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Working With ICT Volunteers

By Lasa Information Systems Team

Cash strapped organisations may find the idea of using a volunteer for IT support or other technical IT projects very appealing - especially when there is no money available to hire an IT professional - but is this a sensible solution? This article looks at issues to consider when using volunteers for IT.

Working with volunteers of any kind presents a number of challenges that you wouldn't face when paying someone to do a job (well not usually anyway). For example, a volunteer's availability may quickly change if their circumstances change - they may get a new job, or have other commitments that make it impossible for them to continue volunteering at the same level or at all. It is also not unknown for volunteers to lose interest in the work or project because they no longer find it rewarding.

Any work that uses volunteers needs to be carefully managed and be well structured. This is particularly true for anything involving IT as more and more organisations come to rely on IT to help deliver services.

Basic Requirements

In order to get the best out of using a volunteer for an IT project there are a few basic requirements including:

  • Commitment - on the part of the organisation - unless your organisation is fully committed to the project, then your volunteer is unlikely to be either. The volunteer will need resources including staff time so make sure these are available.
  • Sustainability - it may be suitable to use a volunteer to get some help with some IT training but it's probably not such a good idea to rely on a volunteer to support your computer network - unless you can afford to wait however long it takes until your volunteer is available to come out and fix it... Whatever the project, taking the opportunity to learn from the volunteer will help ensure that the project can be maintained if / when the volunteer's input is no longer available.
  • Flexibility - volunteers usually have a limited availability - especially during work hours. You'll need to choose projects that can be accommodated within a suitably flexible time frame - delays sometimes can't be avoided.

All this means that before embarking on using a volunteer for IT you need to think carefully about what projects or tasks it would be suitable for them to work on.

Before you begin

Before getting started it's important to:

  • Decide on the scope of the work - IT projects have a tendency to "scope creep" - what starts out as a simple website can end up turning into a monster with all manner of bells and whistles. This can result in a once achievable goal turning into something quite unrealistic given the resources of the organisation and the volunteer. IT volunteer projects have more chance of succeeding if they are time limited - say around 20-30 hours spread over a maximum of 2-3 months. Many volunteers are unable to commit to anything longer because of work and other commitments.
  • Put together a work plan - the scope of the work should be documented. This will be similar to a contract or agreement that you sign with a professional though it can be less formal and needn't be very long. A work plan will help clarify the expectations on both sides. It will also assist with the smooth running of the project, and ensuring everyone is working to a realistic time frame. The work plan should include:
    • Details of the tasks required to complete the project
    • A time frame for completing the project
    • Your plans for training, and sustainability of the project
  • Establish who will be the contact for the volunteer - the volunteer will need a main point of contact within the organisation. This person will need to meet with the volunteer several times over the life of the project so may need to be available at times convenient for the volunteer - this could mean some evenings and weekends.

  • Arrange an initial briefing meeting - the meeting should provide an opportunity for the volunteer to:

    • Get an idea of what resources they may need for the project
    • Gain a sense of what your organisation does, how it functions, communities served etc.
    • Meet staff including the main contact for the project
    • Find out where things are e.g. telephones, equipment, tea and coffee, toilets etc.
    • Go over the work plan and gain an understanding of what needs to be done, timescale, arrangements for checking on progress etc.
  • Make sure the volunteer understands your organisation's background and values - this will help to ensure that they make appropriate recommendations. For example voluntary organisations often have a completely different financial framework to corporate companies. If your IT volunteer comes from a corporate background they may be used to recommending expensive, complex solutions that would be inappropriate for your organisation.

Keeping track of progress

Attending to the following points should help make sure the project runs smoothly and stays on target:

  • Regular communication between the staff contact and the volunteer -this should provide an opportunity to report on progress, any problems or changes to the original plan. Regular contact will also reinforce to the volunteer that you value their time and input.
  • Determine accountability - getting volunteers to sign a document confirming their commitment is one way of getting volunteers to understand that although you appreciate they are giving their time and expertise freely, they can't just fail to turn up or complete tasks they've agreed to do etc. On the organisation's side, there may be times when the volunteer cannot progress to the next stage without some information, resource, or staff input. Long delays in providing what's needed could result in the volunteer being unable to complete the project within the time they have available or losing interest in the project altogether.
  • Set boundaries - it is important that a volunteer does not feel overburdened by the task - let them know that they can set limits to what they will do. After the initial briefing meeting is a good time for the volunteer to reassess whether the project is realistic for the time and skills they have available.
  • Keep a record of work done - set up systems so that the volunteer can document the work done on the project - this can help with sustainability. For example someone else may be able to take over where the volunteer left off.

Confidentiality and legal responsibility

You should be conscious that you are responsible for the safety and liability of a volunteer if there is an accident. You also have a duty to safeguard any confidential information such as staff and client records. Be clear with your volunteers about what they can and cannot access and if necessary get them to sign an agreement on confidentiality.

Finally …

Some IT projects can be taken on by volunteers very successfully - examples include:

  • Training on a specific issue (e.g. using the Internet)
  • Simple IT installations (e.g. memory upgrade, setting up standalone PCs or peripherals)
  • Advising or mentoring project managers on major IT developments

Other IT projects should be approached with a great deal of caution - examples include:

  • Network installation
  • Ongoing technical support
  • Websites and databases - development and support

In these cases fundraising to pay an IT professional if at all possible may be a better option. Not because a volunteer isn't capable of doing the job professionally, but because of issues like time constraints and sustainability. Where these issues are properly addressed however, projects like these can work.

If you are a voluntary organisation seeking assistance from an ICT professional you may be able to get help from IT4communities.  


About the author

Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST maintains the knowledgebase. Follow us on Twitter @LasaICT


ICT, Internet, Network, Standalone, Website

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Published: 11th August 2003 Reviewed: 25th July 2006

Copyright © 2003 Lasa Information Systems Team

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7th March 201310 tips for keeping volunteers happy: