Capturing and Subduing Technical Volunteers

This is a great guest post from our friend Ehren Foss. Enjoy!

So, how do you make the best use of your technical volunteers and keep them engaged in the long term?  It’s like any other relationship you’re trying to cultivate, more akin to growing a whole orange tree than to peeling an orange.  The thing you need help with now will take 5 minutes, but it will take you some hours of effort and a few weeks or months of back and forth to get them hooked.  You want to build relationships with a few, dependable people who over time invest more of themselves with you and your technology.  It’s going to take time to learn how to communicate with them, how to describe what you need in their language, and how to manage them.

Just Getting Started

The biggest hurdle, in some cases, is the learning curve of your technology setup.  Do they need FTP access?  Is there a document describing how your website is organized?  How many new accounts need to be created?  Try creating a document – a private Wiki, perhaps – describing ALL the necessary steps to give someone the same access you have.  You want to make this process smooth so they can help you as soon as possibleand also so you don’t terrify them with your disorganization.

You should at least discuss, if not formally document with signatures, your privacy policy with the volunteer.  They need to agree that they are now responsible for protecting and securing the data and access you share with them.  On a similar note, if your administrator password to a donor database is password’ or anything else dumb (like admin’, 1, test’I’ve seen some doozies), change it.  If you have strong passwords the technical person may respect your organization a little bit more.

Ramp Them Up / Parcel It Out

Let’s be honest, you probably have thousands of hours of project ideas floating around on your desk and in your head.  There’s little chance you’ll find a capable person who has that much time to devote immediately.  There’s nothing wrong with engaging several specialized technical volunteers to help distribute the workload and protect you from a single points of failure.  There’s also nothing wrong with, at first, showing them a very narrow slice of your setup in order to make sure they’re up to the task and reliable.

When working with (paid) contractors, I try to start them on a new project with a very simple, straightforward task.  I know that 90% of their time will go towards setup and learning, but the 10% gives them a quick feeling of accomplishment.  Similarly, if you feed your technical volunteers a few, smaller tasks each week, they’ll start to feel that with you, they can actually get stuff done and make a differencethat may not be easy to come by in their day jobs.
You’re A Project Manager, Act Like It

Even though they’re working for free, or perhaps at a steep discount, you should conduct the relationship as if they are, in fact, being paid.  Discuss each task in detail – to save both of you time and confusion – and be clear and fairly strict about deadlines.  Someone who offers to install WordPress for you and takes 3 months to do it isn’t really helping.  Ask for, and expect, frequent updates on progress and any decisions that they’re making as they work.  If you don’t see progress, find someone else.

Phrase your requests as specifically as possible, including your deadline and other terms for the work.  Write everything down, maybe in that Wiki, so you can find it again without digging through your email.  If you have a lot of stuff going on, you might want to use Google Docs, Redmine, Trac, Basecamp, or another light project management web app.  Heck, you could probably use those to improve the way you run your organization if you’re still e-mailing 5MB word documents back and forth with Track Changes enabled.
Care and Feeding

I think technical volunteers have a few,  simple reasons for helping you.  One, they care about your cause or generally want to do good.  Two, their day job sucks and they want to use their skills and actually make a difference.  The more organized you are, the easier it will be for both of you to get what you want out of the relationship.