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The do's and don'ts of IT volunteering
22 December 2006
by Cara Garretson

With the holiday season upon us and New Year's resolutions just around the corner, the idea of giving back has probably crossed many minds. There are a number of significant ways that IT professionals can help nonprofit organizations, be it with the homeless shelter around the corner or with relief groups across the globe.

Here are some suggestions and advice to get you started.

DON'T . . . donate old hardware or software. Whether it's your 3-year-old laptop or the fleet of old desktops that your company is swapping out, material donations often end up more of a curse than a blessing.

"You're making space in your house or office and saying, 'This [PC] is below our standard to use,' so you're going to give it away and hope that the people at the food bank are really happy to get it?" asks Jeffrey Forster, technical services director with Robert Morris University's Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management in Pittsburgh.

While these donations are made with good intentions, most nonprofits don't have the technical staff to get the old equipment into shape, harvest them for parts or provide support, Forster says. Still, such donations are an ongoing practice; the Bayer Center surveyed 285 nonprofit organizations and found more than 40 percent have at least some donated computers.

Instead, Forster suggests that individuals or companies looking to make good use of old equipment donate to an organization that will refurbish the computer, such as Goodwill, which then passes on the PC or the proceeds from its sale to nonprofits. Or contact your city's recycling center to find out how to dispose of a PC in a manner that is earth-friendly.

DO . . . donate your talent. Depending on your specialty, you could offer to build a database, manage an e-mail fund-raising campaign, train someone in Excel, upgrade an operating system or become an organization's Webmaster.

"There are opportunities to just pitch in for an hour, or to get involved many hours every week," says Jason Willett, director of communications with, a Web site that pairs up potential volunteers with nonprofits in need of help.

DO . . .consider local options first. While there plenty of opportunities for virtual work, many nonprofits prefer to have their volunteers close by.

"We like [volunteers] to be local, because we find they stay more committed," says Carmel Sullivan, executive director of, a Web site that helps single mothers and their children find opportunities to share housing and pool resources. "If people contact us from more than 20 minutes away, we discourage them. Who wants to commute over an hour?"

BUT DON'T . . . exclude volunteering virtually, if there's an organization whose work interests you but isn't close by. A quick search on for virtual opportunities pulled up 1,945 listings, including Web site designer, eBay expert and MySQL developer.

DO . . . decide upfront how much of your time you can contribute and stick to it.

Most organizations don't ask specifically for a certain number of hours per week for a set period. Many find it difficult to be anything other than gracious to a potential volunteer, but in the end the organization would benefit from setting guidelines up front as well.

Community Empowerment Network, which assists communities in rural areas of developing countries to gain the skills and resources needed to manage their own development by providing communication and IT resources, is heavily dependent on technology to help fulfill its mission. Founder Bob Bortner, who left Microsoft two years ago to launch the organization, says about one-fourth of the group's volunteer staff focuses on technology. That means he feels the pain when losing an IT-savvy volunteer.

"There's a lot of turnover; you just get someone who is really good, and something in their life changes. Generally, I'm the lower priority," says Bortner, adding that such is the nature of volunteering. "One guy's house burned," Bortner says, so the volunteer had no choice but to bow out of the project.

DON'T . . .just think of your technical skills when considering volunteering. Many nonprofits need business advice; learning how to align technology with their mission or use technology to lower costs or increase effectiveness.

"One way to make a difference is to join the board [of directors] of a nonprofit," says Bayer Center's Forster, with the warning that you'll likely end up the de facto chair of the technology committee. "There is a severe shortage of technology awareness in board decision making among nonprofits. And there's a strong correlation between the presence of a board member on a technology committee and technology best practices" being implemented by the nonprofit.

DO . . . investigate if your company would be willing to form a volunteer corps around technology. Organizations such as and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offer information on getting corporations involved with nonprofits.