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Short-term assignments for tech volunteers

by | Jun 11, 2011 | Technology: Issues and Uses

There are a variety of ways for nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), schools, government agencies and other mission-based organizations to involve volunteers to help with short-term projects relating to computers and the Internet, and short-term assignments are what are sought after most by potential “tech” volunteers. But there is a disconnect: most organizations have trouble identifying such short-term projects.

Below is a list of short-term projects for “tech” volunteers that is based on a list brainstormed by myself and by members of TechSoup Global’s Volunteers and Technology online discussion group in 2005. I’ve added a lot to it over the years. These one-time, short-term assignments might takes a few days, a couple of weeks or maybe a month to complete. But each have a definite start date and end date, shouldn’t go on longer than a month (maybe two) and do not require a volunteer to make an ongoing commitment to the organization – once an assignment is done, the volunteer can move on to another assignment, or stop volunteering with the organization altogether.

Volunteers who fill these short-term assignments will still need to be vetted! They probably won’t need criminal background checks (unless they will have access to information that could allow them to contact your clients, particularly children), but you will need to make sure people have the expertise they claim, and that may require reference checks and viewing work samples. It will certainly require an interview. If a volunteer is too busy to go through your organization’s standard application and orientation process, they are too busy to undertake a short-term tech assignment and give your organization the quality it needs. More information on interviewing in this article: Finding a Computer/Network Consultant

Also, some assignments may require organizations to purchase software or other equipment that the volunteer will install on the organization’s systems. Make sure volunteers know that they must get permission, in writing, before purchasing anything, even if they aren’t expecting reimbursement.

Short-term assignments for volunteers relating to computers and the Internet:

  • doing an audit of what software is on the computers of all company computers and what software is for. Many organizations aren’t aware, for instance, that their computers have the ability to edit video, or that they already have a program on their computers that could be used for a database. This information needs to be shared in a deliberate, obvious way throughout the organization, so that everyone can know what resources the organization has.
  • doing an audit of what software employees and volunteers are using, and how, and then exploring ways staff could train each other regarding these software uses. This information needs to be shared in a deliberate, obvious way throughout the organization, so that everyone can know what resources the organization has.
  • cleaning spyware and viruses off of an organization’s computers, identifying and installing or configuring software to prevent such in the future, and providing documentation about these efforts for future reference.
  • checking for the latest updates of software an organization uses frequently (when the updates are not free and automatically-made on the computers), and evaluating whether or not updates that aren’t free and automatic are a good idea for the organization (they aren’t always).
  • installing more memory on the office computers (this will require someone to purchase this hardware for the computers).
  • installing sound cards, web cams or other hardware on the office computers (this will require someone to purchase this hardware for the computers).
  • creating or setting up a system that allows staff or long-term volunteers at an organization to easily backup computer files.
  • developing a technology plan for the organization or an individual department that anticipates future equipment and upgrade needs.
  • developing a technology training plan that identifies paid staff and volunteer training needs, for the entire organization or for an individual department.
  • evaluating an organization’s web site or new web pages regarding their accessibility (use by people with disabilities and people using assistive technologies), and making recommendations regarding accessibility.
  • reviewing visitor statistics for a web site and making recommendations to improve the web site’s resources in keyword searches on sites like Google.
  • editing raw video to make a short video for use with the general public, dispersed staff or remote volunteers/online volunteers.
  • editing raw audio to make a podcast to upload to your computer and make available to anyone.
  • installing and configuring an instant messaging client that allows each staff person to combine all of their various instant messaging accounts into one interface (for instance, I’m on a Mac and use Adium, a free instant messaging client that combines my Yahoo, Microsoft, MySpace, FaceBook and Skype instant messaging functions into one window, allowing me to log in to just ONE thing to access all of these instant messaging clients).
  • holding an in-house workshop for paid staff and volunteers, such as how to:
    • use software already on an organization’s computers (particularly under-utilized software, like the graphics software that’s already installed on most computers but rarely used, or instant messaging software, or templates that came with the word-processing software or database software).
    • manage large amounts of email (many people don’t know how to set up filters for messages, for example).
    • maintain basic computer and Internet security/data protection.
    • prevent junk emailers from getting staff email addresses (the perils of sending electronic cards or using online address books or downloading “free screen savers”, etc.).
    • use free online services / free cloud computing tools, like YahooGroups, GoogleGroups, GoogleDocs, Drop Box, shared online calendars, etc.
    • use live, interactive software such as chats, instant messaging, VoIP and video conferencing.
    • use tags on Twitter.
    • configure an RSS reader, so that each staff member can follow news and blogs related to their work.
    • how to use advanced functions on your word processing program (how to set up an automatically-updated table of contents, how to create fields for a mail merge using data from another program, etc.).
    • insert photos and videos into a slide show presentation so that the presentation file size is still kept at a manageable level (so that it could be sent as an attachment, for instance).
    • how to transition from one software package to another, such as switching to a new database platform, or switching from a proprietary office suite to OpenOffice or NeoOffice<.P>
    • edit raw video to make a short video for use with the general public, dispersed staff or remote volunteers/online volunteers.
    • edit raw audio to make a podcast to upload to your computer and make available to anyone.
    • how to upload a video to YouTube or other video-sharing software.
    • how to use online social networking and online professional networking to recruit volunteers, reach potential clients, attract donors, promote organizational success, etc.

There are also many long-term, ongoing assignments for tech volunteers, ofcourse, such as web design, web site management, being on-call for tech problems, backing up systems, producing live online events, etc. But before an organization involves volunteers in such high-commitment endeavors, the organization should consider creating a few short-term assignments, to get used to working with tech volunteers and to help staff identify the best candidates for longer-term assignments.

Also see:

Finding a Computer/Network Consultant

      Staff at mission-based organizations (nonprofits, civil society organizations, and public sector agencies) often have to rely on consultants, either paid or volunteer, for expertise in computer hardware, software and networks. Staff may feel unable to understand, question nor challenge whatever that consultant recommends. What can mission-based organizations do to recruit the “right” consultant for “tech” related issues, one that will not make them feel out-of-the-loop or out-of-control when it comes to tech-related discussions?

Pro Bono / In-Kind / Donated Services for Mission-Based Organizations:
When, Why & How?



      There are all sorts of professionals who want to donate their services — web design, intranet setup, graphic design, human resources expertise, legal advice, editing, research, and so forth — to mission-based organizations. And there are all sorts of nonprofits and NGOs who would like to attract such donated services. But often, there’s a disconnect — misunderstandings and miscommunications and unrealistic expectations that lead to missed opportunities and frustrating experiences. This resource is designed to help both those who want to donate professional services and those who want to work with such volunteers.

Creating One-Time, Short-Term Group Volunteering Activities
Details on not just what groups of volunteers can do in a two-hour, half-day or all-day event, but also just how much an organization or program will need to do to prepare a site for group volunteering. It’s an expensive, time-consuming endeavor – are you ready? Is it worth it?

Webinar on Finding and Involving Tech Volunteers
Recorded in April 2009, this presentation with slides and audio is a recording of a live webinar I did for TechSoup. It explores how to effectively involve volunteers in computer and Internet related tasks at your organization, including ways to identify tech-related assignments, ways to support volunteers in these assignments, and, of course, methods to recruit and screen such volunteers. Nonprofit staff members can feel a sense of both awe and fear about tech volunteers, and this can lead to misunderstandings and frustrations on the part of both parties. This webinar will help nonprofit staff stay in control of tech volunteering tasks so that the finished assignment meets the nonprofits’ needs and the tech volunteer has a satisfying experience. It’s less than an hour long.

Return to my volunteer-related resources


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