A volunteer could give their time and skills to help you build your website. However, you need to think carefully about your expectations and their motivations, be realistic about what can be achieved and how quickly, and plan for the inevitable time when your volunteer decides to quit. Here are some thoughts on how to find and manage website volunteers.
Voluntary doesn’t mean amateur
Don’t ask a volunteer to design your website unless they have the same skills as a professional web designer. Interview them and ask to see other work that they’ve done, until you’re satisfied they can do the job properly. If they can talk confidently to you about web design without talking over your head, that’s a good sign. Don’t be afraid to reject volunteers if they’re unsuitable.
If you need a volunteer to help keep the site’s content up-to-date then techie skills are less important: look instead for someone with good grammar and spelling, fairly good basic computing skills, the ability to copy text accurately, and plenty of spare time on their hands.
The better organised you are, the more likely your volunteers are to do a good job for you. Always provide them with a short, clearly written project brief and state what standards you expect.
Get free advice
Web design is a constantly shifting area of technology and you may sometimes need advice. Many consultants and web professionals are happy to give some pro-bono advice, particularly if it can be done quickly. If your website isn’t getting many visitors, ask an expert in search engine optimisation to give an hour or two of their time to help you figure out what the reason and solution might be. If you don’t know which content management system to implement on your new website, find an expert to help you decide. It doesn’t hurt to ask and if they decline, thank them graciously for getting back to you. If they agree, ask for a short written report and remember to thank them.
Find a helpful geek
In the UK a charity called IT4Communities can help you find a suitable volunteer. I’d recommend you contact them rather than use your local Volunteer Centre because IT4Communities specialise in matching you with technically adept volunteers and will help you define your needs properly. IT4Communities has a case studies section on their website, showcasing some of their successful volunteer projects. Some of these are web design projects and one of the case studies is about how, whilst living in Australia, I gave a website health check to The Theatre Royal Stratford East. In 2010 I worked three days a week for IT4Communities at their office near Barbican, London, so I can recommend their service to charities that need a volunteer.
You might also use Sparked, a website that enables you to get advice and sometimes practical support from volunteers online. It’s not all IT related, because as well as help with website development you could ask for help with logo design, copy writing and similar tasks. The kind of tasks that work well on Sparked tend to be quicker and simpler than those on iT4Communities.
What’s their motivation?
Volunteers need to get something out of the work they do for you: a sense of achievement, sharing skills, socialising. If they do a good job, send them a thank you letter, provide them with a reference or recommend their work to other charities.
School kids and university students are often given a project to create a simple website. They may decide to ‘help’ a charity by using them as their project. Remember, by definition a student is someone who hasn’t yet learned to do something, so why let them loose on your site? They almost certainly won’t be available to fix any problems afterwards.
Watch out for wannabe web designers who want to build up their portfolio by creating you a free website. An organisation I know once had a volunteer design their website. He became angry when they later altered the colour scheme because it no longer matched the picture in his portfolio. Volunteers should be doing the work primarily for your, not their own benefit. Also, very few beginning web designers can design standards-compliant websites.
Your volunteers won’t be around forever
Many are between jobs, retired, on holiday from university, employed part-time or on long-term sick leave and their situation may be subject to change with little notice. Therefore, don’t give long-term projects to volunteers unless the work could easily be taken on by someone else when they leave. Don’t give volunteers urgent work and tight deadlines, that’s unfair.
You’re in charge
If you’re not a very technically-minded person it can be tempting to leave everything in a volunteer’s hands, but this has its dangers. For example, I know a charity that fell out with their volunteer web designer, who then claimed copyright of their website, deleted it and changed the passwords. Ouch. When working with volunteers on websites, ensure that the charity has ownership of the domain name and the hosting account, retain all passwords, and make clear to the volunteer that you own copyright on any work they create for you. Ideally, put this in a simple, short contract that they sign. Try to communicate regularly with your volunteer about progress and any concerns you or they have.