Right on the Money: Tech Volunteers Can Save You Money and Help You Innovate

Two young people working on a computer.

As a fundraiser for GLIDE, a San Francisco social service organization that serves youth and other experiencing homelessness, Evan Howard noticed that cash and check donations had dwindled in recent years. Limited by budget constraints, he turned to low-cost technology to give his fundraising a boost.

To start, he experimented with a simple “text to donate” service for smartphones. But the platform was complicated to use, and donors could only contribute a set amount. Donations remained at a trickle. Howard needed someone who could build something more efficient.

He found that help this past spring at HACKtivation, a regular technology gathering in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like Howard, many nonprofits and community organizations can’t afford IT staff and aren’t on top of tech trends. So HACKtivation co-founders Kyle Stewart and Ilana Lipsett pair local nonprofits and other organizations with teams of developers, designers, and other tech volunteers. Over one weekend, the charities and techies complete projects that would otherwise be out of reach for these budget-conscious organizations.

“The benefit of this is something really tangible,” Lipsett says. “A better website can help increase engagement. A new online donation tool can lead to better fundraising. These things allow the organization to measure their success, and make their reporting more strategic and more complete.”

Quick Solutions

At the 2014 HACKtivation, Howard explained his need to increase donations, and a few volunteers approached him to discuss their ideas. The end result is a mobile site that pulls account information from popular apps like PayPal, Google, Amazon—services for which many people already have login and credit card information stored on their smartphones. Now visitors to the Glide Memorial donation site could donate with the click of a button.

The day the mobile site launched, Glide Memorial collected $4,000 in donations. That’s nearly the same amount that the text-to-donate campaign collected over the course of a year, Howard says.

Long-term Relationships

Though tech-minded collaborations like HACKtivation focus on one-off projects, they often lead to ongoing relationships.

Micah Bennett, a communications associate from San Francisco’s Homeless Prenatal Program, wanted to turn a five-page paper intake form into an easy-to-use online application. Three volunteers that Micah met at HACKtivation dove into the project over the course of the weekend, then continued working in their spare time for a few months afterward.

The online form is now in its final testing phase. Bennett says, “Since we can’t afford a fulltime database administrator, we’re really looking forward to an ongoing relationship with [the developers].”

Tips for Enlisting Tech Help

Bennett and Kyle Stewart, the HACKtivation co-founder, have tips for organizations looking to use volunteer tech workers.

  • Don’t get carried away. “Start small,” says Bennett. “Maybe a smaller version of something you know you want to have in the future. Also, be realistic and adaptable with the timeline.”
  • Look to engage. Stewart recommends using tech volunteers to build tools for engagement, and says to reach out to community partners and ask how they think technology could help them interact with your agency.
  • Don’t be intimidated: Organizations like Volunteer Match or Code for America can help you access free tech services if you don’t have HACKtivation events nearby. Colleges and universities can also be great places to find developers looking for volunteer projects.
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