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Online Volunteering: A Win-Win for Techies, Nonprofits

Just because an organization is located thousands of miles away doesn't mean you can't contribute to its mission -- and build your portfolio at the same time -- with your knowledge of HTML or MySQL.

A growing number of organizations are seeking volunteers with technical skills who are willing and eager to work remotely. These online, or "virtual," volunteers produce Web sites, design online graphics, write documentation and even code databases for nonprofit clients involved in a range of issues, such as environmental preservation and international development.

Techies often volunteer to further their careers and to contribute to a worthy cause. Virtual volunteering makes it possible to do both without the hassle of trying to fit an onsite volunteer position into an already-hectic schedule. Plus, volunteering online gives you access to:

  • A broader set of opportunities, making it more likely you'll find a position that requires your skills and matches your goals.
  • A wider choice of groups, letting you find one that matches your interests -- for example, disaster relief or science education.

The virtual workplace has been the great enabler of online volunteering. Email, instant messaging and other tools make working from afar easy. And the projects techies typically work on, such as Web sites and user guides, don't require face-to-face interaction.

Find Your Match

Grassroots.org is a virtual organization that recruits Web designers online through VolunteerMatch, according to Joe Jurczyk, Grassroots.org's former director of programs. Grassroots.org matches a volunteer with an organization, and then the client and volunteer communicate on their own, typically by phone or email.

Web designer Kamini Natarajan says her volunteer work through Grassroots.org, including developing a Web site for a computer center in Puerto Rico, helped her improve her skills and acquire new ones. "Volunteering was one way to get more real-world experience in Web design," says Natarajan, who holds an associate's degree from Pierce College in Los Angeles and other degrees from India.

Because they work remotely, online volunteers can often proceed at their own pace -- within deadline constraints, of course -- as they learn new skills. Hadi Sulistio, now a senior consultant at financial software firm Cartesis, produced his first Web site as a volunteer for InterConnection, a nonprofit that matches Web-savvy volunteers with nonprofits in developing countries that need Web sites built. Through the experience, Sulistio learned HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript and other Web technologies. And having the projects under his belt helped when he was job hunting. "I was able to put the Web sites I developed in my resume and use the clients as references," he says.

Jason Willett, VolunteerMatch's director of communications, says many of the volunteer assignments available for techies involve Web design and production, but opportunities also exist to work with databases, write documentation, code games and produce podcasts.

Just beware: Any volunteer experience requires a certain degree of independence, but that is particularly true with virtual ones. "The volunteers have to be self-motivated and have to be able to work alone," says Charles Brennick, director and founder of InterConnection.

Tips for Being a Top-Notch Volunteer

Keep the following in mind when pursuing online volunteer work:

  • Get as much information as you can about the scope of the project, deadlines and other details.
  • Be prepared to supply your own software.
  • Report to your contact regularly. Develop a relationship rather than simply submit a finished product.
  • Don't be afraid to share your ideas and take the initiative with the client. "When you produce quality ideas, people realize that you exist somewhere," Sulistio says.

As for the potential career benefits, the experience can help you build a portfolio, develop your personal network, prove your skills and even get a taste of the vagaries of the workplace. As Natarajan puts it: "Most importantly, [volunteering] helped me work with different types of clients -- some very demanding, some ignorant, some easygoing."

Sound Off...What do you think? Join the discussion...

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