Grass-roots volunteering: web dev edition
December 13, 2016 9:54 AM   Subscribe

I am a web developer. I would like to volunteer my talents to build websites and other webbythings for worthy causes. How can I find organizations with such needs?

I'm a developer, not a designer. I'd be interested in building anything from a CMS-backed site using WordPress or similar, to a custom mobile app based on Ionic, to a web app for internal use.

This is largely an effort to maintain my own sanity in the age of Trump, by putting some kind of concrete good jnto the world. So organizations responding to Trumpish issues (directly or indirectly) would be especially interesting.

I imagine that most big, established non-profits prefer to use paid developers, for a variety of reasons. But, surely there are some smaller organizations doing good work on a shoestring, who could use a sweet website or something?

Is there some kind of directory that puts needful organizations in touch with willing volunteers?

(If not, perhaps I've found my project!)
posted by escape from the potato planet to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This is a super skill to donate! What city are you in? Look on Facebook for local groups hosting meetings, workshops and direct actions. Go to any event, say hi to an organizer and ask for names of other small groups — guarantee you'll have a project within a week.
posted by fritillary at 10:04 AM on December 13, 2016

In my experience around the periphery of this, what many agencies and charities think they need is a new shiny modern website, when what they actually need is someone to fix, maintain and index their old information.

Otherwise they end up with a newer, shinier albatross they can't maintain later.

So for you, this probably means you could do more good with many more smaller renovation/documentation/training efforts, rather than big new-construction ones.
posted by rokusan at 10:09 AM on December 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

I am also interested in this, and I found my local Code For America brigade and am going to the meeting tomorrow night.
posted by Kwine at 10:11 AM on December 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

posted by kelseyq at 10:11 AM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding your local Code for America team. My local team is working on projects that have the potential to make a huge difference for some of our more vulnerable residents. (I'm not a coder so I'm not on the team but I'm really excited by what I hear about it).
posted by bunderful at 10:17 AM on December 13, 2016

Hi! I work for a web dev company that works exclusively with nonprofits. As you said, we're way too expensive for a lot of smaller organizations, so it's awesome that you want to donate your time to smaller organizations.

The easiest way to start doing this would be to reach out to local organizations that you're interested in working with. You'll want to see if they have any fundraisers or communications folks listed on their websites, as they're usually the people who create/manage the website.

While a lot of nonprofits would probably love a free website, keep in mind that it's a huge undertaking for a lot them to commit the staff time to working with you to get you content, etc. So it may be a tougher sell than you think.

Working with nonprofits, especially smaller ones, may be a different animal than a lot of clients you've probably worked with. They're often not very tech-savvy, and finding credentials for their hosting, domain, CMS, etc. is like pulling teeth because someone signed up for it eons ago and never wrote it down. And lot of nonprofits that would probably love your services likely have sites that were built by a volunteer ages ago in a proprietary or otherwise difficult CMS.

Not saying any of this to dissuade you, because this is a great idea! But just a heads up. :)
posted by anotheraccount at 10:20 AM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Earlier this year I went to a tech volunteer fair in Seattle. From memory there were some 30-40 organizations present, and my big take-away is that most small charities barely know what they want - I signed up with a half a dozen to hear more, and heard back from only a couple, one of which said "thanks for all your interest, from our conversations at the event we learned that we are not ready to start this project and will contact you again once we have (done the prep work)!". Which is a good outcome, but it's a good example of how in many cases it's not likely to be a smooth 'yes please make our [thing] that you know how to make'. The most successful groups there were the ones that were looking for tutors, not tech help, because they had a clear volunteer role to fill.

If you're not in Seattle, I'm sure Rebekah at Zillow (the organizer of this fair) would be happy to give you some tips on setting up a similar event in your city - I think that if this was a regular event it would be a huge service and I expect the next iteration to be much more successful as the organizers and charities learn more about what makes a successful request for help.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:51 AM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Like anotheraccount, I work for a design/dev shop that works almost exclusively with nonprofits and smallish arts organizations. I agree with everything they've said. We've worked with more than one client that wanted a volunteer- or pro-bono-built website and then found it difficult to maintain because the volunteer(s) or volunteering agency couldn't help them 1) well-define their needs or 2) optimize for organizational efficiency or 3) manage maintenance after launch. I've also acted as a volunteer for a local arts non-profit doing essentially what you are proposing, and found it frustrating because they treated me like a professional dev but I was limited in my capacity and honestly the time I could devote to them. After about the third all-nighter code deploy, I had to resign.

But! I think it's awesome that you want to volunteer your time. Here's some suggestions that you may want to consider, that from my perspective, might bring solid returns when you do find an org or orgs you want to work with.

rokusan mentioned Documentation and Training above, and that's a great idea. You could help document processes already in place, as well as develop how-to docs for what they should do when their site goes down or who to call when they need to add a subdomain or email address or whatever. I have a feeling that if you do something like that, you'll identify all sorts of small efficiencies you could put into place or explain quickly and with the knowledge that would definitely help.

Help them write an RFP. You have a real knowledge advantage here, in that you can work with an org without specialized web knowledge to identify their areas of greatest need online and probably have some sense of what web projects may or may not realistically cost. RFPs can be hugely helpful to people like me, because knowing what an organization needs to succeed is, if not half the battle, probably 10-20% of the battle. RFPs can also be extremely helpful to organizations themselves, because building one well involves analyzing how the organization works with the systems it has and identifying both what systems will help them improve but also how they can shift resources internally to better make use of legacy systems or newer, proposed ones. This is true even of (especially for?) large organizations that I've worked with.

Take on or consult on smaller projects. Another big part of what my agency does is setting up and maintaining new integrations between new systems or existing ones. Nonprofits typically don't have full time devs on staff, so the mailing list service doesn't usually get upgraded until the next time the whole site gets redone, 5-10 years from now. Think about ways to easily add operational value by connecting their mailing list service to their donation collection service, or helping them figure out how to segment their donor database by donation level. Another example might be site analytics. Analytics can be really important, but they're also pretty complicated to set up and understand - can you help an org set and monitor conversion targets? Can you help them interpret data they already have but have never looked at? Can you straight up add analytics to their site? Can you get them on a user-friendly CMS, and if it's Wordpress, make sure that their install is secure?

Shore up the foundations. Similar to the previous, but as a web developer, you know there's all sorts of things a platonic ideal of a website should do, but often don't. At a company with dedicated staff, usually there's someone in charge of thinking about doing those things and allocating resources to do them, if not now, then soon. Like, for example, making sure the website is optimized for impaired users (ARIA tags, alt tags, and color blindness tests, etc.), getting the site's source code into version control, making sure key code is commented, minifying JS/CSS, setting up a way of serving responsive images, getting them hooked up to CDN or serving large files from an S3 account, automating database backups, etc. At smaller organizations, there's not usually any awareness that these are important and can be valuable or if there is, there's no good way to act on that awareness because resources are tight. Maybe you can work on some of these tasks in the background without disrupting normal operations and the site they have will be better and more resilient and better set up to be redeveloped or redesigned when the org is ready.
posted by lousywiththespirit at 12:05 PM on December 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, and just jumping in again to say that you may want to check out They're a job/volunteer board for non-profits, and also to a lesser extant a directory of nonprofit organizations, and they'd probably be the first place I'd look at if I was in your position trying to find someone to help.
posted by lousywiththespirit at 12:10 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

a web app for internal use

I know some small organizations (tool libraries, bike collectives) that get by with inadequate software for internal use - volunteer scheduling, tracking volunteer hours & work-trade, managing member and resource data, to name a few examples. They could benefit greatly (and be able to more effectively assist their patrons) from some well-developed software that meets their needs, rather than using something that isn't-quite-right-but-is-free/cheap, or hacking together Google forms.

They often have less-than-perfect websites, too, but the small orgs I know of mostly need basic design and SEO.
posted by sibilatorix at 12:36 PM on December 13, 2016

The UN has a website where nonprofits list remote volunteer work - it's super organised and there's a lot of web development work.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:41 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

It would take more digging but i think that might have some volunteer ops
posted by czytm at 5:55 AM on December 14, 2016

At you can select the "Computers" category to look for organizations that are looking specifically for tech help.
posted by getawaysticks at 5:57 AM on December 14, 2016

But really finding opportunities locally might be your best bet in terms of having a measurable, immediate, and observable impact. Find local organizations you like, tell them your skills and ask if they need any help. Ask if they know any other local orgs that need the sort of help you can provide.

These local organizations all know each other and would be the best way for you to find local work to do, which is probably the most rewarding and would lead to more local volunteer opportunities.
posted by czytm at 6:01 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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