Update: I turned this blogpost into a talk and delivered it at Write The Docs Portland in 2018. You can watch it here.
Ever since I was a little one, I’ve been identified as a person who was “good with computers”. Because of my savviness, I was on hand to help all manner of family members, friends, family friends, and friends of friends with their software and hardware woes. As word got out, I was also asked to help out with the technical systems of various activist efforts and non-profit organizations. While this work can be fulfilling there are a few things to keep in mind, and since so many new people are volunteering their time (and technical talents) to organizations these days, I thought I’d offer a few quick tips on how to do good with computers while setting realistic expectations and maintaining your sanity.
While this work can be fulfilling there are a few things to keep in mind, and since so many new people are volunteering their time (and technical talents) to organizations these days, I thought I’d offer a few quick tips on how to do good with computers while setting realistic expectations and maintaining your sanity.
Three Tips for Providing Tech Help to Non-Profits and Other Such Organizations
1) Define the Scope and Timeframe
Although you may end up working with the organization for decades, you want to start small. Figure out what exactly they need help with and identify where you will help. Also be clear about how long you want the initial engagement to last and when/how you will be available to them.
2) Determine Technical Ability and Actual Needs
Take the time to talk with the people who work with the existing systems and figure out what they are comfortable with and what they need. In most cases, the organization needs you because their technical know-how doesn’t expand far beyond Gmail and Excel spreadsheets. While you may be itching to move their technical stack forward, it is generally wise to crawl before you walk. For example, if they are using a certain CRM or CMS that they feel they are very happy with, you might want to see how you can improve on it rather than swapping it out. If you all eventually decide it’s time to move forward, the exercise of working with the existing systems will make you better equipped to help them make the switch. The world (and GitHub!) is littered with “brilliant hack day” projects that were meant to improve NGOs and empower communities. Whenever possible, meet people where they are and work to fix what’s broken first.
3) Document, Document, Document
Look, I am not doubting your commitment to the cause, I know you care, but life happens, burnout happens. So for the sake of all involved, please document how to use any systems that you’ve set up. Even if you stay on board for years, you can’t be available all the time. Give the people the tools and they have a good chance of figuring it out themselves.
Even in the case where a tool has existing documentation, whenever possible please still write out all the steps in language that the folks in the organization can easily understand and keep it in a place where they can all easily access it.
There are undoubtedly a lot more aspects to consider when signing up to offer your technical chops to a philanthropic organization but I think these three should help the engagement get started on the right foot. If you need more tips on how to evaluate potential new opportunities, check out my SupConf talk at the bottom of the post here.