Tips for successful voluntary development work

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One might say: The best work you do, you do for free.

In the realms of voluntary work, I think that saying should be changed to: The best work you do, you do for yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that a lot of selfless people do a tremendous amount of good work for others. I myself have recently started expanding my own voluntary work to include services that I might otherwise charge a great a deal of money for. This is all in the good name of Scouting. I love going to Scout and Explorer Scout meetings and giving these kids a purpose in life; but lately have been drafted into the District’s IT initiative due to my job being roughly that.

Let me explain the set up behind this organisation. You have national Scouting, which is then split up into the various counties in the UK, mine in particular being Kent. This is then split up into districts, the one I’m involved with being the Swanley district. A veritable source for kids of all ages in the area to learn, develop and grow within a successful, giving but also proud organisation. Let me take this post from being a slur and take it back to a technical case study…. My frustrations hold no place here.

The IT directive started as the District deemed that the web presence at the time was serving no purpose, about the same time as I joined the Scouting movement purely by coincidence and was quickly drafted to help within this initiative. I took this on with great gusto! I was proud to be able to give back to this community. I was reminded on various occasions that I was not at work and that this should have little impact on our working lives. A hard task for someone who spends all day doing that exact job I tell you! This directive has failed however for a few simple reasons. The first being that there was no person in charge of this directive who actually had a clue what was needed or wanted. A common problem that us professional developers face on an almost daily basis I hasten to add! Add this simple flaw to a group of people who spend their personal lives dedicated to a non profit and non paid voluntary past time and you have in one short word; disaster.

Unlike a professional outfit, this type of work is often done by people who take basic development skills/want to learn web development and apply them to this type of work in order to provide a wider presence for their causes. A grand gesture to say the least. We have committees, projects, development strategies the same as any company but these go unmanaged and are most of the time a rather ad hoc, “when I have time”, “when I can be bothered” basis. This in a company usually leads to a few sackings and a restructuring. In a voluntary organisation – you take all the help you can get.

In short a few tips for keeping those stress levels low and the success rate high:

1. Make sure that all meetings are recorded and sensible action points laid with regard to time available rather than time it SHOULD take.

2. Appoint someone who has the time to give to manage projects.

3. Take the time to train as many volunteers as you can to minimise impact on daily life. If you are stretched – you won’t do your best.

4. Although you can’t have a day to day normal running of a project – you can adopt sensible methodologies of working over a longer time period or a wider team. Agile is my personal favourite.

5. Make sure that people are being used sensibly to do sensible tasks. I.e don’t appoint someone who knows nothing of databases to run a project that includes building one.

6. Make sure that people talk to each other. In one case, we had someone promise a project without telling the right people he had done so (we were unaware) and without making sure that it is feasible in the first place. (It wasn’t.)

7. Don’t try and take everything on, you end up taking everyone on.

8. Don’t forget, it’s for a good cause and everyone is there for the right reasons.

With these – you will have a much happier experience in my view. It sounds very simple, but they are easily forgotten.

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