The do's and don'ts of volunteering

How to make a difference using your IT skills

With the holiday season upon us and New Year's resolutions just around the corner, the idea of giving back has probably crossed many minds. There are a number of significant ways that IT professionals can help nonprofit organizations, be it with the homeless shelter around the corner or with relief groups across the globe.

Here are some suggestions and advice to get you started.

DON'T . . . donate old hardware or software. Whether it's your 3-year-old laptop or the fleet of old desktops that your company is swapping out, material donations often end up more of a curse than a blessing.

"You're making space in your house or office and saying, 'This [PC] is below our standard to use,' so you're going to give it away and hope that the people at the food bank are really happy to get it?" asks Jeffrey Forster, technical services director with Robert Morris University's Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management in Pittsburgh.

While these donations are made with good intentions, most nonprofits don't have the technical staff to get the old equipment into shape, harvest them for parts or provide support, Forster says. Still, such donations are an ongoing practice; the Bayer Center surveyed 285 nonprofit organizations and found more than 40 percent have at least some donated computers.

Instead, Forster suggests that individuals or companies looking to make good use of old equipment donate to an organization that will refurbish the computer, such as Goodwill, which then passes on the PC or the proceeds from its sale to nonprofits. Or contact your city's recycling center to find out how to dispose of a PC in a manner that is earth-friendly.

DO . . . donate your talent. Depending on your specialty, you could offer to build a database, manage an e-mail fund-raising campaign, train someone in Excel, upgrade an operating system or become an organization's Webmaster.

"There are opportunities to just pitch in for an hour, or to get involved many hours every week," says Jason Willett, director of communications with VolunteerMatch.org, a Web site that pairs up potential volunteers with nonprofits in need of help.

DO . . .consider local options first. While there plenty of opportunities for virtual work, many nonprofits prefer to have their volunteers close by.

"We like [volunteers] to be local, because we find they stay more committed," says Carmel Sullivan, executive director of CoAbode.com, a Web site that helps single mothers and their children find opportunities to share housing and pool resources. "If people contact us from more than 20 minutes away, we discourage them. Who wants to commute over an hour?"

CoAbode.com has one other employee besides Sullivan, the rest of the work is done by volunteers, and most of them are IT professionals.

BUT DON'T . . . exclude volunteering virtually, if there's an organization whose work interests you but isn't close by. A quick search on VolunteerMatch.org for virtual opportunities pulled up 1,945 listings, including Web site designer, eBay expert and MySQL developer.

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