How to responsibly help NGOs with technology

Read how to not suffer disgrace, avoid a moral hangover and not waste the time of non–governmental organisations.

I work with technology professionally. A few years ago, I wanted to help an NGO, but I approached it very thoughtlessly. I wasted the time of a few people, suffered disgrace, and still have a moral hangover, even to this very day.

Earlier, I used to work with NGOs commercially. I helped a few institutions pro bono, as favours for friends and friends of friends. When I decided to help an unfamiliar NGO, free of charge, I had the feeling that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t.

Mistakes are made to provide opportunities to learn. For several months, I have been helping the TUS Foundation. I still have a lot to get done, but I can already write that I’ve managed to do something good in a good, thoughtful way.


What’s worth considering before bothering an NGO with your need to help?

Time

12 months. That’s the smallest amount of time required to do something good in the field of technology in an NGO. Especially when you have no experience in helping NGOs.

Is that a too big of a commitment? Think about participating in some hackathon instead and don’t bother anyone with your “willingness to help.”

If you get the idea to try to do something good in the realm of technology for an NGO you don’t know on your two-week vacation, go for a walk. Think about something else. I tried, it’s hard. You’ll feel it just after committing yourself to it in public. You do not want to do that. The chance of success oscillates around 1%. It can’t end well.

Consequences

Helping NGOs takes time. Valuable time, in which you can rest or relax. Time you can spend with your loved ones or getting to know new people.

Consider whether you are willing to give up plans for the evening to work for your chosen organisation.

Read the following aloud:

– “Thanks for the invitation to your picnic, but I have work on Saturday.”

– “It’s been a nice walk, but I have to get going because I need to respond to two emails before bed.”

– “Today I can’t drink, because I need to work on something in the morning, before work.”

Does this roll off your tongue? How do you feel about it? Do you know how your relatives, friends, strangers are going to respond? Can you take it on the chin?

Communication

The chance that you’re an extrovert who works with technology is not particularly large. Communicate unseemly often. If you have the feeling that you’re not communicating too much, too often — you’re doing it wrong. I’m an introvert myself, trust me.

Communication is the key.

You can be the most brilliant programmer or designer, but you won’t be too useful to an NGO if you can’t communicate.

Set the rules of communication at the beginning of cooperation.

A minimum of assumptions, a maximum of dialogue.

You don’t like to talk on the phone? Fine. Give your number to one person in case of emergencies and ask to communicate over email. Specify that if they don’t receive an answer, sending an SMS would be okay. Don’t expect anyone to guess that you don’t like calls from unknown numbers and that you prefer to exchange phone numbers instead of making your number available for everyone in the organisation.

Did you get an email, but don’t have time to answer? Reply immediately and write that you received the email. Add when the sender can count on an answer. “Not this week” is better than nothing.

Do you have time for emails from the NGO only in the mornings, evenings, or weekends? Communicate this clearly and most likely nobody will have a problem with it.

Problematic email message? Let the sender know as soon as possible. Write down what the problem is and when he or she can expect an answer.

Do you think that, most likely, you will fail to meet the agreed deadline? Send an email message about this to whomever it may concern as soon as this thought pops into your mind.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

The chance that you’ll overdo the number of emails is close to zero.

The chance that you’ll provoke negative emotions with your silence? So large that I’m writing about it in this text.

…and, yes, we’ve all had the experience of receiving emails that we should have answered a week ago, but we waited until we could verify something, something else happened, we managed to solve the problem, […]. That’s normal. There is nothing special about it. And that’s why those emails don’t deserve special treatment. As soon as you spot such an email, even after 7 or 11 days, treat it like regular correspondence. You don’t have time to answer right now? Write to the sender why and when he or she can expect a specific answer. Even if it’s “maybe next Thursday,” it’s much better than silence.

Formalities

Sign at least a symbolic agreement. It costs nothing and gives you a healthy sense of obligation, plus the comfort of more serious treatment by the organisation.

What’s next

You’re not going to help non-governmental organisations for life. Think as soon as possible about what you want to leave behind.

This aspect of cooperation is worth considering. It’s also important to establish clear expectations in this matter, regardless of whether you declare that you don’t have the time or willingness to deal with crap such as the documentation of your own work or whether you are ambitious enough to find and train your successor or the person who will take care of the effects of your work.

Nobody likes to leave behind a bad impression, especially after a few months of hard, fruitful joint work.

Motivation

The question about motivation is one of the first three questions that you’ll hear from an NGO. If you don’t know the answer or make it up on the spot –bad mood guaranteed. Think about it for at least 2 minutes.

Examples of bad motivation

– “I want to do something good.”

– “I want to impress a potential partner.”

– “I want to meet an interesting, committed person who is partner-material.”

Examples of not bad motivation

– “I want to complete a transparent project that I can openly talk about to show off my value and to be able to replace the way I earn my living with a way that’s closer to my values without reducing my income.”

– Your turn, coming up with the above example took me a lot of time and effort.


I believe this text will save you and a few other people from making the same mistakes I did.

Helping NGOs with technology is not easy, but it’s worthwhile.

Good luck!


If you like what you just read, you may want to read How To Responsibly Help NGOs with Technology: A Year Later.

This article was originally published on September 9, 2015 on the ngo.pl.