The Volunteering Paradox

One of the aims of DigitalForGood is to facilitate a specific type of volunteering. The goal is to match volunteers who have professional skills (analysts, designers, coders and more) with local charities that need those skills. Volunteers bring the skills and experience we have spent time and effort developing in our professional careers. We spend a few hours or days over a period of a few weeks or months to help a charity with a specific project.

As well as useful for the charity, this can be an incredibly rewarding experience for the volunteer. And yet, there is a paradox that can make this type of volunteering a very personal challenge. Let me try and explain.

Volunteering is, by its very nature, both varied and limited. It is limited because we can only give a small amount of time and energy.

And it is varied because there are so many ways to volunteer. Giving time and energy alone can be both very rewarding and directly impactful. The experience is all very visceral.  For example delivering food, providing human companionship, planting trees, painting fences and the myriad of other ways of volunteering.  While bringing challenges and requiring personal growth, these are often immediately physically and emotionally rewarding. This type of volunteering is also vital in all our communities.

At DigitalForGood however, one of our intentions is to facilitate a different type of volunteering.

In theory it seems like it a no-brainer.  Our community have skills that have been forged over many years in the furnace of a career in the digital sector.  We know that the charities that are working tirelessly to address the problems and inequalities of our society are in desperate need of these digital and technical skills. A match made in heaven. Right?

This is where the paradox comes in:  our hard won professional skills have to be used in a way that is very different from our day jobs. And this can feel very dry, uncool or even unproductive.

Our volunteering is about helping the people who are, in turn, helping the people in your neighbourhood or are working on a specific environmental or social problem. It’s not about creating the killer app or being part of a team implementing leading digital concepts. (That work is absolutely needed, but it should be in the context of our jobs or the organisations we spend the majority of our time as part of - not this type of volunteering.)

The reality for DigitalForGood volunteering is that often what the charity needs is NOT our full professional skill set to solve a clearly defined juicy problem. Rather the need is much more down to earth and messy.  It might be as tiny as helping with a spreadsheet, writing SQL for a report, spending some time documenting processes, improving a website or designing a PDF.  It might be as large as designing and coding a way to show Tweets on a web map or helping to select and implement a CRM. It could be as mundane as answering IT support questions or as strategic as providing advice on a planning document. This means it's rarely dramatic or "startup" cool.

Volunteering should ALWAYS be driven by what the charity needs, not the powerful technology or cool buzz words that many of us have the privilege of working with in our day jobs.

In many cases it means wading into a complex and unclear project with very limited time, almost no resources and very murky requirements.

  • This can be a punch in the professional ego. Instead of 3D printing medical devices to save the world we might be fixing the legacy code or attempting to document what is needed.
  • The engineer in us may find it inefficient. Instead of the best automated deployment tooling we might be manually copying SQL to get numbers for a chart.
  • It may put us in a position we don’t feel comfortable. A  senior programmer may have to spend time learning the basics of human centred design, or an experienced service designer may find themselves configuring a web site.  
  • And it can mean setting aside our own ambitions. Instead of learning how to code custom web applications, we might be tweaking settings on a Wordpress plugin.
  • It is very unlikely to be as part of a team with all the specialist skills needed. Which means we may working uncomfortably outside our core expertise.

It's rarely award winning or press worthy or even worthy of showing off to friends on social media. However, it IS real world and practical help for the charities who are dedicated to looking after and improving the communities we are part of.

Real impact is like growing a tree: a steady grind of small and continuous effort. It can be barely noticeable hour to hour or day to day, yet mindblowingly magic over time. While large impactful events happen and indeed are often needed, they do not exist in a vacuum - they need steady, hard work beforehand to lay the groundwork and afterwards to maintain and continue the positive impacts. The sole role of this type of volunteering is to contribute towards that ongoing effort.

Working with other volunteers, each of us contributing only when we can, we are adding our contribution to that seed growing into a beautiful tree.

If, as volunteers, we leave the charity with a document full of terminology they need to learn, a code base they cannot maintain, a cost they cannot afford or a larger bureaucratic overhead - then we have failed.  Regardless of the intentions we had or the possibilities we envisioned. However, if we leave the charity with one problem solved, one less admin task or one opportunity taken - then we have succeeded.

This is the power of a volunteering community. Working with other volunteers, each of us contributing only when we can, we are adding our contribution to that seed growing into a beautiful tree.


[Photo by Felix Hoffmann on Unsplash]

Barry O'Kane
Barry O'Kane
On the core Digital for Good team. Barry runs HappyPorch - a strategy, technology and web development agency for purpose driven organisations
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