Revised March 17, 2017
Recruiting Computer/Network Consultants
(paid or volunteer/pro bono)
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.
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.
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
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?
- Contact other organizations of a similar size and budget to yours, to
seek recommendations for possible candidates (remember, both paid staff
AND volunteer consultants), and to gather success AND horror stories.
Ask the staff what they liked about a tech consultant they may
recommend, what the results of this consultant's work was, and what
advice they might have that could help you prepare to work with such a
consultant. Even if you end up looking for consultants elsewhere, you
will have a better understanding of what a successful tech-related
consultancy looks like -- and what kinds you want to avoid.
- Post a notice to your web site saying that you are looking for this
particular tech consultant. Be as detailed as possible about what you
want the tech consultant to accomplish, per the detailed task
description you wrote before you started recruiting.
- Send an email to all of your current volunteers, including your board
of directors, letting them know about this position. Include the URL of
the job description on your web site.
- Use social media - your Facebook page, your Twitter account, etc.
Your message should point back to the page on your web site that details
the paid consultant or volunteer need. But don't just say,
We need volunteers, see this web page:
That message isn't at all enticing. It doesn't motivate me at all to
want to volunteer with an organization. By contrast, check out this
tweet from @GoGirlGo4IT,
or Go Girl Go for IT, of
Melbourne, Australia, "A fun, free, interactive IT careers showcase
for Secondary School Girls Years 8-11":
Celebrate #IVD by becoming a volunteer with Go Girl.
I *love* this message:
We are a very friendly bunch. And we dance while we work. bit.ly/w4cvQa
- I knew from the Twitter account name that this org has something
to do with girls and IT - a subject that I'm passionate about.
- They need volunteers, but instead of saying "We need volunteers",
they leveraged International
Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development as a
- They throw in a fun comment like "And we dance while we work."
- If this is a paid position, post it to the appropriate section of Craigslist.
If it's a volunteer / pro bono position, post it to the appropriate
section of Craigslist, as well
as to whatever third-party
online recruitment tool that's most used in your area.
- Send the position announcement to area university career centers,
university volunteer centers, and specific university departments
related to computers and technology.
- Look for local chapters of national
organizations for women working in technology. You can also look
for local chapters of national organizations for anyone, men and women,
working in tech, of course, but I recommend women-focused groups in
particular because women are so under-represented in technology careers,
and focusing recruitment efforts on women-focused groups can help your
organization play a role in creating more opportunities for women in
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.
- For paid positions or high-responsibility volunteer positions (where
the volunteer will be in charge of an entire project, supervise
employees or volunteers, etc.), look for candidates who have worked with
organizations or departments that are the same as the size of your
organization or department -- similar numbers in staff size, budget,
geographic area served, etc. A consultant who has a lot of experience
with large, well-funded organizations may not have the skills
and expertise needed by a small agency with very limited resources;
someone with a lot of nonprofit and volunteer experience might be better
suited for a task than someone with only for-profit experience at large
- Be committed to the idea of talking to at least three candidates for
paid positions or high-responsibility volunteer positions. Talking to
more than one candidate will help you further identify your needs in a
consultant, and will give you a more clear understanding of qualities
you do want, and don't want, in a consultant.
- In the interview with each potential consultant, tell the candidate
about your tech needs and ask how he or she would approach them, or what
the candidate's thoughts are about what it is you want regarding
technology or support. Does the candidate explain his or her approach in
a way you can understand? Do you feel like the candidate is really
listening to you?
- Ask candidates if they think your description of how long the task
will take, and how much you are asking the person to do in the
particular time period, is realistic and, if now, how he or she would
alter the Terms of Reference.
- Don't be bedazzled by jargon. Just because a candidate uses words or
phrases that sound like he or she is in-the-know does not mean the
person really is the expert you need. Don't be afraid to ask for
clarification at any point. And when the candidate is giving you
clarification, consider how he or she makes you feel. You are getting
insight into his or her work style -- do you like it?
- Ask for samples of work for paid positions or high-responsibility
volunteer positions, such as a technology plan the person authored, or a
smart phone app he or she developed. If confidentiality is an issue, ask
the person to insert a "dummy" name for the real name of the
organization for which a written plan was developed, and a "dummy" name
for any software or hardware recommendations the consultant feels are
proprietary. If the work sample is a piece of software or app, ask the
candidate to do a demonstration for you.
- Tell the candidate that the chosen consultant must document ALL of
his or her work, with an eye to someone being able to step in at any
point if the consultant cannot continue. Ask the candidate how he or she
feels about this, and what the person's experience with such has been in
the past. If possible, ask for an example of documentation this person
has done (see previous bullet).
- Ask the candidate how he or she will include the organization's
employees and volunteers in the tech development or upgrade process, as
opposed to the consultant working entirely independently.
- If the candidate represents a company or group, make sure the person
you talk to in the interview is the person who is actually going to do
- Ask candidates for references and CALL THEM. In particular, ask
questions regarding the candidates ability to meet deadlines, to
document his or her work, and to train others.
- If the consultant is going to work remotely, you can still do all of
the previous steps, via phone or live video
conferencing, but ALSO do some interaction via email. Pay
attention to how quickly candidates respond to your emails, how well
they write, and how well they communicate via the written word. How the
consultant acts via remote communication processes is an excellent
indication of how he or she would act during the actual consultancy.
- If the consultant is going to have access to private information
about paid staff, volunteer or clients (home addresses, social security
numbers, pay rates, ages, etc.), do a criminal background check on any
seriously-considered candidate, and put the final candidate through a
confidentiality workshop to affirm your organization's policies on such.
If the consultant balks, find another candidate.
- Watch out for inappropriate agendas and conflicts of interests. For
instance, is the consultant promoting a specific software or hardware
solution because he or she, or one of your board members, will benefit
financially from the sale of such?
- You may want to put the following list, which starts with "A good
tech consultant, whether paid or working pro bono (as a volunteer)
will...", on a separate paper and give it to each candidate, and ask
each candidate his or her feelings about each point.
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
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.
- Talk to your employees, staff and clients in such a way as to help
them understand the solutions or approaches he or she is offering. The
person won't "talk down" to staff per their relative lack of technology
knowledge compared to him or her.
- Will learn your organization's system, and be able to talk about its
strengths and weaknesses. The consultant will offer a variety of
suggestions for improvements, not just one suggestion to throw out
all systems and start over with something else (that may be one
of the suggestions, but should not be the only one).
- Will provide you with more than one option to choose from, and an
informed assessment of the strength and weakness of each.
- Will respect your budget and staffing limitations.
- Will respect your deadlines.
- Will work to build capacity in your organization, not to build
increasing reliability upon the consultant. He or she will include staff
in the development or upgrade -- not merely present the finished product
after weeks or months of working alone.
- Will document ALL of his or her work, with an eye to someone being
able to step in at any point if the consultant cannot continue.
- Will provide regular updates, in writing, and will not become
defensive when asked for more detailed information about his or her work
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
with Technical Volunteers: A Manual for NPOs - it's free to
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
Webinar on Finding and Involving Tech Volunteers
Recorded in April 2009, this
presentation with slides and audio is a recording of a live
webinar I did for TechSoup. It
explores how to effectively involve volunteers in computer and Internet
related tasks at your organization, including ways to identify
tech-related assignments, ways to support volunteers in these
assignments, and, of course, methods to recruit and screen such
volunteers. Nonprofit staff members can feel a sense of both awe and
fear about tech volunteers, and this can lead to misunderstandings and
frustrations on the part of both parties. This webinar will help
nonprofit staff stay in control of tech volunteering tasks so that the
finished assignment meets the nonprofits' needs and the tech volunteer
has a satisfying experience. It's less than an hour long.
Short-term assignments for
There are a variety of ways for mission-based organizations to involve
volunteers to help with short-term projects relating to computers and the
Internet, and short-term assignments are what are sought after most by
potential "tech" volunteers.
One(-ish) Day "Tech"
Activities for Volunteers
Tech Volunteer Groups /
Volunteers are getting together for intense, one-day events, or events
of just a few days, to build web pages, to write code, to edit Wikipedia
pages, and more. These are gatherings of onsite volunteers, where
everyone is in one location, together, to do an online-related project
in one day, or a few days. It's a form of episodic volunteering, because
volunteers don't have to make an ongoing commitment - they can come to
the event, contribute their services, and then leave and never volunteer
again. Because computers are involved, these events are sometimes called
hackathons, even if coding isn't involved. This page provides advice on
how to put together a one-day event, or just-a-few-days-of activity, for
a group of tech volunteers onsite, working together, for a nonprofit,
non-governmental organization (NGO), community-focused government
program, school or other mission-based organization - or association of
A list of tech volunteering initiatives, some defunct, some still going
strong, that recruit tech experts to volunteer their time support either
local nonprofit organizations or NGOs in developing countries regarding
computer hardware, software and Internet tech-related tasks.
Non-IT Staff Taking the Lead on the
Exploration of Technology Use
IT professionals, acting as IT managers or consultants, play an
essential role in helping mission-based organizations use technology to
meet the goal of the organization. That said, however, an IT
professional is not always the best person to *lead* at a nonprofit
organization regarding use of information communications technologies
(ICTs) to meet the organization's mission and help staff members do
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