Geeks volunteering: unseen and unheard

Technical enthusiasts, aka ‘geeks’ as they are affectionately known, have for many many years led the way in volunteering. As with many other examples of volunteering- these voluntary workers are very often unseen and unheard by most of us.

Who am I referring to? If you’ve ever used open-source software you’ve been the direct beneficiary of geeks volunteering- may be you use Firefox to browse the internet, may be you use Linux as your operating system. OK, then may be you don’t.

But hey, volunteer geeks’ work is all pervasive thanks to the web. Take it from me, if you don’t use either of these pieces of software, it’s more than likely a website you use uses servers that run on Apache (serverside software) or use open-source code like php, perl or python. But it goes wider than that, today the big players like Google and Yahoo use open-source software for more and more of their work.

In other words, when we’re looking for volunteering success stories – the growth and influence of open-source software has got to be up there with the best of them.

Without evangelising about open-source software here, yada yada yada that’s too boring. From a volunteer perspective, I’d argue it is really worth looking at the open-source model and why it’s so successful. I think it can tell us a lot about what makes a volunteering project successful and what makes a volunteer manager successful too.

Open-source software defined by that open-source online encyclopedia better known as Wikipedia, is software that’s freely available and free of charge. The fact that open-source stuff is free cost-wise often grabs the headlines, while the important ingredient is really that open-source stuff comes with freedom built in. Because you can see you code, you can see how it works, you can learn about it inner workings, ultimately you are free to change and adapt it in the way you need. This is the liberating point- you take the resource and use it in a way that makes sense to you, and not in a way dictated by a centralised power far away. Is this starting to sound familiar and relevant to volunteering?

Here we come to the first point to note- this freedom to adapt comes with a condition attached. You are free to change the code, but only as long as others are free to change your code. In otherwords, no-one can take and copyright the work of others as their own- and this way the work of volunteers is never abused and exploited. See more on GNU and Creative Commons licenses for a more in depth explanation of this stuff.

Lesson One: Share and Share Alike

The first lesson is that volunteering thrives in environments were we share and share alike. The moment a volunteer feels their hard work is being exploited is more than likely the moment they leave.

Drupal volunteersThe second point is that all open-source projects have one thing in common- without their community of voluntary programmers they are nothing. The community is all important. With no one person owning all the rights to the code- everybody has a stake in the resource. It’s a common asset. The door to getting a sense of ownership in the project is wide open.

What’s more it’s a virtuous circle- the more you’re helped by others in the community with problems and understanding the computer code (the software), the more you want to help others. It’s a phenomenon you’ll see repeated in countless online forums and communities where the more experienced give up their time to support others.

These online communities have grown rapidly because they’ve built all sorts of collaborative tools that scale, i.e. the more people you involve as users, the more people you have who can one day become the supporters of the users of tomorrow. Wikipedia is a perfect example of this. The reason it can manage the ever increasing number of users adding entries is because there’s also an increasing number of volunteers helping to moderate the content on the site. This link between users and volunteers is vital and it’s something to ponder: how many volunteering projects really try to recruit volunteers from their user base?

Lesson Two: Opening Up Ownership To Volunteers

There’s a second lesson in there for voluntary projects generally. How often do we find it hard to let go of a project we’ve developed ourselves? How often do we wonder why volunteers never progress beyond a certain level in their involvement with the project? The open-source experience would suggest a lot has to do with how much ownership we’re happy to delegate and how ‘open-source’ the heart of project really is. Is it really all up for grabs to our most dedicated and commited volunteers?

The third and final point to make is about what motivates any of us to volunteer. There’s many things- but for me personally it keeps coming back to one. Developers and programmers in the open-source world often talk about ‘scratching their own itch’.

Talk to a geek volunteer and more than likely you’ll discover their volunteering all started because one day they saw the answer to a problem. They didn’t know whether it would work, but curiosity and necessity conspired to get them to try. Needless to say it worked and, hey presto, they became hooked on volunteering.

Lesson Three: Volunteering Is About Making A Difference

Doing something, however hard and challenging it is, is worth it when you can see the benefit, or when others let you know it’s making a difference. From there on in, there are many routes it can take. It can become a burning passion, it can become a source of pride, it can even get the volunteer a certain amount of rewarding social recognition. But that intial hook is the belief that somehow, despite the odds, as a volunteer you are making a difference.

The final lesson then is that as volunteer managers one of the most important questions we can ask is: are our volunteers making a difference? The most important response we can give to this is not just to say “yes”- it’s being able to add: “And our volunteers know it”.

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