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Working for the public good

How you can use your skills to make the world a better place

I am a User Researcher at Salesforce, which means that I spend my days talking to our customers, observing our users work, getting feedback in usability evaluations and surveys, conducting workshops, and then working closely with designers, product managers, and engineers to identify new features or change existing ones to better meet our users’ needs. I can’t tell you how much I love doing research but working at Salesforce takes it to a different level because Salesforce’s 1–1–1 Integrated Philanthropy Model allows me to spend 56 hours per year volunteering my research skills to help non-profits of my choice. That is Volunteer Paid Time off (VTO), not my spare time. Being encouraged to spend so much time doing pro bono work has been incredibly rewarding and I want to encourage others try their hand at pro bono work too!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” – Margaret Mead

What it means to work for the public good

When someone talks about volunteering, you most likely think of hands-on events like working in a soup kitchen or food bank but there is another type of volunteering called “pro bono publico.” It involves donating your time and professional skills to help those that are unable to afford the services of a skilled professional. Pro bono work is most often associated with the legal profession but non-profits are sorely in need of the tech skills that Silicon Valley is overflowing with. For example, few non-profits can afford to hire a dedicated user researcher, interaction designer, or web developer. Think about a time when you were considering donating to a charity and wanted to learn more about it. Were you turned off by an unprofessional looking website or lack of a presence on social media? Good charities lose potential donors for reasons just like this.

My first experience using my skills to help others was in grad school where I conducted research for a small educational company. The research involved evaluating literacy software in adult learning centers, jails, and even a prison, to help adults that had been left behind in the educational system. It was eye opening to see how I could leverage my research skills to make a positive difference in people’s lives!

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why pro bono?

I don’t want to diminish the importance of donating money to non-profits or the value of working at soup kitchens, food banks, and fundraisers. Non-profits depend on your financial and physical support; however, many people never think of doing pro bono work and it can be equally impactful, not just to the non-profits but also for yourself.

  • Expert skills are necessary, not nice-to-have. Many of us have unique skills that we have developed over time with training and practice. Those skills can help a non-profit move from functional to thriving. For example, with your help, non-profits can have a high quality web site, mobile app, or marketing plan like a large, for-profit company.
  • Support the causes you care about no matter where they are. If you care greatly about a cause an ocean away, hands-on volunteering can be difficult, if not impossible. If you want to have impact beyond financial donations, our globally connected world can allow skills-based support remotely. For example, I helped one non-profit remotely brainstorm their social media strategy. They thought they needed to have a presence on social networking sites because “everyone else does” but they didn’t understand who their current donors are, why they donate, or what might lead them to donate or support the charity more. They were jumping to a solution without having a clear problem to solve.
  • Grow your own skills professionally and personally. By exposing yourself to different clients, user types, industries, and challenges, you are broadening your skill set. Many non-profits may have no understanding of your domain of expertise so you can develop your skills of communication, education, evangelism, and leadership by explaining to them what you do and why they need your help. You will also have the opportunity to work with people that share your values but may work and think very differently from you. All of these growth opportunities will result in a far greater ROI than you can imagine.
  • Grow your network. We are all encouraged as part of our professional development to network. This often manifests itself in meeting and exchanging business cards or LinkedIn connections with people we think will be helpful in our careers sometime down the road. I believe, doing meaningful pro bono work will result in deeper connections with others that you probably wouldn’t encounter in your normal network.
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands: One for helping yourself and the other for helping others.” — Audrey Hepburn

Getting started

If you’ve never done pro bono work, you may have no idea how to get started but it is surprisingly easy.

  • Web search. Like so other many questions, you can turn to the Internet for ideas. Do a search on “<skill> pro bono” and find opportunities.
  • Micro-volunteering sites. If you would like to volunteer your skills online, SkillsForChange.com, Help From Home, and Micro Volunteering Day are just a few sites that offer opportunities to help others with your unique skills.
  • Contact your favorite non-profits directly. The folks you speak to may have no idea how to leverage your skills so be prepared with an explanation of what you do and some ideas or suggestions for how you can help them.
  • CHI4Good Day of Service. The activity I am most proud of is helping to organize the CHI 2016 Day of Service or #chi4good. If you’re not familiar with it, the Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference is one of the best conferences for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) professionals and this year it will be returning to the Silicon Valley May 7–12. For the first time in CHI’s history, we are bringing together hundreds of attendees to spend one day volunteering their skills to help dozens of non-profits. Volunteers will work in teams in the San Jose Convention Center. The beauty of this event is that HCI professionals can combine their skills to make a greater impact together than individually. If you are planning to attend CHI 2016, I hope you will take time to participate in this incredible event!

If you have suggestions for other ways that one can donate their skills, please share them! The world thanks you!


A big thank you to Ian Schoen for all of his great feedback on this post!


UPDATE May 8, 2016

Yesterday, the #chi4good Day of Service had over 100 HCI volunteers from around the world spent 8+ hours helping 22 non-profits. They donated the equivalent of 18 work weeks of effort in just one day! Together, they wrote thousands of lines of code, designed beautiful websites, created information architectures for mobile apps, interviewed potential end users, and developed plans for the non-profits to continue the great work after this Day of Service.

Over 100 HCI professionals work up early Saturday morning to volunteer their time and skills to help 22 NFPs

One of the intangible but perhaps equally impactful benefits to come out of the event is the opening of hearts and minds. Volunteers got to learn about and empathize with people in need. Many of the volunteers committed to continue donating their time and services to the non-profit after the Day of Service.

“I have a much deeper appreciation for people coming out of the prison systems.” — Volunteer helping Root and Rebound, a non-profit helping former prisoners and their families with reentry
Brainstorming, researching, sketching, coding… anything is possible when people combine their skills to help others!

The non-profits not only benefited from the services the volunteers provided, they also learned a great deal. Many of them were introduced to the concept of design thinking and that UX isn’t just about creating an attractive web page. One of the non-profits, CareerVillage, will be hiring a full-time designer because he knows how critical this skill is to the success of his organization.

“Today, I found my dream team at #CHI4GOOD: designer, developer, and researcher.” — Sonja Tonnesen, Deputy Director of Root and Rebound.

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