It is not often that reading a blog post leads to an amazing weekend, but that’s exactly what happened to me. In the summer of 2010 I read a blog post recapping New England GiveCamp, where developers and designers spend a weekend helping nonprofits with their technical issues. I am always looking for volunteer projects that give that tangible sense of accomplishment, and that blog post, which I am at a loss to find, had me sold. I immediately started following @NEGiveCamp on Twitter, and was the second volunteer to signup once registration opened. And with that, the adventure began.
Over the weekend there was a steady stream of presentations, food and fun – and intense work – but more on that later.
I was originally set to be a project leader, with two developers working “under” me. Unfortunately, on Friday evening things dissolved with our assigned organization and we ended up without a project. While for some that would mean packing up and calling it a weekend, for me it was just the beginning. One of my original team members, Ryan, was scheduled to lead a session on WordPress at 10pm, and before he could leave the classroom another project had snatched him up.
By Saturday morning I was restaffed. My other team member Patrick and I made rounds of other projects in need, and both landed ourselves in separate projects that were in need of an extra hand. The interview process was pretty simple:
me: “Hey – do you guys need any help?”
Usha: “Well, yes, do you know any WordPress?”
me: “Yeah I know a good amount.”
Usha: “Great, we could use you.”
That’s only a minor simplification. Within moments I was plugging away at adding the logo and a donation button to the page header of the new site.
I joined the team helping Boston Women’s Fund, a local nonprofit focused on supporting programs that enable, among other things, women to be leaders. Our task? Revamp their entire website, which had not had a serious refresh since 2003. Yes, that means a layout done entirely in HTML tables, and no content management system, meaning every little website change was being hardcoded by their Technology Consultant, Janis, who was BWF’s representative for the weekend.
I have to commend the staff of BWF because they had their ducks in a row. A number of project teams were stuck defining their projects well into Saturday afternoon. Janis provided us with both a thought out information architecture spec and a layout to follow. The layout was more appropriate for a newsletter, but it was plenty to guide us on styling and design. Including myself the project team included 4 developers and a designer, an extreme luxury at GiftCamp. (Seriously, we may need to start a designer recruitment campaign for NEGC2012.)
Everyone had their role, and then some. The devs took on various tasks to hack the selected WordPress theme to fit the specification. Mike was adding a sitemap and modifying the page structure, Milan was working on the homepage slideshow, Usha was busy adding some custom code to the sidebar, and Szu was making it all look good. My primary task was to take the content of the old site and integrate it into the new site following the new information architecture.
None of us were elite WordPress pros, and we came in with our own biases. One example of this was that our project leader, Usha, was more comfortable working with the command line than a wordpress editor window. When anything needed to be changed her first instict was to dive into the PHP source code and make changes. Meanwhile, others of us with more WordPress experience knew that before you do anything custom, check to see if there’s “a plugin for that.” A perfect example of “there’s a plugin for that” comes from an FAQ page I made. The FAQ link on the old site linked to a PDF file. We OCR’d it to extract the text, but then as I started to simply paste the text in it came to me that coding these links and maintaining this page would be a nightmare. To the rescue comes “Q and A“, a plugin that makes an FAQ hierarchy easy to manage – each question is a custom post, and you can add them to categories. Inserting a category is as easy as inserting a short single line of code into any page or post. In addition, it throws in a little jQuery fanciness to make the questions collapsible.
We wrapped up around 2pm Sunday with full stomachs and a nearly completed website. We’ll spend some time over the next week tightening up some final pieces and transferring the site over to an appropriate web host. (I will post an update when the new site is live.)
In all, it was a great weekend and I’d work with any of my team members again in a heartbeat. The changes brought the Boston Women’s Fund website up to date, and dare I say we did so with some style. We hope that the new website will help Boston Women’s Fund raise more funds and draw in more supporters. At the least we have made them that much more efficient at creating content that will engage the constituents and volunteers they hope to reach. Thanks for the fun, Mike, Milan, Szu, and Usha. We were a great team.
Some of the best parts of GiveCamp:
- All-in attitude – On my team in particular, we were an all hands in, ego-less machine. And that attitude was inter-team, if anyone had expertise they were just as passionate in stepping aside to help another project team.
- Great development environment – It is not often that I can find such focused hack events. I know many in the Boston scene are trying to make that happen, but this many people cranking out with this level of focus, friendliness and purpose is a rarity.
- Impressive coordination – Jim O’Neil and Kelley Muir were did an outstanding job of really making it all a seamless affair. Even with my original project team changing we all ended up being able to make meaningful impacts. I cannot understate how impressed I am at how they brought so many individuals together to make something special.
- Amazing sponsors – can’t go without saying this. Microsoft, among others, spoiled us with their facilities and gifts. There was well over $1,000 in prizes given out over the weekend. Local businesses gave us reason to try their venues (Rebecca’s Cafe’s butternut squash ravioli was stellar and Kickass Cupcakes teased us with a massive variety of cupcakes – it was too hard to choose just one!). The environment was completely set so that the volunteers could focus solely on completing projects, and have a little fun – or a whole lot of fun – in the process.
- Outstanding results – we were there to help nonprofits on technical issues they face so that they can focus on what they do that makes them awesome. Some organizations left this weekend with their first website, others with revamped database systems, and others with even more complex solutions. Even the GiveCamp website was redone as a project, and it now looks great (My project team was one of the new homepage photos, I shamelessly took it and am using it here). It was great to see the nonprofit representatives stick it out with the devs and the camaraderie was at a high the whole time. The gratitude that was shown by the nonprofit organizations and the excitement shown by the volunteers was simply too much for words.
My advice – follow @NEGiveCamp and get the jump on signups for next year. It is a weekend you will remember. I hope that this article succeeds in my attempt to pay it forward. To the future volunteer that this article sways, be sure to capture the moment and share the experience as I have so the movement grows.
A huge thank you to Jessica Knox for reading a draft of this.
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