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“There’s no substitute for real human beings. Technology that empowers people to help is a game-changer, and our 60,000 volunteers (and growing) are what drive the real change that we are building towards.”
– Jared Chung, Founder & Executive Director, CareerVillage.org
One of the most exciting parts of building a tech nonprofit is that you’re also building a movement. You’re trying to solve a big social problem, and you can’t do that alone. Some of the people you might seek to bring along are a magical group of humans known as volunteers. From driving your product delivery, to helping you build out technical elements of your product, to advising on your fundraising strategies, volunteers can make a big impact when given the right opportunities to contribute to your cause.
We’ve broken this chapter into sections on core volunteers, or those that are core to the delivery of your product, and pro bono volunteers who have skills that can help you build or scale your product. If you’re focusing on recruiting skilled volunteers to support your tech nonprofit, scroll down to the pro bono section. Volunteer management matters, so take the time to plan and execute a thoughtful volunteer strategy.
Virtual Volunteer Basics
Tech nonprofits have the unique opportunity to tap into goodwill. Finding the people who resonate with your mission can help you scale your impact.
Volunteering looks a little different for tech nonprofits. Because you have a tech product, most volunteering opportunities will be virtual. If you’ve built a two-sided marketplace (like UPchieve, Crisis Text Line, or Tarjimly), you’ll typically have one main virtual volunteering opportunity that’s core to your delivery model, like serving as a tutor, crisis counselor, or translator.
We love volunteers (YAY VOLUNTEERS!), but still believe in weighing out the pros and cons.
|Cost||Cost effective! Volunteers don’t require a salary.||Volunteers aren’t exactly free. Remember, staff time (and the associated costs) are required for volunteer management in the realms of onboarding, coaching, managing, and retaining volunteers.|
|Skills||Volunteer support enables you to access skill sets you might not be able to afford full-time.||Volunteers are balancing their lives and full time jobs on top of the pro-bono work they do for your organization. They won’t necessarily be available if something breaks or a project needs to be expedited.|
|Speed||Move projects forward faster. Done right, volunteers can save you time and get you to your goals faster.||
For all the efficiencies you gain with volunteers, you’ll still spend time getting things up and running, and will need to carefully manage the projects.
|Team||Volunteers make your team look huge!||
If you have 50 volunteers listed as staff on your website, your anticipated impact might be far greater than what your actual team is capable of. Not a good look.
If you decide that bringing on volunteers is the right thing for your tech nonprofit, start by setting objectives around the purpose of your volunteers. Designate a team member as the Volunteer Coordinator, or build this responsibility into a Community Manager position. They’ll be the go-to person for your entire volunteer management process.
Recruit Virtual Volunteers
As you grow your community and spread the word about your work through marketing, you’ll naturally attract people who resonate with your mission and want to contribute to it. Use a combination of channels, from direct outreach to content to online volunteer sites, to build your volunteer base.
Like all parts of running your tech nonprofit, approach volunteer recruitment from a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) perspective. Are there ways you can reach people who have experience with the problem you’re solving, and who would be excited to give back by joining your cause? Just like hiring, building – and listening to – a diverse volunteer base prioritizes voices that will help you center on social justice and impact. See Chapter 5: Hire a Social Impact Tech Team for a more in-depth discussion of DEI, including questions to consider during hiring that also apply to volunteer recruitment.
Volunteer Landing Page: Convert website visitors into volunteers by creating a page on your website that’s the one-stop-shop with everything prospective volunteers need to know (and be convinced) to volunteer with you. UPchieve, which connects low-income youth with live academic support from volunteer tutors, has created a stellar volunteer page on its website. The page has everything needed to convince prospective volunteers to get on board:
|Page Element||UPchieve’s Volunteer Page|
The opportunity and how it fits into your solution
UPchieve shares that volunteers: “work directly with students in our virtual classroom, providing either math tutoring or college counseling, to help them improve their grades, academic motivation, and chances of going to college.”
|The value proposition||The page shares five reasons that UPchieve thinks you’ll love being a volunteer, from the impact on low-income students to the flexible time commitment.|
|The commitment and other logistics||Within these five value propositions, the page shares logistics, like how volunteers select their availability on a calendar and receive texts for tutoring requests.|
|The application process||The first step of the application process, a signup form, is embedded in the page.|
Volunteer quotes and testimonies to convey the value of the experience
|The page shares a few quotes from current UPchieve volunteers. You can also consider linking blog posts or other content spotlighting volunteers.|
|UPchieve has included answers to a number of common questions about its volunteer program.|
Personal Networking: Recruit volunteers by leveraging your personal networks. Send a dedicated email and post on LinkedIn with the call to action to learn more about volunteering with your tech nonprofit. Reach out directly to people familiar with your organization who you think would be a great fit as volunteers.
Post on Volunteer Boards: Volunteer boards are a common way people discover volunteer opportunities. Consider posting on:
Partnerships: By tapping into corporate partnerships, you can grow your volunteer base while deepening your relationship with partners. You’ll gain access to a pool of corporate employees, many of whom are probably eager to give back. Work with your partners to develop initiatives that connect employees to your volunteer opportunities.
Once prospective volunteers find your opportunity, it’s time to take them through the process of becoming a volunteer with your tech nonprofit.
Regardless of what your volunteer application process looks like, make sure you’re crystal clear on the commitment. Prospective volunteers should know what they’re signing up for – and what is expected of them, if accepted.
Once you’ve accepted a volunteer, they’re part of your team! Now begins the real work of volunteer management – making them feel supported, appreciated, and part of your community.
Volunteer training helps equip your volunteers with the skills they need to be successful in their role. Like your application process, the more in-depth the role, the more in-depth the training should be.
We’ll hammer this home one final time: your volunteers are giving you their time, so seek to make your training as efficient as possible while keeping it informative and comprehensive.
There are many ways to train your volunteers. Here are some logistical aspects to consider when designing your training:
- Group size: Will you train volunteers one-on-one, in small groups, or large groups?
- Leader: Who will lead the training? While this will most likely be whoever owns volunteer management, consider giving all-star volunteers the opportunity to lead trainings to reduce work for your team.
- Format: Will your training be a live webinar or pre-recorded videos? How many sessions will your training be? How many times a year will you offer the training?
- Platform: Which platform is best suited for your training? For live trainings, this might mean Zoom or Google Hangouts; for recorded videos, you might choose YouTube or Loom.
Design the content of your trainings to be informational and interactive. To equip your volunteers with the tools they need to succeed at their role, lead volunteers through tasks they’ll be doing, and discuss how best to approach hypothetical situations. Make your sessions interactive by asking questions, leading role plays, and facilitating open discussions. Volunteers will be more engaged if they have the opportunity to participate!
Recruiting, onboarding, and training volunteers is only worth it if they stay. Once your volunteers are active, there are a number of ways you can increase retention.
In the case of core volunteers, volunteers will be key to your product delivery – and your users’ experience with your service. Whatever your volunteering opportunities are, these individuals are donating their time to help your organization. That’s pretty incredible, so don’t forget to show them some love!
Pro Bono Volunteers
Volunteers don’t have to just be part of your service delivery model. As a tech nonprofit, you can recruit skilled professionals eager to do good as pro bono volunteers. By leveraging these professionals, you can get expensive, high impact labor you wouldn’t otherwise have access to – at marginal cost (remember, staff time is money!).
Pro bono volunteers can support internal efforts in areas from engineering, to marketing, to design, to human resources. It’s best if they have mid to senior level experience, meaning they have deep expertise in their area and can offer valuable insight or deliverables. While pro bono support can greatly benefit your tech nonprofit, the volunteer management aspect of pro bono projects takes time and effort – again, worth weighing the pros and cons. All the pros and cons laid out earlier for core volunteers apply to pro bono volunteers too, but here some additional considerations specific to pro bono support.
|Potential for high-quality, high-impact support from a skilled professional||
The impact of their support is directly correlated to the amount of effort you invest in equipping them to do their best work
Low to moderate planning is needed for a high impact result
Poorly defined and planned project leads to low-impact results
Strengthen connections with partner companies, or develop relationships with target partners, by creating pro bono projects for employees
Bad volunteer management or poorly planned projects leads to mixed feedback from employees, negatively impacting the partnership
How to Plan Pro Bono Projects
Pro bono support can range in scope from a consultation call to a longer-term project, depending on your need and the volunteer’s capacity. Short or long-term projects should always be well-defined – with a clear scope and parameters – and time-bound. Remember, your volunteer is giving their time and skills to your organization, so be respectful of their (and your own) time.
In most cases, successful pro bono projects are fairly condensed. The total time your volunteer spends on the project should be 3-8 hours, meaning it will take them a week or two to execute in the context of their day job. For a three hour project, plan for the first hour to be onboarding, the next hour and half to be actual work time, and the last half hour to be off-ramping, or project wrap-up. Again, at least one individual on your team should be committed to the volunteer management piece.
So how do you figure out what kind of pro bono project would be most impactful for your tech nonprofit? Think about the challenges you’re facing and opportunities for high impact. The following questions can help you uncover areas within your organization that would benefit most from pro bono support.
Questions to Help You Shape Pro Bono Projects
- What do you want to be doing more of?
- What is stopping you from doing what you want to do today?
- What would you do with unlimited time and resources?
- What guidance or small-scale deliverables would propel your internal efforts forward?
For tech nonprofits, pro bono projects in certain areas tend to have a bigger impact. While pro bono projects in any domain can be successful, keep this chart in mind as you’re thinking through possible projects.
|High Potential for Impact||More Challenging|
Exploratory: Support thinking through building a new product or pursuing a new business initiative.
Marketing: One of the most common types of projects, pro bono marketing support can improve your marketing strategy.
UI/UX: Projects for UI/UX or design can be highly impactful because the end deliverable is often wire frames or other materials that can be used to directly improve your product.
HR: Professionals in this area have likely seen your HR challenges in their work, so they can provide valuable advice.
Strategy: Without extensive onboarding and training, your volunteer won’t know your organization, mission, and issue like you do. Without this context, strategy projects can be challenging.
Technical: Engineering projects can be highly impactful, but it may be challenging to maintain the technical solution after the project. Make sure technical volunteers document everything.
Hack-a-thons: One way to engage multiple corporate employees through competition-style pro bono work. While they’re great for developing feature ideas, they usually don’t result in an implementable solution.
We’ve laid out pro bono projects that tend to work well and those that are prone to challenges, but remember that pro bono support in any area can be successful so long as you:
- Have a great volunteer management plan and provide your volunteer with everything they need to succeed.
- Clearly scope the project so the parameters and expectation for the final deliverable are crystal clear. More on this in the next section!
How to Run a Successful Pro Bono Project
Great! You’ve determined a pro bono project you think would be highly impactful for your tech nonprofit. Now it’s time to find a skilled volunteer and launch your project. The strategies we shared in the Recruiting Volunteers section above are a great place to get started. Here are a few additional ideas on finding skilled volunteers interested in doing pro bono work:
- Ask your board members to share the opportunity with their networks.
- Post on Fast Forward’s Tech Nonprofit Job Board, Catchafire, Idealist.org, VolunteerMatch, and Create the Good.
- Many companies have a CSR department and are looking for pro bono projects for their employees. Consider pitching CSR teams on your pro bono opportunities.
Once you’ve found your pro bono volunteer, it’s time to kick off the project. Your goal throughout the entire volunteer management process, from onboarding to wrap-up, is to make this a delightful volunteer experience. Trust us, this isn’t a given.
Start by scheduling an onboarding meeting with them and anyone on your team who will be involved. Set realistic expectations for what your volunteer can get done. Approach this as a conversation, adjusting the project if necessary – your volunteer knows best what they can or can’t accomplish.
Once your volunteer is equipped with everything they need, support them as they execute the project by making yourself available via email or phone should anything come up. For longer projects, set a regular meeting cadence to check-in, address questions or concerns, and discuss progress.
At the end of the project, it’s time to evaluate, thank, and celebrate your volunteer and their work. Schedule an off-ramping meeting where they present their solution. Together, engage in a conversation on how their work will be implemented by your organization and the incredible impact they’ve made.
Gratitude is so important – don’t skip this part! Make sure you recognize your volunteer by giving them swag or shouting them out in your blog or newsletter. Keep them updated on how their work impacts your organization. Remember, after getting to know you and giving their time to support your work, they’re probably invested in your organization, so keep them in the loop!
- Maximize Free Help: How to Get It & Manage It Well with Jared Chung, a free workshop from the Fast Forward Academy
- Taproot’s Tech Pro Bono Guide