My name's Alistair Roche. Follow me on Twitter here.

Sep 17

Better Volunteering for Web Geeks

Summary for the impatient: let’s create a non-profit which feels like a startup, makes awesome stuff on the web for charities, and is exactly the kind of place where we’d volunteer.

Charities are great at building wells in African villages, but terrible at doing anything online. Fair enough: it’s not their speciality. But it does mean that they’re missing out on brilliant opportunities to get people engaged (and reaching for their wallets).

The biggest ones pay through the nose to corporate IT consultancies, but the vast majority just give their system administrator’s fourteen-year-old son free rein. Neither scenario is optimal.

Any of you could undoubtedly do better, even as a volunteer. But unless you’re a polymath with plenty of free time, you’re going to need a team to work with. And the staff at charities are generally overworked and undervalued, working with legacy codebases and bosses who don’t know the first thing about computers. Do you really want to spend your free time in that environment?

There needs to be a lean non-profit web agency that exclusively makes awesome stuff for other non-profits. You’d never have to deal with the bureaucracy or incompetence inherent in large organisations, and you’d work with smart people on the cutting edge of design, programming, marketing, and all the other disciplines needed to make a great online experience. It sounds just like a startup, doesn’t it?

If you’re going to save the world, there’s no reason why you can’t have fun and learn from your peers in the process. It’d be a great way to pad your portfolio or github profile (obviously we’d open source our work as much as possible) as well as meet potential employees, employers, co-founders, mentors and friends.

There are problems. First: the inevitably high volunteer turnover rate. When push comes to shove, your charity work is never going to take priority over your family life and or your job. Although high turnover means a steady stream of new faces and ideas, it also creates significant overhead as new volunteers are brought up to speed.

There are ways to mitigate this, aside from building the kind of place you’d prioritise over your job. Keeping a minimal paid staff would ensure that at least someone on the team has been there from the beginning of the project, and knows what needs to be done and who can do it.

But who pays their salaries? Soliciting donations from the public would be tough. Oxfam struggles to get people to reach for their wallets, and they use photos of starving children. Ours would only feature a fridge running low on diet coke. Corporate donations from tech companies are more likely. This is exactly the kind of thing Google would get behind.

We could also charge our clients fees. We’d make sure it’s cheaper than outsourcing it to an IT firm or hiring in-house staff. We could undercut the going rate hugely, because most of the work would be done by volunteers, and because we’re not looking to turn a profit. And who knows? There are probably government grants for this kind of thing.

The first few projects might need to be done for free, until we’ve built up a reputation and a portfolio to convince organisations that we’re worth it. We’re not going to be working with Oxfam right off the bat. We’ll start small, explore the space and find a viable ‘business model’ before scaling.

After a few projects, we’d have considerable expertise at tugging heartstrings, recruiting volunteers, increasing donations, and all other facets of the unique (but not totally unfamiliar) problem set faced by charities. Why would they want to hire anyone else?

Part of why I’m so excited about this is because I know that London is ready for this. It’s teeming with enthusiastic, talented designers and developers at startup hubs, hackspaces, dojos, meetups, user groups, and, most importantly, pubs. It also has more NGOs, non-profits and charities than any other city on the planet.

So let’s do it before those kids in Silicon Valley beat us to the punch.

(Discuss on Hacker News)

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    " let’s create a non-profit which feels like a startup…”
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