Negotiating the Volunteer-Nonprofit Relationship

Negotiating the Volunteer-Nonprofit Relationship

Making a successful match

By: Dorothy Adams

December 13, 2005

Cash-poor nonprofits often need help using technology, but can't pay for new staff or consultants. Techies who wish to develop their skills may be willing to volunteer for organizations doing important social work. Sound like a match made in heaven?

The success of a volunteer program depends on making the right kind of match -- one where both the volunteer and the organization gain something without feeling frustrated or ignored. Motivated, skilled technology volunteers don't want to twiddle their thumbs while trying to figure out what they can and cannot do on the job. Likewise, organizations don't want volunteers to blow through like a whirlwind, upturning systems that already work and criticizing every procedure.

That's not to say that the volunteer-nonprofit relationship is doomed. Many organizations have developed very successful programs that are rewarding for both parties.

Whether an organization hires a volunteer to redesign a database, upgrade hardware, or build a Web site, establishing clear expectations and guidelines will help create a positive environment and ensure a productive experience for all concerned.

The Organization's Side

Before recruiting volunteers, an organization should have clear expectations of what it needs. Such expectations will help attract the right type of volunteer. Keep in mind that a volunteer hired into a skilled position will have his or her own expectations about the job. (For more information on recruiting volunteers, see Write a Volunteer Job Description .)

Organizations should consider the following:

  1. What do you need your volunteer to do?
  2. Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are students or entry-level techies seeking additional resume-building experience, while others are amateurs dabbling in the field; others still are information-technology professionals. What is the minimum skill set required of your volunteer?
  3. What level of the technology infrastructure should be made available to a volunteer? Is there mission-critical information that should be off-limits to your volunteer? If so, how will the volunteer work around these limitations?
  4. How often do you need this person to be available? Do you need a volunteer to act as a consultant on a semi-regular or one-time basis?
  5. Are you ready for a volunteer? Managing a volunteer project and implementing changes will take time. Make sure you've defined the project and budgeted staff -- and any other resources -- you think will be necessary. (For ideas, download TechSoup's Working with Technical Volunteers: A Manual for NPOs .)
  6. In addition, you may want to interview candidates. This may seem extreme for a volunteer position, but remember that many information technology projects require a certain level of access to an organization's infrastructure. Even if you are simply seeking some consulting or advice, you still need to seek this knowledge from a reputable source.

The Volunteer's Perspective

There's more to becoming a successful technology volunteer than understanding technology -- you need to understand nonprofit culture and how to introduce and inspire needed changes. This takes patience and understanding. With experience, you will learn more about how typical nonprofits use technology. In the meantime, volunteers should consider the following:

  1. Request an initial interview with an organization to understand its expectations for your position.
  2. Organizations may not want volunteers to have full access to all of the organization's informational and hardware infrastructure. Ask for details, and find out how you'll work around limitations that affect your work.
  3. Organizations may want a volunteer for a specific project. Make sure you understand the scope of the project, and that it's not so limited that you will become frustrated.
  4. Think about how involved you want to be in the organization. If you need to feel like a valued member of the team, find out what kind of feedback you'll get from the organization. Do you want to participate in meetings? Will you want weekly check-ins? Or do you prefer to work more independently? You may need to apply for several volunteer positions before you find an organization with a culture that's right for you.
  5. If the organization doesn't have a clear idea what it wants from a volunteer, consider offering to help create a volunteer project plan that identifies where and how volunteers can help the organization. Or maybe, with your understanding of technology, you could help the organization manage other tech volunteers.
  6. Technology changes usually come slowly. This is particularly true for organizations where most or all of the staff have little knowledge of their systems, and little time to implement even simple changes. Focus on how you can work within the organization's culture.
  7. Remember that just because a system looks like a mess to you, it may work fine for people who have been using it comfortably for years. Make sure there's a problem to solve before you start insisting on change.
  8. Stay positive throughout the process. Emphasize the benefits of technology changes; if you encounter resistance, consider proposing baby steps toward making improvements.
  9. Don't implement changes and expect that people will pick up things on their own. Training and documentation are a necessary part of making technology changes, so include them in your plans.
  10. Sell your ideas. Your proposed changes won't happen if your arguments aren't convincing. Point to successes in other organizations, present case studies, and document the costs and benefits involved. People will come around. Remember, though, that technology is a tool and not a solution in itself. Think about the daily issues nonprofits face, and how your expertise can help those organizations meet these challenges.

About the Author:

Dorothy Adams has worked in nonprofits as an information technology specialist for five years. She is currently employed as a director of information technology at a school in Aiken, South Carolina.

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