A Case Study of FareStart’s Volunteer Technical Project Manager Pilot Program

Photo by Mike Wilson

Understanding the gap between nonprofits and tech

Most nonprofits have significant technology needs that detract from their efficiency and reduce the impact of their programs. Seattle boasts one of the world’s best tech economies and a strong spirit of volunteerism. So why isn’t it easier for local nonprofits to engage local tech volunteers to level up their organization’s technology and increase their impact?

This is the question Maxx Silver was asking himself earlier this year. Maxx works as an Operations Systems Analyst at FareStart, a nonprofit organization that provides job training in the food service industry for youth and adults experiencing homelessness or poverty. Maxx had recently completed the Washington Technology Industry Association’s Ion program. During Ion, Maxx was part of a interdisciplinary team made up of people working in tech, government, and nonprofits. The team conducted more than a dozen interviews with local stakeholders. Based on those interviews, the team decided to execute a technology project to help small businesses thrive as their neighborhoods gentrify. Through this process, Maxx learned about DemocracyLab and attended his first hackathon. He took several valuable learnings from his experiences with cross-sector collaboration:

· Many nonprofits are under-resourced and lack advanced technical skills

· Nonprofits and their employees generally have a relational orientation

· The culture of the tech industry tends to be direct and transactional

· Many tech professionals want to help solve local problems but don’t know how to get involved

· The tech community gathers for hackathons to build skills and solve problems

· Established nonprofits are not well represented at these local hackathons

As Maxx reflected on these insights, he felt strongly that there must be some way to leverage them on behalf of FareStart. He shared his belief with a friend and fellow Ion Collaborator, Kuan Peng, who works as a software engineer at Amazon. Together, they realized that their collective experience and collaborative approach could crack the code — a skilled and committed volunteer could bridge the gap between the needs of the nonprofit and the requirements of tech volunteers at hackathons. They formalized this thinking by creating a position description for a Volunteer Technical Project Manager (VTPM), which Kuan agreed to pilot.

Clear constraints define scope of work

Maxx and Kuan set to defining the parameters of their project, which they formalized in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU’s stipulations included:

· The project would last 90 days

· Maxx would manage a single volunteer (Kuan) for the duration of the project

· Kuan would produce a technical scope document and manage product development

· Both Maxx and Kuan would attend an upcoming hackathon organized by DemocracyLab

· Neither Maxx nor Kuan would average more than 2 hours per week working on the project

Both Maxx and Kuan submitted the MOU to their supervisors for review and signoff, and then began working on the project in earnest. Their early focus was on building cultural understanding, with Kuan spending time at FareStart learning about the organization, its processes and its needs. Maxx and Kuan then selected a specific technology project that represented low-hanging fruit — the automation of a weekly sales report that took 30–45 minutes of Maxx’s time each week to produce. After analyzing the process and systems used to create the report, Kuan created a detailed scope of work document in preparation for the hackathon.

Prior preparation sparks efficient execution

The day of the hackathon was a success. FareStart’s project attracted a strong team of volunteers, due in significant part to the detailed scope of work document Kuan prepared.

“I chose to work on this project because the requirements/scope were well-defined and reasonable for a single-day hackathon. It was clear [Maxx] and Kuan had prepared for the day by listing and prioritizing the requirements (a rarity for hackathon projects), so I felt there was a higher likelihood of success/delivering something of value.”
— Volunteer Developer Andrew Sullivan

The day of the hackathon ended with a working product that reduced the amount of time Maxx needed to spend creating the reports each week from 30–45 minutes down to 5 minutes. Over the two weeks following the hackathon, three volunteers contributed additional time to finish the application so that it could be used reliably by FareStart. All told, roughly 100 hours of volunteer time were contributed to the project, resulting in significant learnings for FareStart concerning effective methods to engage tech volunteers, along with easily quantified savings of Maxx’s time valued at $1,000 per year.

“I believe the approach taken by the Farestart for this project in preparation for the hackathon should be a model for other non-profit organization who wants to leverage civic tech volunteers and hackathons.”
— Volunteer Developer Stephen Chan

A key volunteer can bridge the gap

FareStart’s strategy of recruiting a Volunteer Technical Project Manager proved effective. The VTPM was able to bridge the gap between the needs and knowledge of the nonprofit organization and the expectations of the skilled technical volunteers who participated in the hackathon. While there are many possible approaches to structuring a successful volunteer engagement, this approach could be easily replicated by other nonprofits in anticipation of tapping into the volunteer talent DemocracyLab convenes every other month in our ongoing series of tech for good hackathons.

FareStart’s experience is one example of how our tech-for-good community can learn together, exploring many ways to engage Seattle’s tech talent and civic spirit to make our city stronger.

FareStart is 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with the mission to provide job training and support for adults and youth experiencing poverty and homelessness.

DemocracyLab is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Our mission is to empower people who use technology to advance the public good.