Vancouver Community Network
TECHNICAL VOLUNTEER WEB
The purpose of the Technical Volunteer Web project was to develop a set of practices for connecting technical volunteers in voluntary sector organizations with a larger technical resource network that can provide additional recruitment, training and support to complement the non-profit organization's volunteer program. Many of the details regarding the evolution of the project and supporting materials were previously submitted and can be found on the project website.
The Interim Report for May, 2001 reported on activities toward establishing the Management Committee; the participatory evaluation process; presentation kits and collaboration tools; and community technical volunteer orientation, training and mentorship programs. The Report and supporting documents are found at: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/involve/rep0501
The Interim Report for September 2001 contained further details on recruitment, orientation and training activities; the presentation kit for voluntary organizations; the tool kit of help and support documents (Volunteer Manual and HelpPages); and volunteer placement and projects. The September Report and supporting documents are found at: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/involve/rep0901
This Final Report highlights some of the more significant activities and findings, the challenges met, and some recommendations for further development. The attached Participatory Evaluation Final Report provides a very thorough assessment of the project and resulting recommendations from the perspective of the four stakeholder groups involved.
Intake, Orientation and Deployment of Technical Volunteers
The project's objectives included the development and implementation of an intake, orientation and training process for 60 technical volunteers, 40 of whom would be placed with 10 voluntary sector groups. Over the duration of the project, 112 volunteers were recruited, oriented and trained. Of those, 43 worked on specific technical projects to benefit non-profits, provided installation and troubleshooting at Community Access Sites and provided training and user support. Forty-three of the 112 volunteers recruited through the project remain active, with 29 of those active for more than the three month minimum commitment requested. In addition, fourteen volunteers with longer term involvements with Vancouver Community Network remained active to varying degrees throughout the project. Some of these volunteers assisted in delivering training and mentorship to incoming volunteers.
The intake and orientation process evolved considerably over the course of the project as challenges and improvements were identified. Two models were explored early in the project by the Management Committee and Project Team. One model focused on the timing and availability of students satisfying the practicum requirements of Vancouver Community College's Information Technology Specialist program; the second model would be a more typical process of receiving referrals from Volunteer Vancouver and other volunteer centres and community groups. As the project unfolded, a hybrid developed in which practicum, work and cultural exchange placements overlapped with an ongoing intake of volunteers referred from Volunteer Centres and other programs.
Promotion of the project and the technical volunteer opportunities was directed at students of post-secondary technical programs, volunteer centres and community groups participating with Vancouver Community Network in VolNet, Community Access Program and Community Learning Network initiatives. Posters and volunteer job postings were distributed by fax and email and were posted online on the project website ( http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/involve/volinfoposter.html ). An Information Session for prospective volunteers was held bi-weekly through to the end of August. The Information Session was cancelled as more information became available on the website and the screening process became more efficient. For the benefit of groups seeking technical volunteers, the full list of recruitment sources is posted under the Finding and Working With Technical Volunteers section of the group resources page at: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/involve/npresrce.html
An online tracking database was used to track inquiries, applicants and correspondence up to the interview and placement stage. A simple ACCESS database was created to track applicants who progressed through to the interview and placement stages while a more complex database was under development.
An online application form was developed, initially allowing applications to be received by email while online databases for collecting these applications were being explored. As a product of one of the Technical Volunteer Web team projects, this application form is now feeding directly into a mySQL database that uses an ACCESS front-end for tracking all applications through placement and ongoing activities. The VolTracker database is undergoing refinements, and volunteers will be able to adapt similar projects for other non-profits in need of a volunteer administration tool. The application form itself has been significantly improved to provide a rating of all skills required in VCN's volunteer positions ( http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/volunteer/volapp.html ). Non-profits seeking technical volunteers may find the listing and rating of skills helpful in defining their own technical jobs and in screening applicants.
Technical volunteer opportunities are extremely popular, particularly to those seeking employment in technology. A 'snapshot' of the online tracking system for inquiries showed 269 inquiries from August 2, 2001 to January 24, 2002. According to Statistics Canada, more than one in every five volunteers (23%) agreed that improving job opportunities was a reason for volunteering, with younger volunteers aged 15 to 24 being even more likely (55%) to indicate this as a reason. Overall, 62% of all unemployed volunteers believed that volunteering would improve employment prospects ( Caring Canadians, Involved Canadians: Highlights from the 2000 National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating. Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, August 2001, p.35).
Initial promotion of the project and volunteer positions highlighted the valuable work experience and training on offer. The vast majority of applicants stated that gaining work experience was their reason for applying, and many of them knew little about the Vancouver Community Network or the community initiatives the Technical Volunteer Web was aiming to support. Selection on the basis of generic skill sets was difficult, given a high number of students with little prior practical experience applying from similar technical programs. Although enhancing the employment prospects of students and volunteers is a worthy objective, and many volunteers did find employment, the staff resources devoted to the promotion, screening, placement, support and training were found to be unsustainable given a high turnover rate.
Retention has proven to be the biggest challenge to meeting the success of the deployment objectives of the project as they were initially formulated.
Started in Still Active (of Recruited and Trained) January 2002 10 (of 11) November 2001 (3month mark) 9 (of 19) October 3 (of 8) September 6 of (10) August 4 (of 13) July 3 (of 14) June 0 (of 6) May 2 (of 15) April 0 (of 1) March 1 (of 2) February 1 (of 4) January 0 (of 6) December 2000 0 (of 3)
As VCN's primary mandate focuses on providing access to technology and ongoing support in its use, the orientation, training and ongoing staff support required can be quite intensive and the learning curve quite steep, particularly for students and volunteers with little or no prior work experience. The length of time required for a volunteer to be ready to be 'deployed' often exceeds the time they are available. Eleven volunteers were directly placed with other organizations to provide user support and training to staff and volunteers of those sites. Only two of those volunteers remain active on their regular schedule, with the rest having departed (some within less than 2 weeks of having been placed) due to full-time employment, a return to school, or leaving the province.
Better communication and an improved application form and screening process focussing on the community development aspects of the initiative have enhanced the use of resources and retention rates. Volunteers who demonstrate a commitment to the objectives of providing public access, community content and user support and training to the community and non-profits become more engaged in the networking and collaboration that benefits everyone. These volunteers seem to benefit more from their experience and seem to remain connected for longer. Some volunteers who find employment continue with online and after-hours projects, or state that they wish to return if their situation or VCN's work hours change.
The objective of developing a sustainable network of technical volunteers supporting non-profits might be better met if volunteers with long term involvements in other organizations were to receive appropriate technical training to complement the orientation and training of their 'home' organizations.
Toward this end, the project's outreach materials to groups and volunteer centres stressed the objective of involving volunteers of all non-profits in the network, through resource sharing, Internet skills training and User Support Train-the-Trainer sessions. Training curricula and sessions were developed and offered in coordination with the Community Access Program, Community Learning Networks and the VolNet initiative. Needs Assessment and Registration forms were posted online on the TVW project site in html and pdf format to enable easier promotion and access to the sessions ( http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/involve/#trng ). Volunteer Centres and non-profit groups were asked to promote these sessions to their member organizations and their own volunteers. Presentations and brochures about the technical volunteer network were provided during the training sessions to encourage participants to promote the network to their organizations and co-volunteers.
From September through December 2001, 65 individuals from 38 VolNet organizations attended basic skills sessions. Sixty-six individuals from 51 VolNet organizations attended advanced/applied skills sessions. A further 80 individuals (including TVW volunteers) from 51 organizations attended training sessions, presumably in part due to the enhanced outreach and communications.
Training offered specifically to volunteers recruited under the Technical Volunteer Web project includes a full-day orientation to Vancouver Community Network and its community initiatives. A comprehensive Volunteer Manual complements this training and is online for easy access by volunteers working at other sites or online ( http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/volunteer/manual ). Online collaboration tools, including majordomo mailing lists, a discussion board, a web-based calendar and the online problem tracking system all further support communication and informal learning amongst participating volunteers.
Volunteer Collaboration Tools and Online Workspaces
Web Calendar: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/webcal
This is a simple, free and easy to use tool that VCN will be making available as part of the Groups Services package. It has proven very helpful in maintaining helpdesk and off-site coverage, and to point volunteers to upcoming training sessions they can take advantage of. Volunteers can log in and maintain their own shift coverage, and are using it increasingly as they are trained to do so. Three Volunteer Schedules have been set up: User Support onsite at VCN; Off-Site Volunteers; Administrative Support Volunteers; as well as the 411/VCN Learning Lab calendar.
Mailing Lists: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/lists/off-vol
off-vol: all volunteers are subscribed to this list, which is used by staff and volunteers to share information, systems news, scheduling updates and general announcements, including discoveries of new resources, job postings, community and government initiatives. Many volunteers continue to use this list to notify the group of absences, but this is decreasing as new volunteers are trained in the use of the list and the webcalendar. The 'netiquette' of the volunteer mailing lists is covered briefly in the orientation session and more appropriate tools are being identified for different types of communication with different groups, including smaller group lists (community_content, public_access, trainer-vol).
This is a simple, easy to use bulletin board for volunteers to post questions, information, discoveries, resources and discussions on specific topics that would be of interest to a small number of volunteers. From October 25 to January 2, 15 topics were posted, including a reference from one volunteer to an excellent page of technical resources he developed on his own initiative. perlboard seems to be most popular with a small number of technical volunteers, and the hope is that it will serve as a resource for all. Some topic discussions will be refined into help pages and sets of Frequently Asked Questions for public posting on VCN's main Help Index. This is also fairly easy to install for use by other non-profits seeking a simple bulletin board for their own use.
Webwork: This is a VCN-hosted directory on the website serving as a workspace for content development projects: vt database, public access database, community index database, webpage development; volunteers working on these projects can ftp their documents and databases to the site for others to view, download and work on.
RT Job Jar Queue: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/rt/webrt.cgi
This is a special queue of VCN's Request Tracker: 34 Projects are being tracked and reported on by volunteer teams: 8 Community Content Development projects; 20 Public Access jobs; 6 Systems Administration projects. Many of these were reported on in the September Interim Report and can be found at: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/involve/rep0901/techproj.pdf
The Request Tracker (RT), the online system used to track all questions and problems from VCN users and groups, also provides a tool for incoming volunteers in that they are able to review past problems and their resolution.
The Interim Reports referred to two other collaboration tools that were explored and have been found to be unsuitable for this project, but may be of use to other groups or projects. QuickPlace is an online project workspace that was very intriguing to set up and design. Initially, it was viewed as a potential workspace for all participants: volunteers, staff, management committee members and non-profit groups. However, it required fairly heavy technical support and a learning curve that was too cumbersome to undertake with such a diverse and broadly dispersed group. This is an excellent collaboration tool for a group or project team with an established communication and work relationship.
TWiki (www.twiki.org) is an open-source web-based group collaboration tool which can be used to help a group of people 'grow' a website. This tool continues to be explored, but again, the technical learning curve has prevented its implementation and use during this project.
In addition to these volunteer projects and collaboration tools, a comprehensive page of resources for non-profits working with technical volunteers is posted on the project website. The page includes links to sites with information on technical and virtual volunteering and volunteer administration; mailing lists and discussion groups of interest to both managers and technical volunteers; recruitment sources including online virtual volunteer matching sites; training resources; and, help pages ( http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/involve/npresrce.html ).
Interim Reports submitted in May and September outlined the progress of the participatory evaluation process. The attached final report contains invaluable feedback on the project's outcomes and raises ideas for furthering the objectives of the Technical Volunteer Network.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Many of the standards and practices well-known in Volunteer Administration apply equally to working with technical volunteers. Based on insights gained through the development of the Technical Volunteer Web initiative, the following recommendations are offered.
It is recommended that non-profit groups seeking technical volunteers:
- Develop a technology workplan for their organization that outlines priorities, budget and existing technical resources, including hardware, software, personnel
- Use the job descriptions and application form developed under TVW as a starting point in identifying their needs and developing their recruitment materials for technical positions ( http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/volunteer );
- Establish and adhere to minimum skill level requirements that complement the organization's other recruitment and placement criteria;
- Assess any alternatives or new technology offered in terms of the organization's identified priorities, taking into account budget, learning curves of existing staff and volunteers, sustainability and maintenance;
- Post volunteer job descriptions with volunteer centres, educational institutions, work placement and cultural exchange programs ( http://www.vcn.bc.ca/vcn/involve/npresrces.html ), and include information about where prospective volunteers can find out more about the group's mandate and goals before applying;
- Ensure staff and volunteers have a clear understanding of each others expectations, resources and supports they can offer: if the organization is totally lacking in technical resources and expertise, a volunteer with intermediate to advanced levels of actual work experience should be sought; by the same token, a beginning technical volunteer is not likely to benefit in this environment, unless they have exceptional outside resources and problem-solving skills;
- Develop a workplan with the volunteer, and include a timeline and how the work would be transferred or sustained if (when) the volunteer leaves; many wonderful webpages have been developed and are totally inaccessible by anyone else in the organization;
- Establish a schedule with virtual volunteers for a regular check-in or meeting time; have volunteers save up questions and issues for discussion for that check-in time to enhance time management, as email can be extremely time consuming.
It is recommended that volunteers seeking technical placements in non-profits:
Explore placements that fit both skill levels and other interests and how personal goals fit with the mandate and goals of the organization;
Assess whether the skills, time and support required by the organization are realistic and achievable based on your experience, availability and motivations, and express your boundaries clearly before agreeing and committing to the work;
Have excellent research and problem-solving skills and know what other resources and supports are available and how to find them; technical know-how is only half the battle;
Always have the end-user in mind in any work or advice offered a non-profit; understand how the organization operates and be interested in the organization's goals and mandate so that the work and advice meets the needs of the organization and not the technology;
Attend 'train-the-trainer' sessions regardless of level of technical skill; non-profit staff and volunteers rely on this 'expertise', and development and sustainability of the use of technology depends very much on the way the expertise is communicated and transferred
It is recommended that volunteer centres, educational programs, career and cultural exchange programs:
Encourage more organizations to post their technical support positions;
Encourage volunteers to explore and broaden their motivations for volunteering beyond work experience to enhance community involvement and mutual satisfaction in placements;
Provide a link or reference to where prospective volunteers can find more information about an organization and encourage volunteers to research for the best fit with their overall goals and interests;
Recommendations for Further Development of the Technical Volunteer Network
Vancouver Community Network should continue to offer its Internet Skills sessions to all non-profit volunteers and staff in the lower mainland.
VCN should enhance its offerings and promotion of the Train-the-Technical-Trainer sessions, specifically targeting currently active technical volunteers in other non-profits, and should make it a requirement for VCN volunteers.
VCN should do a workplace assessment on accessibility for people with disabilities and women, and should explore shared workspace options with other organizations so that user support and training can be provided at locations and times more convenient to the community; many employed volunteers want to make a contribution but are unable to do so during regular office hours.
A plan should be developed for building the network with other non-profits who have a core of long term volunteers interested in becoming technical volunteers. A training program for these volunteers should be developed that would address different categories of technical needs of those groups beyond basic Internet use. Although VCN's mandate is focused on Internet access and online community content, there is great potential for working with the community to further reduce barriers to that access and to enhance community participation online. VCN's expertise in working with technology, the internet and technical volunteers could be used to further the objectives of sustainable Internet use by providing more of the basic foundations required to gain access, through training in:
basic computer skills training, particularly for senior volunteers and others working in non-profits who have not had access to developing these skills;
hardware and software support;
local area network, Community Lab and Access Site installations;
open source online database development;
production of open source software for use by the community; and
more applied skills in using technology and the Internet for goal-oriented non-profit work, such as advocacy, membership and fundraising, community development and other topics suggested by groups.
The Technical Volunteer Web project has been a very worthwhile undertaking, producing benefits for volunteers and students, non-profit groups, post-secondary institutions and other student and volunteer placement agencies and centres, and the Vancouver Community Network. Many volunteers gained desired work experience, while making very significant contributions to the volunteer network and community networking more broadly. Many have found employment (a few with the Vancouver Community Network itself). The VCN has been able to provide an enhanced level of support and training for volunteers and staff of partner community groups and others not previously involved with the VCN. The VCN and volunteers have been able to explore many open source and other developmental projects that will be transferable to the broader community. Volunteer recruitment, training and placement resources and tools have been developed for use by VCN and other technical volunteer-seeking organizations. Volunteers have begun to collaborate and initiate technical projects and help pages that will benefit fellow technical volunteers at VCN and in the community. As retention rates have improved, the technical volunteer network seems to be stabilizing and expanding, with more volunteers communicating and visiting with other site volunteers and responding better and more quickly to requests for help. There is a strong foundation for a community-based technical volunteer network supporting non-profits in their use of Information and Communications Technology.
The Vancouver Community Network would like to express its gratitude to the 126 individuals who contributed to the network as volunteers; the Vancouver Community College; Volunteer Vancouver; Self-Help Resource Association; Administrators of Volunteer Resources BC; Lee-Anne Ragan of Community Works for her Participatory Evaluation; and to the many other individuals and organizations that participated and contributed to the project, including the Ministry of Community Development, Cooperatives and Volunteers for its funding under the InVOLveBC program.
Co-ordinator, Technical Volunteer Web