational curriculum that their affiliate organizations use to achieve these goals. We talked about the Network's approach to volunteer manager training, the lessons Jesse learned in developing that software suite and the process his organization has developed for training new and non-technical end users.
The Hands on Approach
One emphasis of the Hands on Network is making volunteerism accessible even to people who don't feel they have a lot of time. "To get people started," Jesse says, "you have to provide opportunity that has episodic scope, including creating done-in-a-day volunteer opportunities. And we believe they should all be packaged to develop a path of engagement with your community."
As a part of this effort, the Network offers background information and resources in the form of a Citizen Academy on their website. This information helps volunteer leaders and managers in particular to facilitate guided reflection on the issues that volunteer efforts engage with. The Network is careful to provide multiple perspectives on each of these issues so that participants can make their own educated decisions.
A similar theme runs through the work of the Hands on Network's project called Volunteer Projects 1-2-3. This effort, designed for places that don't yet have affiliate organizations in the Hands on Network, connects potential volunteers with the information and infrastructure they need to do quick volunteer projects like creating a community garden space to helping a senior by building an access ramp. Jesse says that the Network plans to more closely integrate Volunteer Projects 1-2-3 with the rest of their work in the future.
The primary software that the Hands on Network has developed is called Hands on Technology. It is a web based system that allows local affiliates to perform volunteer recruitment, registration and invitation functions online and offers a back end data management system for volunteer managers. It also includes extranet, reporting, project, events and funds management functions.
I think that the Network's experience building this software is something that other nonprofits may appreciate reading about.
"The first two years of Hands on Tech were rough," Jesse told me. "But over time we have increased our own skills and uses of innovative tech and hired staff who understand the best ways to do what we need to do."
He emphasized looking at how business processes and non profits can come together.
"[Upon starting] We were not very smart about how to work with tech vendors," he said. "You have to know how to speak the language to get what you need."
When the Network began the software process, there weren't very many pre-existing options available to fill their needs. Now there are more options available to the nonprofit sector. He said that if they were to begin today they would do less building their own tools and focus instead on buying others and integrating them.
"Today I would ask what about our business can change a little bit [according to what software options are available]. At first we wanted every single business need to be met," Jesse says. "Instead I would [now] think about what are the key pieces of functionality to meet minimal requirements, and what can be modularized later."
Training new users for a new world of software
The Hands on Network spends a lot of time training affiliate organizations and end users how to use software.
One lesson we've learned is that implementation and training need a big hands on approach. Our training is 3 days, over two visits, with homework in between. It can take between 8 weeks to 4 months until technology is implemented... Nonprofits in particular have a hard time integrating technology into business process.
As a result of this, the Network emphasizes helping people accept change before they learn any new technology itself. "Getting through angst about change and transition is huge and leaves people more satisfied in the end."
Their trainings begin with a full day spent with an organization's staff just talking. Jesse listens to people describe how they work and what they do and he tells them what the software at issue does and doesn't do. He uses this discussion to provide people a map of where technologies intersect and where they don't and he provides examples of how other organizations are working with the software. Then he has people write down their choices between mutually exclusive features and functions. Then he leaves.
Before returning to the organization three weeks later, he encourages people to call the Network to voice concerns and talk through issues. Finally, all the choices that need to be made are made before users start clicking.
Jesse emphasizes that a large part of what's going on is cultural change, which can be difficult but can also make many exciting new things possible.
Multiple users accessing a database, hosted applications, portable data and similar changes can be thought of as transitioning from a one-to-many model to a many-to-many model. There are pros and there are cons, Jesse says. Advantages include greater transparency and the ability to do more with less staff time. Disadvantages exist as well when things are much more fluid, more human involvement can mean more human error for example and data will be inconsistent some times.
"The nonprofit sector needs TLC, I tell them that these new types of software aren't perfect, there are cons, but hopefully the pros will outweigh them," he says. "If you are open about it, you will be able to connect to more people over time."
Looking to the future
Finally, I asked Jesse what would help him do his work more effectively. He said that the number one thing was more opportunities to network with experts in the field. He further specified that in many conference environments, for example, he finds that his level of technical knowledge and experience is too advanced for a beginning track, but not advanced enough for an advanced track. He would like to find more people in circumstances like like those he is in himself.