It still happens, not only with barns. Such events also happen with computers. While the result isn't a barn, it's often something just as helpful.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. I've even seen these events called microvolunteering, though others might say that's an inappropriate term, since volunteers have to contribute several hours of time, not just a few minutes.
Some advantages of these events:
Some disadvantages or challenges:
Example #1: Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon
The Chronicle of Philanthropy highlighted the Smithsonian's gathering of volunteers onsite at the Smithsonian Institutionís Archives of American Art, in Washington, D.C. for an "edit-a-thon" to improve art history info on Wikipedia. In February 2014, 600 volunteers in 31 venues - in the USA, Canada, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, in nonprofits and art schools, in museums and universities - added 101 female artists to Wikipedia.
When you search for something on Google, Bing or Yahoo, very often the first link to come up will be one on Wikipedia. That's just one of the reasons your mission-based organization needs a profile there.
What organizations should have a Wikipedia strategy as well?
If paid employees don't have time to map what needs to be done on Wikipedia, this is a terrific job for an online volunteer, recruited from among your current, long-term and very knowledgeable volunteers/members, from among art history students at the nearest university, etc. That person, as project leader, will not only identify all that needs to be done regarding a Wikipedia entry; he or she will also break all that needs to be done into well-defined tasks, so that different people can each undertake a different task.
One person will also need to write and gather all text to be uploaded; you aren't recruiting writers but, rather, people to adapt text and links in the Wikipedia style. One volunteer may be in charge of your organization's Wikipedia page, ensuring words link to other Wikipedia pages, as appropriate. Another volunteer may be in charge of ensuring other Wikipedia pages that should link back to you do just that (pages that name your organization, pages that detail the cause your organization addresses, or pages for famous or notable people that are somehow connected to your organization and are named on your Wikipedia page - all identified earlier by the project leader), and will probably need at least one or two other volunteers to help with this.
You could organize such an event for all of the arts organizations in your area, or all the history-related organizations in your area, or all the religiously-focused organizations in your area, etc.
Also see How to run an edit-a-thon on the Wikipedia web site.
Example #2: Knowbility Accessibility Internet Rallies
Disclaimer: AIR is my favorite group volunteering event. I don't understand why they are not happening in every city in the USA. Or every city in the world! I have a blast at these events: I staff the sign-in table, I serve food, I run down the hallways and into rooms during the event waving a racing flag - I am high on the energy that happens at AIR!
That said... AIR events bring together teams of volunteers to design fully accessible web sites for nonprofit organizations - web sites that can be easily navigated by people with disabilities or using assistive technologies. The traditional AIR event involves teams receiving a half-day or full-day day of training regarding accessible design, another half-day of training for participating nonprofits regarding what information they will need to have ready for teams, in what format, and a kick off event where the teams and nonprofits are matched up. Then the day of design happens, with strict start and finish times, and all participants in the same location. After the event, web sites are judged by a panel and, later, awards are given to participants.
The results are that nonprofits get fully-accessible web sites, and team members, most of whom are professional web designers, become well-versed in they whys and how of accessible design and usability, as well as better-understanding the nonprofit sector.
More information at Knowbility.org.
Example #3: Scan and Tag Day
You could use your organization's scanner - and ask volunteers to bring their own scanners - and spend the day scanning photos from your archives. Some volunteers scan, some volunteers tag them on your internal system (onsite or in the cloud) so they are appropriately archived and easy to find, some volunteers upload photos to a public photo-sharing like Flickr, other volunteers tag those photos on that photo-sharing site, as appropriate, other volunteers staff the sign-in table, and other volunteers serve food.
Example #4: Crisis Camp / Crisis Commons
This is a gathering of IT professionals, software developers, and computer programmers to aid in the relief efforts after earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes. Projects by these volunteers include setting up social networks for people to locate missing friends and relatives and creating maps of affected areas. "CrisisCampers are not only technical folks like coders, programmers, geospatial and visualization ninjas but we are also filled to the brim with super creative and smart folks who can lead teams, manage projects, share information, search the internet, translate languages, know usability, can write a research paper and can help us edit wikis."
Example #5: Book and Translation Sprints
FLOSS Manuals (FM) is a collection of different language communities that produce original documentation about Free Software. The FLOSS Manuals effort was launched in 2007 to create quality free documentation about Free and Open Source Software. "Our strategy since the beginning has been to develop communities to produce high quality free manuals about Free Software in their own language. Today we have more than 120 books in more than 30 languages and more than 3,000 contributors over 5 independent language communities (French, English, Farsi, Dutch, Finnish)." FM organizations events called Book Sprints, based on code sprints, but with the focus on producing documentation instead of code. A sprint brings together a group of writers, editors, and perhaps an artist and production specialist, to go from outline to published book in five days. FM also has translation sprints.
If your nonprofit serves a multilingual public, a translation sprint for your web site and publications can be a terrific event.
One-Ish Day Events for Tech-Volunteers: What it takes
The key to success with these days is a lot of preparation before the day happens. Your goal is not only to get the work done; you also want volunteers to have the experience of walking through the door, staying busy the entire time, never ever standing around waiting for a task or wondering when something is going to happen, having a great time, and leaving with a smile on their face. For you, that is going to take a HUGE amount of preparation - let's not mince words about that. But that preparation will be worth it: you will connect with new volunteers, connect with volunteers in new ways, create new supporters, re-energize current supporters, create excitement about your organization, and, if you go about this the right way, press coverage!
What these one day events for tech volunteers take in order to be successful:
You will need not just technical volunteers such as programmers and designers; you will also need people who know how to facilitate groups and lead teams, people who know how to write well, and people to simply run around and make sure all volunteers are taken care of.
Identify exactly what it is volunteers will do on the day, as well as what paid employees that are supporting the event will do that day. All tasks for everyone need to be in writing, with estimates on how much time each task will take. Think of it as the script for the play - because in many ways, this is a performance you are pulling off!
Identify exactly how volunteers will register online in the days leading up to the event. When is the cut off date for sign ups to participate?
Make expectations clear, and in writing, on your online sign up site for the event: what skills do volunteers have to have? What do volunteers need to bring (their own lunch? identification? their own laptops?)? What time must they arrive, and how many hours must they provide?
Can volunteers bring their kids? If you don't say they can't, they WILL bring their children!
Will you send a text message to volunteers the day before the event, and an hour before the event, reminding them of the start time?
Script the day down to the minute. What happens when volunteers arrive? What does the check-in process look like? Who will be in charge of that check-in process? How will you prevent a long line of volunteers waiting to be checked in? After a volunteer checks in, then what happens? How will volunteers receive their orientation/instructions for the day? When will there be breaks? How will you bring the day to an end? The more volunteers feel like they always know what they are supposed to be doing, and the less they feel confused or feel like they are having to wait, the more likely they will be to have a great time and rave about this event later.
How will volunteers receive their tasks? Will you have a large bulletin board in the middle of the room where people sign up for what they want to do? Or will you have an online space where volunteers sign up before the day regarding what they want to do?
Have ways to capture their key contact information and provide followup to them regarding the project or issue they contributed to. Require every person at the event to sign in - EVERY PERSON - and to wear a name tag. Have every volunteer complete the briefest of volunteering applications and a photo release, and strongly encourage them to join an online discussion group, and/or to subscribe to your email newsletter. If someone refuses to sign a photo release, give them a particular kind of name tag that denotes this, so that if anyone takes a photo of that person, you know you can't use that photo on a web site, in a brochure, etc.
Make a list of whom to call for any problem that may arise: Internet not working, heat or cooling not working, broken toilets, etc.
Test everything days before the event, the day before the event, and two hours before the event. Is the Internet working? How are the bathrooms? Desks everywhere they should be? Power outlets working?
On the date of the event, take LOTS of pictures. Get photo releases from all participants!
Serve great, free food. That is an essential. I have done a LOT of community volunteering events and community planning meetings, and food has played a MAJOR role in keeping everyone happy. It's 30% of your evaluation score, no question. It's easy to get food donations from multiple sources: a sandwich shop may donate one deli tray, a pizza place may donate two pizzas, a grocery store may also donate one deli tray, etc. That's going to require not only visiting each of these places before the event to secure a donation (and you will have to bring a letter on the organization's stationary asking for this donation), but also, a volunteer or two driving to each of these sites the day of the event and gathering up the food donations, then bringing them to the site. Harder to get: drink donations.
Have cups near a sink so people can drink as much tap water as they want.
Have great bathrooms with plenty of toilet paper.
Contact TV stations - fax and email them before the event, and the day of the event. Send to "attention: assignment editor." And one person needs to be with a TV crew every second of their visit, to ensure they don't interfere with the event while filming.
Do NOT let any volunteer walk out the door without filling out an evaluation! They will NOT fill out an evaluation later online - trust me on this! Plus, by having volunteers fill out an evaluation at the event, before they leave, the more likely it will be that you capture the excitement of the day - as well as accurate criticisms that can be addressed next time.
Never think of the only goal of these events is to get work done. Your goals should always include cultivating new and ongoing supporters. You want to turn people who attend these events into longer-term advocates and supporters of your cause, people who tell family and friends about your organization, who have their perception changed about a particular issue your organization is involved with, and maybe even are so moved by your work that they make a financial donation. To that end:
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