Revised March 17, 2017


 
Recruiting Computer/Network Consultants (paid or volunteer/pro bono)

 
Mission-based organizations (nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, and public sector agencies) sometimes need to recruit computer/network consultants, paid or volunteer/pro bono, because their employees don't have the needed expertise for a project - making the web site mobile ready and or accessible, creating a database to manage volunteer information, creating an app for clients to use, etc.

At a mission-based organization, employees' or core volunteers' lack of high-level "tech" expertise can leave them feeling at the mercy of such consultants, paid or volunteer. Staff, despite their own expertise in a what the organization or agency is concerned with - health care, child welfare, environmental management, community outreach, human resources management, microfinance, theatre arts, emergency logistics - can feel a sense of both awe and fear about tech consultants, and that whatever the consultant says goes. Staff may feel unable to understand, question or challenge whatever that consultant recommends.

What can mission-based organizations do to recruit the "right" consultant, whether paid or volunteer, for "tech" related issues, one that will not make them feel out-of-the-loop or out-of-control when it comes to tech-related discussions or the delivery of tech-related services?

First: write a detailed description of what it is you want as a result of this consultants' work. What will success look like for your organization as a result of this consultant's/these consultants' work? Think less about how to get there are more about what the end result should look like - for every user of the system or tool to be developed. Then sketch out how many hours a week you expect the consultant to work, how many weeks you expect the consultant to commit to the job, documentation the consultant will be required to produce, how long you expect the consultant to support what they develop, etc. This must be in writing, to ensure that, once you do choose a consultant, he or she knows exactly what you want and expectations are clear. You can edit it with the consultant you choose, of course.

Only after you have the task description in writing are you ready to recruit:

If that doesn't result in candidates for your position, have a look again at your position description. Are you asking too much of a candidate in terms of time? Are you asking too much of a volunteer - do you need to make the position paid in order to be able to get someone who has the expertise and will need the financial support in order to provide the time required? Do you need to break the assignment up into smaller tasks, and recruit a team rather than just one volunteer? Does the task just look like a long list of work to do, never mentioning how this work benefits the nonprofit or the community it serves?

As for screening candidates:

The goal in the interview process is to get a sense of how this person works. The interview should give a good indication of this person's work style, and ability to explain tech-related information and approaches.

If you are looking for a consultant for a paid project, be careful that during the recruiting and interview process that you are not asking candidates for free consulting. Many consultants have felt that an hour or so interview ended up being a free advice session, as the organization quizzed the consultant about various possible tech needs and approaches, took notes, and then was able to implement the consultant's "free" recommendations without involving the person further.

A warning to those of you in the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland): your laws are very strict regarding volunteer engagement. Unlike in the USA and most places, you will have to emphasize repeatedly to candidates that you have no expectation for them to stay for a certain amount of time, for them to make any kind of commitment - even to get the task done, etc. Here's more regarding your restrictions in the UK re: expectations and written agreements with volunteers

A good tech consultant, whether paid or working pro bono (as a volunteer) will:

Finally, respect the consultant's time: high on the list of complaints from consultants, including volunteers, who try to help mission-based organizations with technology issues is that staff at the organization don't provide the consultant adequate task and need descriptions, don't provide enough face-to-face time with the consultant, don't start meetings on-time and aren't actually ready to work with a technology consultant and, therefore, can't undertake the consultant's recommendations or allow the consultant to proceed.

Much of this advice goes for if you are going to have a One(-ish) Day "Tech" Activities for Volunteers such as a hackathon, where volunteers are going to create apps, a web site, or other product for your organization. Of course, you cannot do the screening for every participant as outlined above, but much of the other advice is applicable.

TechSoup has more more information about finding and working with tech consultants. They also Working with Technical Volunteers: A Manual for NPOs - it's free to download.

But What If You Need To Let the Consultant Go?

Sometimes, you need to let a tech staff member or consultant go, even when that person is a volunteer (if the volunteer is not meeting the requirements of the written job description, isn't following your policies and is engaging in activity that is detrimental or destructive to the organization, he or she needs to go). When firing a consultant, in addition to appropriate human resources practices, and regardless of the reason you are letting the person go (even if the split is, in your mind, amicable), make double sure you cut off the person's email address at your organization and network access at the same time you hand the person his or her walking papers, and have changed ALL passwords the person might know.

Also see:

 
 

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