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Stubborn Nonprofits

  • Hi, I just found this site and registered. Something has hit a nerve with me, in my two experiences as a volunteer (Habitat For Humanity, Big Brothers Big Sisters). Both of those nonprofits were elated to have me working for them. I troubleshooted, repaired and configured the computers that had been donated to them. However, I found that as long as I didn't demonstrate that I was capable of REALLY doing great things for their IT infrastructure, they would thank me and nod yes to everything that I suggested.

    At HOH, the guy that I was working for had things in pretty much a huge mess before I got there. I eventually got a system in place, where it was easy to accept donated computers, rebuild the computer and install them at stations throughout the different offices. When I became bored with that, I wanted more responsibility. That is when the guy I was working for started treating me like a child. He wanted to teach me how to configure Microsoft Terminal Services clients, yet wouldn't tell me the password so that I could do that stuff on my own. He had to be there with every step I took. It eventually became overbearing, and I honest to goodness feel that he was starting to feel insecure with how much I knew.

    Fast-forward to BBBS. They were extremely excited to have me there, and access to my technical skills and talents. That place was a BIG mess. The lady that I was working for (she was a secretary who had recently been named "Volunteer Project Coordinator" and was even sent to an A+ class by her boss at BBBS. She seemed to really want to get to know me, and bounce our knowledge back and forth. It only made sense for me to, once again, get everything organized so that anything could be done with efficiency. I had to go through, and weed out the older computer components that were basically useless. Sadly, that probably meant most of the stuff they had been storing for 3 years. Eventually, I got the ducks lined up in a row, and got two computers going. This is when I started asking for more responsibility, well tasks that were more challenging. At this point, my boss started the "well, we don't want to do anything special with our computers, our job here is to be social workers" mantra. I wasn't asking her to invest in expensive Cisco routing equipment and servers, and whatnot. I wasn't asking her to invest in ANYTHING. I wasn't even asking her to change the layout of their IT infrastructure. All I suggested to her was that to make things easier in the future for the techs that volunteered there (or for her, or the person that comes in behind her should she leave), they should put all collected computer hardware drivers in one spot on a server (except for network card drivers on a floppy, for the obvious reason) to be easily acceptable, and that they should consider putting up the executable for OSS software (Firefox, Sunbird, Thunderbird) for their users to try out should they want to (and so that BBBS could save money by not having to invest in more Microsoft software). My boss would say "that sounds like a GREAT plan!", then just leave. Anytime I brought up the subject of trying these things, I'd get a run-around. I would get "well, that isn't a high priority, we'll get to the hard stuff later.". Ugh, what???? It only takes 30 seconds to create a folder for the drivers on the server, and probably five minutes to download all three OSS products and put them in a folder. This would have made MY job as the volunteer tech so much easier. I wasted so much time trying to track down drivers.

    So, I'm left wondering whether nonprofits just don't like computer techies, or whether computer techies just make people in general uncomfortable. I really don't know what I did wrong. I drew diagrams (I think I would do very well in Logistics) to explain my suggestions, would get approval for those suggestions, but a balk from the boss anytime I tried taking that first step toward making said suggestions happen. What's the give?

    Am I just not landing in the right places to utilize my technical gifts? I consider myself a cross between a System Administrator and Technical Consultant. Or, are most nonprofits stubborn about fudging with technology?
  • brudjazz,

    Sorry to hear of your negative experiences. There are various practical and even legal issues that put a ceiling on the sort of responsibility that can be entrusted to a volunteer. Not much you can do but learn the rules as you go.

    That said, non-profits have some bizarre quirks and it can be very difficult to adapt to the NPO environment, especially for an I.T. person.

    "I'm left wondering... whether computer techies just make people in general uncomfortable."

    Yes, we do. It's a gift we seem to share.

    Much comes from people's discomfort with the technology itself. The rest usually involves our charismatic personalities which may be better suited to a Star Trek convention than to the management of an I.T. department.

  • Hey Evil,

    The comment in this thread:

    To both Yann and Evil

    should have been addressed to you, too. Thanks again for your words of encouragment :)
  • It sounds like you have to make some tough life/career decisions in the near future and I wish you the best. While your service to the community is commendable, you might want to explore some other paths as well.

    When I was in a similar position, many years ago, I followed someone's advice and called local temp agencies, looking for work as a computer support technician. It took about six weeks before I got my first assignment but I ended up temp'ing for three major corporations over the next six months. I was able to play with expensive hardware, learn information, techniques and values from experts in the field, develop some of my people skills, and get paid (not a lot) for doing it. My resume improved significantly but it didn't matter because someone in the third corporation spotted my potential and they hired me full-time.

    With your volunteer status, you have the luxury of dabbling in similar ventures.

    One cautionary note: Many temp agencies simply do not handle technical positions. If they are overly concerned with your typing speed and ability to make coffee in the morning, and not very interested in which operating systems you know, then you need to find a different agency.

  • I think the days of temping as a technical worker at corporations are long gone. There are simply too many qualified techies for a corporation to bother fooling around with someone that's just learning about technology. Temp agencies charge an ENORMOUS rate for the crappy quality of a product they produce (poor recruiting efforts + randomly picked resumes that look nice = crappy techies). Sorry if I'm offending anyone here, but that's the way it's turning out. I still love working with technology, and would still volunteer my skills, but I am already resigned to going back to college (university) for a medical-related degree. In the past couple of days I've been contacted by a couple of nonprofits needing tech help (The Spayed Club, Texas Blue Bird Society, and some others) and they put up these want ads for 'Web Master' when all they want is someone to keep data updated on the websites. They really have no idea what they're looking for, and complain that this and that needs to be fixed. Yet, when I say that I would need access to their server in order to fix anything, I get a "thanks for emailing us, we found someone else". Ugh, okay. Thanks for wasting my time, have fun hunting bluebirds.
  • A little bit of the Devils advocate here, but a lot of techies go into NPO's, cast a short critical eye around the place and start suggesting the NPO *should* be doing this or that... Fogetting the golden rule of property (location location location) also applies to NPO's (culture culture culture).

    Ideas need to be sold, not demanded. Concepts nurtered into the cultural entity of which you are now a part. People working in positions for many years (and doing quite well thank you!) do not appreciate someone with change in their eye demanding a complete revamp of something as critical as the organizational info system. Just remember what looks like chaos to you might be working very well for people experienced in working in this envirnment.

    I'm not at all suggesting you did wrong by trying to drive change... just that "change management" is at least as complex a profession as IT, probably more so. It takes a lot of patience and learning to work as a technical volunteer for an NPO, far more to act as an agent of change... but it is worth it in the long run.

    Rgds, Don
  • I do understand what you are saying. It's easy to imagine NPO's seeing us 'enthusiastic technical volunteers' as being gung-ho and Mr. Know-It-All's. I'm sure that I've been a little too enthusiastic before, myself. Lately, though, I've experienced NPO's who complain that this and that isn't working and that "just need the help, whatever you can do would be great". When you try and help them, though, they change faces in a heartbeat. They don't know anything about IT, but when push comes to shove, they won't allow you to show the way. To me, it just seems wrong. If you don't really want the help, then don't put an ad in the paper suggesting so.
  • Brudjazz, I understand your frustration. You have had the unfortunate experience of working with a string of nonprofit organizations that:
    -- advertised their need for a tech volunteer before they were ready to actually involve such a volunteer
    -- advertised their need for a particular type of tech volunteer, but actually were in need of a different type
    -- weren't very good/experienced at working with tech volunteers (or any volunteers, it sounds like)

    Your experiences are not uncommon, but I assure you, there are many, many nonprofits out there who involve tech volunteers (and other kinds of volunteers) very effectively.

    Searching for a satisfying volunteering experience is, to me, very similar to finding the right job: you want something that not only has tasks that match your skills, but also, an organizational culture that makes you feel involved and essential. And you are probably going to have to apply more than a few times before you find the *right* match.

    You are perfectly within your rights to be discriminating about what kind of organization you want to help -- it might even help to write down what it is you are looking for, and when you meet with a potential nonprofit to help, go over your points with them, to make sure expectations are clear for everyone. There won't be hard feelings if, in an "interview", you both decide this isn't a good "match."

    You also might want to expand how you want to help a nonprofit. For instance, could you help a nonprofit write better task descriptions for tech volunteers? Could you help such an organization further identify tech tasks that could be undertaken by volunteers? Could you help the org manage a group of volunteers on tech related projects? These are all tasks that many nonprofits need help with, as you yourself know now from your previous experiences. Consider writing a proposal that offers your services as a volunteer for these and other activities.

    And lastly -- try to keep a positive attitude. Organizations, upon meeting a candidate, should want to involve that volunteer not only because of his or her skills, but also because the person gives the impression of being easy to work with.

    Thanks for your provocative posts -- it's added a lot of life to the Volunteers and Tech forum!
  • brudjazz, I think the approach you need to take with a volunteer position, is to take baby steps. I have noticed that a lot of non-profits are resistant to change. They have a way about doing things, and some new person coming in and saying this needs to be changed, that needs to be changed, can make some people nervous. In the NPO that I work for, its taken me a year and a half to where I am comfortable with how things are running. Were things a mess when I got here? Yes, but I didn't tell them that. I recommended small changes here and there.

    Gary Network/Systems Admin Berlin, NH
    Host Non-profit Tech Careers, Security Forums
    Co-Host Networks, Hardware, & Telecommunications Forum

  • Fear overcomes all logic..
    If your mentors do not teach you, then find better mentors.
    Look at being considered a threat as pathetic response from your mentor. Its REALLY your mentor saying you are doing a great job.

    NPO's have much trouble adding "outsiders" to the fold .

    Explain your ideas to the top and get control from the top. Then the troops in the trenches become less problematic...

    Document the problem, Document the resolution. Get approval for the resolution. Promote the resolution with the approval from whoever ..
    Deploy the resolution.
    This way everyone becomes involved with the problem.
    Seeing an approval "signed" by the Executive Director gives you and the resolution important status within the NPO...


    Ozzie Non Profit Organisation Network Consulting System Design New York
  • I know what you mean about the ‘Warm on the outside cold on the inside’ mentality that pervades the Community sector especially small NGOs. I think that it is hard to manage people’s ownership issues in NGOs. I can remember a time when I was traveling in Vanuatu. I met a few really nice people that where volunteering there at the time. They where trying to get all the NGOs in the country to work together. They had probably the best Community ICT project that I have seen. There was an Australian Volunteer Norvan Vogt. I think that he was with the Australian Youth Ambassadors Program. He was working with a Canadian VSO Volunteer Gregor. They set up this nifty little Linux setup, Basically they set up a mail server with a few dial ups hanging off of it. They charged a small fee for each user who then got an email address. While I was there a lot of the NGOs where signing up as it was the only way to get a cheap email address. Signal-handedly it was probably the one thing that empowered those NGOs the most, communication is the key in solving these ownership issues in my eyes. Ah well that is my 2 cents worth.
  • I think this could make a great article for TechSoup -- sort of primer for tech volunteers -- on how to make the most of a volunteer experience. It could cover how you find the right volunteer position (and the questions you should ask to make sure it's a good match), how you go about understanding the organizational culture, and strategies for suggesting and implementing changes.

    Anyone interested in writing such an article for TechSoup? It would be very valuable, and our editorial resources are at your disposal (we can help you shape the article and edit it).
    Frith Gowan Editor,
  • beccjonez it s funny that you mention him, I also worked with Norvan Vogt. We where working on an project in Mexico. There was a problem with trying to get remote sites working on our WAN. Everything that we tried to do was not working. So what Norvan did was set up a 9600bps 2m VHF connection between the two sites. That where about 60km apart. The modem link that they tried to set up would not work because the phone systems there where quite bad. Ok so 9600bps was a bit slow but the connection was up 24/7. Then Norvan configured the Servers at both ends to prioritize e-mails that where under 5kb and to reject anything above 100kb. That way the more urgent 'regular' email traffic would go through straight away. The more bulky email traffic would go through at night. I wonder where he got to or what he is doing now?
  • "Anyone interested in writing such an article for TechSoup? It would be very valuable, and our editorial resources are at your disposal (we can help you shape the article and edit it)."

    You are looking for a volunteer to write this article, or, is this a paid gig?
  • I am looking for a volunteer to summarize all the great advice that's already in this thread, and add to it if possible.
    Frith Gowan Editor,