Congratulations! You have decided to help out a Non-Profit. Full of energy, and good intentions, you have embarked on a journey to use your professional skills to help a cause.
It’s a win-win: Surely, with a better website / CRM / tech, they will be able to help a few more people. You, on the other hand, will meet interesting folk, do something purposeful (as opposed to optimizing button colors at your day job), and learn a few things.
Here is what you need to know to not go insane:
You probably have personal reasons to help a Non-profit. Working on hard problems with friends is one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your life. If you are not working on a world-changing startup and you need a respite from the drudgery of corporate existence, a Non-Profit may be your best next bet – the purpose and mission are plentiful.
Non-profits are also a great place to meet interesting, like-minded people. Working side-by-side you can make real friends and create deeper connections than you would build by exchanging the latest plots of TV shows over coffee at work.
My entire programming journey started from helping a Non-profit – a scout team I was a part of. I made my first website in 1998, graduated to building one for dad’s business, and later launched a WordPress web agency. Now I work at WordPress.com, periodically reporting to the creator of WordPress himself. During that journey, I helped my high school, a local TEDx chapter, and a non-profit supporting remote work.
Working on projects is the best way to learn – you get to experiment with real-world problems and you get to try out different approaches and fail; building that tacit knowledge that makes one an expert.
Since you are not paid for your contributions, there is a shared understanding of what can be expected of you in a Non-Profit. You have a mandate to play a little, try out things your way, and goof off. To further boost learning, it feels more like play than work, encoding the knowledge much more effectively.
As with everything in life, the downsides are directly correlated to the upsides. Yes, in a Non-Profit, you can be a bit unpredictable and inexperienced. It does not feel like work and you get a breather from a corporate feel of a professional workplace.
But guess what – other people get to do that too. If you have just reserved a weekend to finish that signup page, and the people preparing the copy (texts) decided to be unprofessional – it suddenly becomes a problem.
Let’s assume you volunteered to create a website for your favorite Non-profit. Don’t be surprised, if the whole process goes like this:
Professional environments have learned a long time ago, that time is money. If everybody is salaried, the easiest way to turn a profit is to stop wasting people’s time. The correlation is clear and obvious.
I do realize that corporate environments waste mindblowing eons of their employees’ time. This is due to the scale. Big organisms being less nimble is a law of physics called inertia.
Non-profits, however, have a peculiar relationship with money. They are called Non-Profits. Duh! They get funded through donations, grants, and sometimes sales – but they are incentivized not to run a tight operation. Volunteers’ time is treated as free, so wastefulness is not controlled. It’s up to you to say no, which is hard because non-profits attract precisely the people least likely to defend their time.
As I mentioned – you can learn, and experiment with new techniques and approaches. But other people do too. If your work depends on graphic design, don’t be surprised when the designer comes up with something out-of-the-box, which naturally will be harder for you to implement, than the run-of-the-mill website.
Other people, like you, will cut corners. The designer has a family to feed, probably a day job and the thing called life. She can’t check every resolution, think about dimensions of headlines when you cram 100 characters in a title, and give the proper attention to everything.
Last, but not least – without salary, recognition becomes the currency. Don’t be surprised, that “about the team” is treated as the most important page on the entire website (even if the visitors don’t care) – this is the equity paid to volunteers. Being paid with recognition also drives some folk to seek more of that compensation – they will contribute to discussions, where they have not much expertise nor understanding. These are perfect bikeshedding conditions. Beware.
Most non-profits have a mission to fix a particular problem in the world. Hunger, poor education, lack of equality, climate change – these are all areas society is failing at and non-profits are stepping in to help.
Many people are driven to work on these problems because they feel strongly about putting up with the collective screwups of society. Non-profits tend to attract people who approach most of the problems with passion and purpose, with no patience for tedious reasoning.
This leads to:
These techniques helped me stay sane while working within a few organizations.
Find a senior member of the organization to “report to”. Ideally somebody with corporate experience, and some tenure inside the Non-Profit. You don’t want to report to a committee.
Never agree to do anything ASAP. Chances are, that before you get to it – the original request will change or be forgotten. Save yourself the revert. Bonus points for batching change requests into sprints.
They will promise you texts, materials, and whatever else you’ll need. You WILL NOT get them on time. Plan accordingly.
Record yourself changing stuff in the interface – this will be a good v1 for documentation so that everyone else can implement tiny changes themselves
If you are creating a website – for goodness sake, use WordPress. It will save you from reinventing the wheel.
Use a ready template, don’t work with an empty canvas. Yes, it will be less original than a custom-made design, but you will be able to get off the ground and focus on what’s important – content and functionality. You have no idea how many tiny details come together to make a template work. Implementing custom design without an hourly rate will lead to an endless back-and-forth on every detail. It costs them nothing to throw in another change. The constraints of an existing template work in your favor.
Every statement you hear will be over-hyped – it’s a function of passion-driven project management. You have to do the mental math of halving the emotional charge of all statements.
Remember to have fun. Despite unreasonable requests, the people you are working with are probably quite awesome. Don’t forget that, and schedule some time to meet them as people – not vendors of website updates.
Working in a Non-Profit is a process of realizing that the corporate environment has its advantages and lessons to teach you as well.
Coming to work on Monday to a well-oiled machine, where every cog (including you) is humming nicely, where the work flows seamlessly through the paths of well-established processes, where everything has its place is a refreshing experience. Of course, sometime around Wednesday, you are sick of it all, yearning for the freedom and creativity you get to enjoy in your organization.
First published here