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Advice on Volunteering and Managing Volunteers During COVID-19 Digital Response

Demand for digital-skills based volunteering has surged as skilled workers search for ways to contribute to the response efforts to COVID-19. As a result, nonprofits are faced with an unprecedented opportunity to bring volunteers into their work and use new talent to advance their missions.

However, many nonprofits don’t have a standing volunteer program. And many skilled volunteers don’t know how to best contribute their time and have questions about how to navigate the landscape. There is a tremendous opportunity to advance much needed projects, but uncertainty about how to proceed is holding some back.

This Salon frames the discussion around themes and challenges such as: What should volunteers expect from nonprofits? How can volunteers and nonprofits work together to ensure a smooth collaboration? How can nonprofits minimize the costs of on-boarding new volunteers? And, how should nonprofits manage volunteers to prevent burnout?

Report Back on the Salon

by Daniel Ramirez-Raftree, Acceleration Group, Linda Raftree, Independent Consultant and New York City Tech Salon Convener

Our May 14th Salon focused on best practices for digital-skills based volunteering. This was the fourth virtual Salon in the Tech in the Time of Coronavirus series.

We heard from four experts in the field:


Key Points From Speakers


Ellie Hale

Design Hops & Communities Lead, CAST


Ellie Hale is the Design Hops & Communities Lead for the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST), where she works introducing charities to user centered design and digital tech for good development processes.

Ellie kicked off the conversation by talking through four critical topics. She began by highlighting three common needs that have arisen across the social sector since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then she commented on typical sources of tension between nonprofits and volunteers, and recommended ways for coping with these. Third, she laid out the pitfalls that digital-skills based volunteers often run into. And finally, she closed by urging volunteers to take a look at the landscape before signing up for a project.

Common Organizational Needs Since COVID-19

Ellie sorted the common needs into three main categories:

Technological Capacity

  • Many nonprofits need help moving things online. As part of this, they need help understanding what platforms are best suited for them.
  • At first nonprofits were interested in issues like finding the right video conferencing tools. Now they’re more interested in learning how to manage things like “Zoom Bombs” and privacy violations.
  • Some organizations need basic hardware, like phones.
  • Nonprofits need help dealing with specific problems — problems like keeping volunteer’s numbers anonymous.

Transitioning Services

  • Organizations are trying to figure out which services to continue as-is and which to deliver in new ways. They need to figure out what’s possible and practical for moving face-to-face services online, and they need to get creative about it.
  • They have to find strategies for serving their most vulnerable — especially those with limited access to tech.
  • They also need to strategize for the long term. What should they do next with digital? What should they prioritize? How do they prioritize?

Digital Ways of Working

  • There was a big rush of need around this at first. People quickly mastered basic skills, like using Zoom and WhatsApp. Now people are interested in more complex skills, like safeguarding and supporting the wellbeing of staff and users.

Working with Nonprofits as a Skills-Based Volunteer

Tensions often arise from misaligned expectations, but these can be managed.

Language and cultural differences introduce misconceptions and frustrations. There can be large culture and language differences between social organizations and tech workers, but just because an organization doesn’t use the same language as someone in tech doesn’t mean it doesn’t have in-house capabilities. Volunteers might develop erroneous assumptions about the organization, and this can lead to conflict. This is why it is very important to build a shared understanding between the two parties from the get-go. As a volunteer, you should invest in the organization’s mission. Have a mutual respect for each others’ areas of expertise. Have humility. Be ready to learn.

Nonprofits don’t always have a well developed on-boarding system. Volunteers may expect to be welcomed with a smooth on-boarding system. However, organizations are stretched thin right now, and many don’t have these processes in place. So as a volunteer, you can help by having a mind toward how you can lead some of this on-boarding work for yourself so that the organization can get the most out of you.

Remember that long term engagements create much more impact than one-offs. There’s a huge desire to provide support immediately and to see quick results. Nevertheless, we’ve found that long-term engagements are much more effective than short ones. Think about how you can provide support on an ongoing basis.

Pitfalls in Digital-Skills Based Volunteering

Check your expectations and look out for these pitfalls.

You won’t always jump straight to development. Some volunteers go in thinking they’ll immediately start working on tech development, but a better strategy is to help the organization conduct a needs assessment and to define the problem first.

The project’s needs don’t end when the product is delivered. Building capacity is critical so that the organization isn’t left dependent. This dependency can be more harmful than the product was beneficial.

You don’t have to figure things out from scratch. Make use of what’s out there. The Coronavirus Tech Handbook is a directory of things that are going on and you can learn what people are already doing.

Looking for the Right Match

Look out for other communities that are able to help you find a good match for your skills. There are great skills-based volunteering platforms out there already. Check out:

  • TapRoot: A foundation that connects nonprofits and other social change organizations with skilled volunteers through pro bono service.
  • CatchAFire: An organization that makes skill-based connections between professional volunteers and nonprofits.
  • Zooniverse: An organization that matches people of all ages and backgrounds with online citizen science projects.


Mala Kumar

GitHub, Social Impact, Open Source for Good


Mala Kumar is the Program Manager of Open Source for Good at GitHub. She works to identify ways GitHub can work with the social sector and she also develops approaches for making open source accessible, understandable and relatable.

While working for the social impact team, she became responsible for GitHub’s volunteer program. As she launched this program, she conducted a series of semi-structured interviews where she asked people at GitHub how they wanted to interact with the social impact team. There was an even split — half wanted to do lower-skilled volunteering like working at a food pantry, and half wanted to use their skills (the things they were hired by GitHub to do) in their volunteer work.

As she led this program, she learned many dos and don’ts for skills-based volunteering:

  • This is not a time to build your portfolio. There are students entering a struggling economy and many people transitioning jobs. Still, this is not the time to say “I’m gonna build a prototype,” if you’ve never built one before. Stick to what you do best. If you’re a technical documentation person, do that.
  • Don’t duplicate work. There are 60,000 projects having to do with COVID-19 on GitHub right now, so there are many opportunities and many potential duplicates. If you want to do good volunteering, you have to do the work on your own to find opportunities and figure out how you can contribute in a meaningful way without working wastefully. It costs time and money to match you to correct opportunities and manage you. Duplicated efforts mean these costs were for naught.
  • Always try to build off of what’s there. There’s a great ecosystem in the open-source community — there’s a whole public health ecosystem — and if you have a great skill set (like coding) there’s definitely opportunities, but take the time to figure out where your skills are best placed so that your time is used effectively.
  • Understand what problem you’re trying to address. Define a specific problem statement. “Everyone is broke and I want to do something,” is too vague. Figure out if there’s a specific community or service you want to help. Are there specific reasons people are being left out?
  • Mobilize other volunteers when appropriate. There’s a fine line between encouraging and pressuring people to get involved. Organizations shouldn’t pressure their staff to you out and volunteer, especially now when people have their own situations and families to worry about. Instead, find the people that feel like they can contribute.


Angshuman Sarkar

Principal Consultant, ThoughtWorks


Angushman is a Principal Consultant at Thoughtworks and a technologist with a lens on open source. At the Salon, he shared insights on what has and has not worked on the software projects of which he’s been a part. In short, he recommends finding a project that aligns well with your skills and interests, ensuring there’s a clear user for the software you’re developing, taking security seriously, and sticking to technology best practices.

Find Relevant Projects that You’re Well Aligned With. Don’t reinvent things that have already been done. There are tons of people working on many different problems. Find people you’re aligned with and collaborate. Make sure the projects you work on are relevant. We need to solve the new problems. The “Day 0 Problems” (the immediate ones) have probably already been solved so don’t focus there. The “Day 1 Problems” (today’s problems) probably have people working on them already. “Day 2 and 3 Problems” are on the horizon. Remember to play to your skills. Find something that can make real use of what you have to offer.

Find an Owner for Whatever Your Working On. No matter what you’re working on, always ask: Will someone use it? Find out who your prospective users are and design for them. This is not the time to get dejected. Not everything you build will be used, but something will probably get taken up. The work was not for nothing, it contributed to the greater effort. This is like a war, sometimes you need to follow your superiors and keep the faith.

Take Security Seriously. Take security measures seriously. With any project you take up, do at least some basic security modeling or threat modeling to understand what are the most important things to solve from the very beginning. Whatever you do, don’t take off your security lenses. Developers are the last line of defense.

Don’t Do Anything That’s Not Appropriate Technology. This is not a time to set new expectations. Think about the digital principles. Get at least one representative user and work with him or her.


Anahi Ayala Iacucci

Co-founder, Standby Task Force 


Anahi is an independent consultant who in 2010 co-created the Standby Task Force, a global network of volunteers who put their professional and personal skills to use by assisting first response agencies operating in crisis sites. From 7 volunteers, the Task Force grew to over 2,000 volunteers within a year and a half. There was a very steep learning curve, and Anahi shared some of her takeaways from this experience.

Hard Skills and Soft Skills Both Matter. Pairing people by skills is a good practice. Have the translators work with the translators, the coders with the coders, the UX designers with the UX designers, and so on. This structure is wonderful because it organizes people into groups with complementary skills, so they can work and be deployed more easily. However, having complementary skills is not enough. Personality is important. Sometimes people simply cannot work together. Working online with people you’ve never met is extremely difficult and requires many soft skills beyond the hard skills volunteers have to contribute to a project.

Communication is a Challenge. While you may have volunteers with all the right technical skills, when the volunteers come from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, it can create issues. Volunteers may struggle to communicate and understand each other. Body language, tone, voice, and cultural references are extremely important, and these are difficult to convey skillfully over digital channels.

Volunteers are Also Affected People. There is a massive emotional load for all of us as we deal with COVID. Taking this into account is a huge part of managing volunteers. It is important to have strategies in place to care for volunteers’ mental health. Some strategies include having people from within the organization use chat sessions to check and see if people are ok or to monitor how long people are working. This is an important point for organizations that want to have volunteers. Volunteers will always say that their mental health will be totally fine, but this is typically not the case. This is especially true for long-term projects on topics that are very emotional.

Breakout Room Discussions

There is a huge demand for volunteering globally — to the point where there are too many requests to place and a fear of overloading NGOs. Volunteers are a huge asset, but they are also costly, and working with volunteers comes with a new set of risks and challenges. The breakout rooms touched on some of these considerations, highlighting issues and proposing some possible solutions.

Managing Volunteers is Costly, Aim for Longevity

  • On-boarding Isn’t free. Find Ways to Make It More Efficient
  • Volunteers are additional work for managers, not just free labor. Managers should not underestimate the time it takes to onboard and manage them.
  • There is no avoiding the costs of integrating volunteers into projects, but there are ways to build creative and efficient on-boarding processes. For example, one system organized volunteers into a three-level hierarchy where higher tiered volunteers trained new volunteers in their teams. The team leader had a chat for new volunteers to answer questions and they shared detailed documents to educate the new volunteer. These documents were revised with every volunteer that was on-boarded.

Hold On to Those That are in It for the Long Haul

  • The longevity of volunteers is important. The longer an organization can retain a volunteer, the lower its on-boarding costs and the more valuable the volunteer becomes.
  • Volunteers are looking for different types of involvement and projects need different types of commitment. Though it is good to retain volunteers, not all volunteers will want a long commitment. Similarly, not all projects require a lengthy commitment. Find out what your volunteers want and what your projects need, and match them accordingly.

Manage Burnout

  • Volunteers need recognition and feedback on their progress. We underestimate volunteers’ need for recognition. It is important to give them frequent responses and show them the progress they’re making.
  • Recognize your volunteers and stop them before they hit the burnout phase. Identify a resource to manage the volunteers if you can. When you identify signs of burnout, purposely recognize the volunteers and remove them from the work. Then keep them involved peripherally and help them maintain a connection to the community until they can rejoin or move on if they choose.

Set Up Processes to Foster Continuity

  • There is high turnover among volunteers, which is why it’s important to prepare for a project’s sustainability in case they leave. Build a structure for sustainability to set up fundraising and capacity to take on a long-term project.
  • The key to making a project sustainable is to have great documentation and on-boarding guidelines so new recruits can take a process over. Having really great “ReadMe’s,” on-boarding docs, and ZenDesk “Help Me” guidelines is useful.
  • Enforcing documentation is hard because it’s not fun problem solving, it’s support. One thing that is appealing about volunteering in the humanitarian sector is that it fulfills you, and it’s fun. It allows you to do some problem solving and feel like you are directly making a difference. Writing technical documentation and making things maintainable goes from being a win-win to playing support, and that’s less enticing for many volunteers, though it is essential work.

Tech Isn’t Everything, Make Space for the Rest

The work is 20% tech and 80% the rest. There need to be processes in place to involve “the rest.” Some general recommendations for these processes include:

  • Go out and talk to communities. The goal isn’t to try and impose something we think they need, it’s to respond to what they need.
  • Bring in non-tech voices. Bring non-tech people into calls so solutions are built in collaboration. We need to slow down to do things properly.
  • Set up structures to bring in these voices. Volunteers need to have structures in place to enable them to volunteer properly and to stay in touch with what’s happening on the ground.

Prepare to Navigate the Line Between Free and Paid Work

  • At some point volunteer work becomes paid work. At a certain point nonprofits and volunteers need to think through when the emergency work stops and the paid work starts. NGOs can tend to forget this line. One thing is to set up volunteers that want to help. The other is to take something you would typically hire a team of developers to create and give that to a bunch of volunteers — expecting them to do a job you would otherwise pay for.
  • Much of the work of setting boundaries falls on the volunteers. Volunteers need to be clear about volunteer hours, be careful about scope creep, be willing to give away work, and be ready to walk away when it’s time.

Understand Volunteers’s Drives

  • Volunteering is often self-satisfying. Giving time is often something people enjoy more than giving money, but both are important. Often the gift of funding is more useful for an organization, but this is less interesting for many individuals. During COVID-19 also, people may be experiencing cuts in their own income and might have more time on their hands. Organizations might do best to find ways to work in that context. People should also recognize that organizations are cash-strapped because of the current economy and give cash when possible to cover needs that organizations cannot resolve through volunteering.
  • Volunteers need to understand what they sign up for. Some of this work involves mostly sitting in meetings or working on boring, back-end things. It’s not always glamorous!

Resource List

Resources on volunteering and other aspects of Tech in the time of Coronavirus.

Tech in the Time of Coronavirus Series

The Tech in the Time of Coronavirus Series is co-organized and supported by Technology Salon in conjunction with ThoughtWorks, Pivotal Act, the UN Foundation’s Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), and GitHub. This particular Salon was also supported by The Engine Room. The series aims to bring together the wider technology sector with humanitarian and crisis response sector experts, specifically those who have worked on past crises situations, to highlight good practices and to avoid repeating well-documented mistakes and re-inventing wheels.

We also hope that through connections made at these Salons we can find effective and impactful ways to work together on the COVID-19 response. We record the first part of each Salon and share it publicly. For the second hour, we divide participants into moderated, off-the-record break-out groups for frank and open discussions aimed at identifying and working through challenges and moving towards collaboration.

We will cover several topics over the next few months, including the issue of responsible and ethical use of data during COVID-19; effective ways to volunteer; the role of the corporate, foundation, and other donors; the impact of COVID-19 on online education, economy and jobs, domestic abuse and gender violence, mental health and substance abuse, and other emerging secondary effects of the pandemic.

We will also cover topics that aim to help agencies working on the crisis to move towards effective digital response necessitated by the need to avoid face-to-face contact with communities and one another and government mandates to quarantine to avoid spreading the virus.

Read about past and future Salons in the series:

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