Saturday, 19 February 2011

So you want to offer your IT skills as a volunteer?

So you want to offer your IT skills as a volunteer? Kudos to you. Here are a few things to think about. They are all based on my own experience and I hope they will help others avoid making the same mistakes I did.

1. How much time can you realistically devote?
Time is the scarcest resource of all. The internet is now chock full of open source and / or free to use software packages, programming resources and APIs. There are answers to pretty much any problem out there. Unfortunately there is only one of you, and you only have one pair of hands. It's better to invest a couple of hours a week in something that you can deliver on rather than waste a couple of hours a week on a project you won't finish because it's too big. Are your family members 'onside'? Before you tell me to mind my own business it's much easier if your family know what you are doing and are supportive.

2. What do you want to get out of volunteering?
So, what's your motivation. Volunteering shouldn't all be one way traffic - there should be something in it for you too. Have this clear from the start, and make sure the people you're volunteering with know it too. If you just want to help then great, but I saw volunteering as the chance to make my CV look more impressive than the hundred plus other people I will be competing for my next job with. One mistake I made was to start blogging about working with an organisation before I had OK'd it with them. They weren't happy at being used 'as a reference' and asked me to take all the posts down. They will tell you what their aims are - make sure you tell them what yours are too.

3. Get organised
When are you going to be able to do the work you have volunteered? If you (like me) are only going to be available in the evening and at weekends then a volunteering gig that needs you to be in someone's office at 10am once a week isn't right for you. It's also important to devote all the time you have set aside to doing what needs doing. So make sure you have all your resources (equipment, data, specifications) to hand before making a start.

4. Build a relationship
It's essential to have a good working relationship with the charity or community group that you are representing. So ditch the emailing back and forward, get on the phone, get on Skype or go and meet them face to face. Not only are you showing a more personal and professional approach you also have the opportunity to find out if you are going to be able to get along with the people you are meeting. This isn't like your day job where you're forced to interact with people you're not too keen on; it's your free time you are giving up. If your instincts tell you that it won't work then end the relationship and look for something else. And if you really like each other then you have made an important contact. To LinkedIn!

5. Keep records of what you are doing
This doesn't have to be onerous. I agreed with the charity I am working for to post text files containing updates of progress into a shared area. If you're setting up administrative passwords on applications, databases or servers don't just write them on the pad of paper next to your desk and then throw them away next time your tidy it up. Put them somewhere the organisation is going to be able to read them. This will help you in the long term - if, for some reason in the future you can't continue to volunteer then the last thing you want is being hassled for important information.

6. Enjoy it
For me, volunteering is a chance to do something I am not able to do at work. I can run my own project and make my own decisions. That for me is intellectually stimulating. Find an opportunity that is going to let you try something new, or do something a different way and use the experience for personal development. Don't do something that bores you because you won't stick at it and neither side of the volunteering arrangement profits. Have fun!

If you read this and would like any more help or advice then email me mark dot p3rry at gmail dot com.

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