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3 Reasons Skills-Based Volunteering Is So Important For Makers

Giving back from your living room

Image courtesy of AdaptivOps

Running a nonprofit is hard work. And over the course of the last 13 months, it’s become even harder. According to a study by the philanthropy research group Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, more than one-third of U.S. nonprofits are in danger of closing within the next two years, on account of the economic harm inflicted by the pandemic.

The impact of a nonprofit shutting down is difficult to quantify, but it’s felt across the communities that nonprofit serves. When nonprofits close, communities suffer.

For those of us who maybe don’t work in the nonprofit sector, but who have the means to help, it’s more important than ever to give back and support these organizations. But what’s the best way to give back?

For the majority of my adult life, I thought there were only two real ways: give money, or donate time.

When nonprofits close, communities suffer.

Last December, however, I participated in Changemakers, a week-long hackathon-style event put on by AdaptivOps, the community of “makers” built by Tonkean. According to Briana Okyere, Community Lead for AdaptivOps, Changemakers was designed to connect nonprofits with professionals from the tech community (I’m currently a Solutions Architect at Tonkean). The idea was those tech professionals could help their nonprofit partners innovate ways to overcome certain of the operational challenges that the pandemic had made difficult to address on their own.

The idea, in other words, was to facilitate a third means of giving back: skills-based volunteering.

One of the nonprofits I was partnered with was A Future For Veterans, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide affordable housing solutions, supportive services, and peer support to transitioning military veterans.

“I believe it’s the moral responsibility of every citizen to welcome home our warriors, after they serve,” said Alex de la Campa, founder of A Future For Veterans. “And to provide the tenants of food, shelter, and water to military veterans, as they figure out the next transition of their lives.”

A Future For Veterans needed a more streamlined and efficient way to extend easier access to their resources — which includes information regarding how veterans can access housing or find their nearest VA hospital — and in a manner that better allowed volunteers to gain insight from their collected data.

Using Tonkean, a no-code process orchestration platform, I helped Alex create a module that integrates A Future For Veterans’ suite of apps; auto-replies to users and volunteers inside of Slack; and automatically records answers and metrics to one specific place (Airtable). All of which was work that previously had had to be done manually.

I was a tad skeptical, heading into Changemakers, about whether my contributions could really be all that valuable. I thought of the projects I spend most of my time working on — I’ve worked for tech startups and enterprise companies my whole career — and I wasn’t sure how they could apply to nonprofits and their differing problems and goals.

But over the course of Changemakers, I realized that the challenges nonprofits face are not so different from for-profit companies. Every organization has issues with processes, systems, and data, and in every organization, making better use of those variables is key to success. The biggest difference for nonprofits is they lack resources to solve them, at least comparatively. As it would happen, makers can fill certain of those gaps.

The challenges nonprofits face are not so different from for-profit companies.

“The time that was saved over the course of that week is hands-down substantial. Hundreds of hours,” Alex said. “The solution that we came up with helps us provide a better means for veterans to access their benefits and services — a way to help them faster, with more accuracy, and with less friction. If we would have tried to develop that on our own, I’m not sure we would have been able to do it. In the long run, that’s essential to helping us help veterans.”

I’m glad I was able to help Alex and his team in such a meaningful way. But the experience also taught me certain lessons about the importance of skills-based volunteering itself — and why it’s such an important mechanism for makers, especially, of giving back.

Here are three of those lessons that feel most salient to me now.

Skills-based volunteering is one of the most valuable ways to give back — especially if you’re a “maker.”

I don’t believe you need lots of money to make a difference to a nonprofit — and, in turn, to the communities they serve. In fact, one of the best ways to make a difference is to donate your own expertise.

This is especially true if you’re a maker, which I think of as a creative problem solver and “doer”. There are lots of us in the tech and operations community. And the skills we cultivate — being able to identify problems in a process; understanding how to optimize the orchestration of an operation’s existing moving parts so as to increase efficiency or address bottlenecks, and so on — are valuable. Even the ability to conduct what we might think of as semi-trivial “everyday tasks,” such as connecting systems or organizing data, is an ability that nonprofit leaders, who often lack a tech background (not to mention time), would have no choice but to outsource, either to consultants or third party vendors.

Such skills are in greater demand than we might think, and volunteering them makes a bigger, longer-lasting impact than we might realize.

Skills-based volunteering is personally rewarding.

Participating in Changemakers, and more specifically, working with my nonprofit partners, was an illuminating experience. I really didn’t expect this. Often in our work as makers, we grow quickly detached from the tools we build; we ship them, and much of the time, that’s it. But through Changemakers, I saw solutions I helped create translate quickly into real value — both for the nonprofits, and for the communities they serve.

This was as effective an antidote to apathy as I’ve ever seen. We all from time to time pause to wonder whether we’re making use of the things we learn, or the abilities we hone — real use, the kind that makes a difference (and doesn’t just pay lip service to making a difference).

But volunteering those lessons and abilities serves to eradicate that doubt, at least for a time. When I was working with Alex, or with the other nonprofits I helped build solutions for, I saw my skills and experience through the lens of those I was helping. It provided the rare feeling of building something, and knowing immediately that it would make a difference. This helped me see my life as a maker in a new light. In turn, it helped me appreciate my experience and ideas. It put into a new perspective just why we do what we do.

When engaged in skills-based volunteering, think “people first.”

All told, I worked with five nonprofits through Changemakers. And though many of the problems these organizations were struggling to solve proved similar, each organization itself was very different, composed of unique essential elements — different values, different working styles, differing levels of access to resources. No “one size fits all” approach to helping these organizations would have worked.

It provided the rare feeling of building something, and knowing immediately that it would make a difference.

Instead, what I found to be a useful north star was operating from a “people first” perspective. Which is to say, approaching every problem with a desire first and foremost to understand the issues and in turn help as best I could the people on the other end. Some of the folks I worked with were very technologically literate; others needed some introductions to the art of the possible. Most had their own ideas in terms of their outcomes.

In truth, every person is different, and supporting them most effectively requires empathizing with and recognizing those differences. Doing so helps you pull the most useful resources or provide the most helpful solution at any given time.

Of course, skills-based volunteering at the end of the day is a team function. As the volunteering maker, you’re not working alone; you’re working with your nonprofit partners. Operating with a “people first” mindset is really about striving to be a good teammate, and working as effectively and efficiently as possible in pursuit of your team’s shared goals.

I’m looking forward to joining the Changemakers Initiative again this year.

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