As a technologist you’re probably acutely aware of the power and potential for technologies to help organisations transform and make them more impactful. As a would-be volunteer you’ve become passionate about “giving back” and want to use your valuable skills in a meaningful way. Surprisingly, the path to successfully volunteering as a technologist for a non-profit can sometimes be fraught with difficulties. It’s very possible to unintentionally negatively impact an organisation.

Perhaps we should borrow a section from the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm”.

Learn about the non-profit sector

If you’re new to this sector then take the time to do some background reading and research. Like all industries and sectors there is terminology and ways-of-working which may be unfamiliar. It’s very likely you’ll be volunteering with an organisation focussed on one particular cause. Every cause is a speciality and it’s worth spending the time to research the history of the sector. Read news articles and research papers.

When I first started supporting organisations tackling slavery I quickly realised (fortunately) how naïve I was in my understanding of the humanitarian issues the non-profits were tackling. Never underestimate the complexity of humanitarian issues. In my experience, NGOs have been generous in helping me understand a topic, so don’t be afraid to ask open questions about the subject. Become a knowledgeable volunteer.

Learn about “impact models”. This describes how an organisation’s work contributes to their mission. It usually forms a part of their funding applications and is very important to understand. A “theory of change” is about how an organisation links their activities with their outputs, outcomes and overall impact. This simple model will help you understand what part technology might play in supporting their mission.

Have the right conversations

Firstly, I would suggest setting up regular calls / meetings - every week for example. This is an important part of developing trust and building relationships within an organisation. It’s also helpful to keep momentum on the project. Offer to set up these meetings.

If the scope of your engagement as a volunteer is a bit unclear and you need to narrow down what you’re aiming to achieve, then I’ve found asking a simple question works: “What are your barriers?”. This is a useful technique that starts a conversation that will help you understand more about the problems an organisation is facing and also gives them an opportunity to hear ways technology might offer a solution.

On my journey I realised how problematic developing strategies to tackle humanitarian issues can be. It’s rarely black and white. There are a lot of grey areas and there is always a lot of discussion about the right way to do things. As you learn more about an organisation and its mission, remember you shouldn’t be there to attack their mission or strategy. Remember that as a tech volunteer you are working for the organisation.

Don’t be too distant

Given the nature of technology you’re quite often able to work remotely. However I would encourage you to visit the organisation regularly. I think part of being a good volunteer is establishing a great relationship based upon trust and understanding and there’s no better way than “being there”. Sadly, it’s never easy for non-profits to find volunteers with genuine commitment. So be interested!

When you volunteer, don’t always limit yourself to technology. I know that technology can be a bit of a safety blanket, but there might be an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and get connected with how the organisation works on the front line. It sometimes means you might have to make yourself vulnerable to what’s happening around you. Sometimes there are difficult human issues that an organisation is dealing with. But I’ve found that making an effort in this way builds your empathy and makes you a better technology volunteer.

Don’t be a Seagull

Let me be clear: Under no circumstances fly in, dump some sh*t, then fly away again. Sadly I’ve seen horrendous instances where volunteer technologists (and also paid assignments) have caused distress through developing inappropriate and unsupported technology solutions.

Even if you’re certain that your custom machine learning solution with 10,000 lines of code is the most elegant solution out there, this in itself doesn’t qualify it as useful, and indeed it might result in problems ahead. Most small NGOs don’t have an IT department. This means that it is important that you take care to ensure your solution is supportable and resilient for the future. Answer the following the questions:

  • Can the organisation manage any system changes in the future without paying a huge cost for external consultants?
  • Does the organisation trust your proposed solution? Sometimes a spreadsheet is the most appropriate option.

If an organisation is not equipped to keep the system up to date when/if you disappear then it is likely to fall into disrepair. If this happens then it can become a risk to the organisation. So think ahead. What will this look like in 1, 2 or 5 years time? Try and build capacity within an organisation while volunteering. This means training and ensuring that basic administration of the solution can be done by the organisation. This builds trust and ensures it is maintainable in the future. Using commercial SaaS cloud services is also a useful strategy because commercial providers will regularly update their services with necessary security patches and keep the platform secure.

Keep things safe

Smaller non-profits are unlikely to have IT, security and legal departments. Be mindful of this and try to ensure your technology support doesn’t add risk for an organisation or their beneficiaries. (This is of course linked to the Seagull issue above). Particular pitfalls include GDPR/privacy and operational security. If you think there are gaps in an organisation’s capability or expertise then raise these issues.

Try not to make yourself indispensable

There’s a paradox that successful tech volunteering can create an unhealthy dependency. If a section of an organisation’s IT department becomes essentially “outsourced” to a volunteer then this can be a problem. (There are exceptions, particularly for very small NGOs who are growing quickly and reliant on volunteers to support that growth). A few strategies to avoid this are:

  • Make sure that training and knowledge transfer are a part of your volunteering work.
  • The organisation should be able to administer the technology you’re building. Day to day maintenance should be viable within the non-profit otherwise this may indicate an inappropriate technology solution.

Ensure the sovereignty of the tech solution you are building remains squarely with the non-profit organisation. This means the keys to the technology (particularly security credentials) should be with the NGO. Try to avoid paying for technology bills from your own bank account. Instead, if you want to pay then donate to the NGO and enable them to pay directly.

Volunteering as a technologist is a rewarding and impactful contribution to society. Hopefully, if you keep in mind these recommendations, then the emergent benefits of your work will continue long after the lifetime of the solutions you build!