Define your product and dev tasks, then shout it out
Web developers are super popular (way beyond any high school popularity contest). Nonprofits, causes, and endeavors for social good (often resource-scarce or digitally challenged) need websites! Times demand that we bring these two communities together and use technology towards social purpose.
“Volunteer developers always ghost,” many say. “It’s so hard to find volunteer developers,” I’ve heard innumerable times. And here I am today, volunteer product strategist on a super exciting project that potentially had as many as seven software engineers but stalled for 2 months without a WordPress dev (#verypainful). But nonprofits need quality websites and it’s a challenge for which we need to find solutions!
I found a lot of developers over the course of my tenure at the Taproot Foundation and matched them to deliver successful pro bono projects for nonprofits across the country. I’ve just transitioned out so it’s a good time to summarize my experience — I think I have some solutions and here’s what I’ve found works.
1. Define product and tasks so developers can see where they can make a difference
I feel strongly that product dictates need: you must have at least a basic idea of what needs to be built in order (even better an MVP — Minimum Viable Product) to find the people who can build it. And you need to define the specific tasks of the developer. General calls for developers just don’t work!
Nonprofit websites can be messy or amateur due to lack of resources. But software engineers are not magicians. It takes a team, right? So make sure navigation, visual design, content audit & copywriting are good to go; do you need him/her to advise on technical feasibility? Identify any specific platform and functionalities that you’ll need; what about content migration, data integration, hand-off documentation?
If you don’t know how to answer these questions, you need support. Somebody in your world needs to know what you’re building!
2. Cast a wide net
I sent outreach emails on my final Taproot project to almost 6,000 volunteers with self-identified WordPress expertise and was able to confidently recommend six. That is a .1% success rate, which sounds horrendous! But one of those developers will be perfect and will complete the project because I know s/he is the right fit. Who knew, but open rate on this project’s email outreach was 5% above average nonprofit open rates and double the all-industry rates.
All this to say, if you’re looking for that needle, you want to start with a big haystack.
3. Evaluate expertise on a give/learn spectrum
There are lots of models for tech volunteering: internships, tech firms, civic, nonprofit pro bono facilitators, corporate, individual efforts plus hackathons galore. These models lie across a continuum of giving and learning that corresponds to levels of expertise. On one hand, motivation to contribute one’s professional skills generally indicates offering an expertise. My experience is with skills-based or pro bono volunteering, where a certain level of expertise is required in order to deliver a high-level product. On the other hand, volunteers with early stage skills would likely be more intent on gaining practice and expertise. I do believe that the volunteer learning opportunities require close direction, hands-on instruction and strong mentoring. Volunteers sometimes want to contribute their passion without a corresponding expertise. A bit of push back is wise in order to understand what a volunteer might bring to the table: how many years’ experience do you have, what’s your proficiency level, describe the challenge and solution for a sample site or two that you’ve developed and provide links to see your work.
4. Consider remote support
Simple: Don’t rule out remote developers!
Paid positions: nonprofits are eligible for LinkedIn discounts on job postings
Footnote: This 2014 blog post WordPress Developers: Leap into the Pro Bono World! from Jenn de la Fuente still rings true for developers who want to do new things, continually develop their talents and collaborate: Having limited resources for a project doesn’t mean you can’t produce something amazing. Sometimes having limited resources can foster creative solutions.