The Faces of Digital Volunteers: Pioneers in a New World

Faces of eight digital volunteers

Share This Post:

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email

Technology has made volunteering more accessible than ever before, and also changed the way that we volunteer. Here are a few of the faces of volunteers who are leveraging their digital skills and experience to make a difference in the world around them.

Ximone Willis, TEALS Program, Austin, TX.

XImone Willis TEALS Volunteer from Austin Texas

How do you volunteer your technical expertise and what motivated you to want to become a digital volunteer?

TEALS is a program, sponsored by Microsoft, that connects tech-industry volunteers with schools. I have served with TEALS for three years and teach basic programming at the International Leadership of Texas High School.

I serve on a volunteer team with three other people. Two team members act as co-teachers, and two are more like aides. Our program works in three basic phases. In the first phase, we teach coding to both the students and the teacher. In the second phase, we allow the teacher to take the lead, and we serve more as assistants. And in the third phase, we only come periodically to the school in more of an advisory capacity. The great thing about what we do is that we’re not only equipping the students with a great skill – we’re training the teacher as well – so the impact is multiplied.

Right now with COVID happening, everything we do is online. The downside of that for me is that I prefer to be in the classroom with the students. But the positive side is that the digital side of our program has allowed us to be engaged with schools that are in remote areas.

Most of us are professionals, so our volunteering has to fit around our work. I’m a software engineer, so there is no way I could travel all the time to a remote location. Being a digital volunteer, though, allows the TEALS program to be offered in places where a traditional volunteer might not be able to go.

Why do you think that it is important for students (and teachers) to learn technology?

I think it’s critical because it prepares them for the technical challenges they will face in life and equips them with valuable skills. It provides a sense of mentorship, camaraderie, teaches problem solving and trains them to think logically. We assign technical tasks that will motivate and challenge the student while still being attainable. There are lessons beyond simple programming that we want them to learn so they will be well-prepared for the digital world that we live in.

What have you enjoyed most about your role?

I was part of a TEALS class myself when I was in high school, but it wasn’t until after college that I chose to become a volunteer. I really enjoy coding and it’s fun to get to teach it to the students. It’s also important to me to give back to my community.

In general, do you believe that nonprofits have kept up with the other sectors in the area of technology? 

They are definitely behind. I can’t think of a single nonprofit website I’ve been to where I thought, “Wow! That’s a great website!” (I’m sure there are some out there but I have not seen them yet). Nonprofits are very focused on their vision and mission statement (and I think that’s great) but the part they really neglect is technology. The problem is, when you have inefficient technology, you actually end up wasting more time and making the process more difficult for yourself. I volunteered with an organization when I was in high school and struggled to use their technology because it was so outdated. Meanwhile, I was learning how to program at school, and I wanted so much to fix their system for them, but I couldn’t.

That’s one of the challenges I see in volunteering. I don’t mind doing manual labor, but I want to use the skills I have to make the greatest impact. A lot of nonprofits don’t even ask what skills you possess. Just as they struggle to have the bandwidth to research and upgrade their technology, they also struggle to have time to know their volunteers and discover what skills each one brings to the table. The answer to their technology woes may actually be a volunteer who is out pulling weeds or stacking cans on a shelf.

Brandi Smith, Four Corners Group, Atlanta, GA

Brandi Smith-social media volunteer from Four Corners Group in Atlanta

What motivated you to want to volunteer your expertise in social media, and how long have you been serving in that role?

I have been managing the social media strategy for Four Corners Group for about six months now. I was motivated to volunteer my expertise because I know that just a few hours of my time each week can have a long-term impact on a student’s life. Our mission at Four Corners Group is to restore hope for youth in crisis by providing pathways to a thriving adulthood. I want to encourage our students to dream and think big. A social media post can do so much more than just reach an audience.

What have you enjoyed most about your role?

I love serving in this way because I know I am making a difference. It’s really rewarding to know that I can reach someone’s heart and possibly even change someone’s life by sharing a few motivational words. It’s also important to get awareness out about what we do, and alert people to the mission and vision of our organization. I believe that when people really understand what we do, they will want to help.

Why do you think that it is critical for nonprofits to engage in social media?

One of the many reasons that it is critical for all non-profits to be on social media is that it is the fastest way to tell people about what your organization is doing and connect with potential donors and volunteers. Your followers can turn into dollars if they explore your page and like what they see. 

In general, do you believe that nonprofits have kept up with the other sectors in the area of technology? 

Every non-profit organization is different. Deciding what technology works best is an individual decision – but I do believe many have kept up with it. In my own personal experience, I’ve learned that the latest technology is not always the best technology. The technology you select should benefit the organization to the highest extent. It’s important not to get the latest technology just to say that you have it. If you get it, utilize it. 

LV Spencer, IT Power Platform Team, American Red Cross, Lancaster, PA

LV Spencer - IT Power Platform Team Red Cross

What motivated you to want to volunteer your expertise in logistics and IT, and how long have you been serving in that role?

I served in the US. Army as an Executive Officer, U.S. Army Medical Material Center, Europe. My role there was in logistics and information systems. After I retired in 1994, I wanted to find a place to volunteer. Our unit worked closely with the Red Cross in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. I saw the work they were doing and came to appreciate their mission to help prevent and alleviate human suffering. 

When I first applied as a Red Cross volunteer, they asked me to answer telephones, which was not what I really wanted to do. Very soon, though, I was able to transition to the IT team. My job now is to manage logistics during a disaster. I work from my home but engage with people all over the country, ensuring that the necessary supplies and services are available for the frontline workers. All of our efforts start at the grassroots level. I am part of an army of 372,000 volunteers. I have served with the Red Cross for 15 years now and had the privilege of being one of the architects of the IT Power Platform team.

What have you enjoyed most about your volunteer experience?

It has been rewarding to be a part of this team. I joined because I truly believe in the mission and values and wanted to make a contribution in this area. After serving for so long, I’ve also developed a widespread network and built friendships. My team has become like family. I would not volunteer for just any organization. I’m in the right place for me.

Why do you think that it is important for nonprofits to engage volunteers with technical expertise?

When I first started out in the field, I would be given responsibilities to submit reports but found it difficult without any automation. I saw a need for us to work smarter instead of harder. Adding technology has made all the difference. Our IT Power Platform team is made up of IT professionals, developers, project managers, and business analysts. We have a system now that is highly efficient and can find solutions quickly.

In general, do you believe that nonprofits have kept up with the other sectors in the area of technology? 

I believe that nonprofits are definitely behind in embracing technology, and in some ways it is understandable. Their focus is on their mission, and technology costs money. It can be a challenge to come up with resources. But there are organizations out there who can help fund technology for nonprofits. 

Ezana Tadese, Katarina Chan and Lauren Abuouf, Digital Detroit, Ross School of Business – University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

How do you volunteer your technical expertise, and what motivated you to want to become a digital volunteer?

Ezana: One of our marketing professors sent out an eblast asking if anyone was interested in volunteering to be a marketing consultant for a program called Digital Detroit. The idea was to help traditional brick and mortar small businesses in Detroit who don’t have a web presence, or who have a very minimal presence. Our job was to give them marketing guidance on content and key messaging.

Lauren: One of the things that attracted me to the University of Michigan is that our school is known for hands on, action-based learning. So when my internship got pushed back by the pandemic, and the opportunity to serve with Digital Detroit came up, I saw it as an attractive opportunity. Also… I grew up watching my Dad run a small business, so I will always have a place in my heart for entrepreneurship.

Kat: I responded to the email about Digital Detroit as well. I have had about 7 years of digital marketing and social media experience, so considering what COVID has done to these small businesses, I just wanted to contribute and help them in any way possible.

Why do you think that it is important for nonprofits, and in your case, small businesses, to engage volunteers with technical expertise?

Lauren: Thinking about the challenges of running a small business… it’s hard when you’re trying to run your own company to get the messaging right. Understanding your audience and understanding your why is really difficult when you’re in the trenches day in and day out and just trying to survive. It’s good to have an outsider’s perspective to kind of pull out who exactly you’re trying to serve and how to position your products and services to really speak to the customers that you want to bring in.

Kat: If we’re talking about nonprofits, I think they are resourced very differently from small businesses, so you have to consider them uniquely. Because they don’t make for-profit money they have fewer resources to work with. Marketing requires specific skills and you need just the right kind of person and money to do it. It’s a tough area. I think that’s what makes a program like this one great. By recruiting students who do have the marketing background, the nonprofits benefit from their expertise, and the students have an opportunity to contribute to the community.

Ezana: Students have more free time and are genuinely trying to use their skills in new areas. So from a volunteering standpoint, students are a great resource for any organization who is trying to create a marketing strategy. 

What have you enjoyed most about volunteering, or what is the biggest lesson you have learned?

Ezana: A little goes a long way. Before business school I worked as an engineer in the automotive industry, so I don’t have a lot of marketing experience – just one year of business fundamentals. But I found when I talked with these small businesses, that they would absorb and appreciate everything I was able to share. To me, it seemed like general information, although I did try to tailor it specifically to their business. I gave them general marketing fundamentals, customer pain points, and helped them determine what message was at their core and how to deliver that to their customer. To me it seemed simple, but they really listened and responded with such gratitude.

Lauren: Being adaptable makes the experience more enriching and impactful. You get to offer your experience, but sometimes you’re asked to do things you don’t expect. Kat and I ended up setting up and monitoring a Facebook group for a small business. There wasn’t really a blueprint for this program since it was a pilot. We had to be open to any kind of volunteer role within the organization. That one wasn’t on my radar when I signed up. But I learned a lot and found it to be rewarding. Being open is important. 

Kat: This was like a pilot program, so we didn’t know how it was going to be. When we came on board we assumed we were just going to advise them. It was important to us, though, to hear their voices, too, and learn about their community. We quickly realized that they are really busy. So when it came to things like the Facebook group, we had to ask ourselves: What is some low-hanging fruit that would be easy for them to do, but still get them to share in the space? We had to be adaptable to figure out how to help them have the greatest impact while still making it manageable with their limited time. 

Dylan Rogers, Amnesty International Digital Verification Corps, Cambridge, England

Dylan Rogers - Amnesty Internation Digital Volunteer

In what way do you volunteer your technical expertise and what motivated you to want to become a digital volunteer?

I work as a digital analyst and researcher with Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps. The Digital Verification Corps [DVC] is an ambitious initiative which recruits students from the Universities of Cambridge, Hong Kong, Pretoria, Toronto, Essex and Berkeley to verify photos and videos of potential human rights violations from conflicts and crises across the world. 

I joined the DVC in August 2019. I had always been impressed by Amnesty’s tenacity, fighting for a world in which human rights are enjoyed by all, but was driven to join by spectacular work the DVC did showing evidence of unlawful attacks on schools and hospitals in Northern Syria, described partly in this case study

What have you enjoyed most about your volunteer experience?

No longer being simply buffeted by bad news. The DVC allows its members to take matters into their own hands and make a meaningful difference, producing data that feeds into internationally recognised reports and raises awareness of key transnational issues. It is proof that in the online era, change can begin with a single keystroke. 

Why do you think that it is important for nonprofits to engage volunteers with technical expertise?

I came to the DVC with few of the skills I employ today. I benefited from the extensive training I received through Amnesty employees, chiefly Sam Dubberly, the DVC’s global coordinator. As a result, I believe that while it is of course critical that nonprofits engage volunteers with technical expertise, it is as important that they invest in their workforce. As a result of Amnesty’s investment in us, my team and I are not only able to offer useful contributions to the organisation, but feel a responsibility for it. 

In general, do you believe that nonprofits have kept up with the other sectors in the area of technology? 

While I cannot speak for all nonprofits, Amnesty’s DVC is proof that the organisation has more than kept up with other sectors in terms of technology – and with a dedicated, in-house technology collective, Amnesty Tech, answering important questions on Big Data, AI, online censorship and more, I cannot see Amnesty falling behind the crowd. 

Cecilia Perez, Community Tech Network, San Francisco, CA.

Cecilia Perez Community Tech Network

In what way do you volunteer your technical expertise? 

I assist seniors who have limited knowledge of digital resources to discover and adopt the many tools available to them. In doing so, I believe I can help bridge this knowledge gap which in turn will enrich their lives. I can facilitate access to useful online resources and connection with a host of meaningful experiences, and in the process help to build their confidence.

How long have you been serving in this way? 

I started serving with Community Tech Network in June 2020. 

What motivated you to want to become a digital volunteer? 

San Francisco has been my home for the past 11 years. I have come to love this city and developed a deep attachment to the local community. I was eager to give back, and as I searched for local volunteer opportunities found CTN. I have always believed Seniors are an underserved group. CTN offered me the opportunity to do something about it in a way that feels important and impactful, while accessible to me. 

What have you enjoyed most about your volunteer experience?

It is very gratifying to help others. Even more so when you see the impact and difference you make right away. A few days back, I received an email from the senior I partner with. She wrote me a brief note to share how accomplished she felt after having successfully requested a book she needed for her painting class from the public library via its website. She navigated the site on her own and was able to figure out the steps to complete this task. Knowing I helped to empower her to independently leverage these resources was immensely gratifying. 

Why do you think that it is important for nonprofits to engage volunteers with technical expertise?  

Without nonprofits like CTN, eager volunteers would have a difficult time making the right connections with those in need of assistance. It is vital to have an agent that helps build these communities. Helping funnel knowledge transfer and fostering mutually fulfilling partnerships between Seniors and Digital Coaches is a vital role that nonprofits like CTN play to the benefits of all stakeholders concerned. 

In general, do you believe that nonprofits have kept up with the other sectors in the area of technology? 

Despite their modest resources, I believe most nonprofits have done a great job at keeping pace with technologies and pivoted quickly to adjust to the needs of the communities they serve. CTN Digital Coach remote program is a great example of this. 

How has your position as a digital volunteer directly impacted the life of a person you support? 

I have a wonderful new friend who I know appreciates the support I provide her. It makes me very happy to know that I am making a difference in her life.

Start a Conversation

Upcoming Webinars