Creating Pro Bono Tech That Works, Part 2

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Last week we discussed many of the challenges with establishing a culture of pro bono in the tech world. This week, with Delta.NYC officially underway, we want to talk about how the program is designed not only to circumvent the issues of most pro bono tech initiatives, but to deliver a meaningful experience to both the nonprofits and the digital professionals who help them.

Creating a Successful Launch

Delta.NYC had it’s official launch earlier this month, and as we write this 14 teams of digital professionals are halfway through their pro bono projects. We’re incredibly excited to see all the amazing work these teams will accomplish, and we want to talk about this program is set up for the greatest chances of success for all of our partners.

In order to create a program that meets the needs of our nonprofit partners, a large percentage of Civic Hall Labs’ work comes months before digital professionals come on board. We work closely with our partners to identify obstacles that impede their strategic priorities and determine where technology or digital expertise can help. This year, Civic Hall Labs is proud to partner with the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, Center for NYC Neighborhoods, Community Action for Safe Apartments, Cooperative Economics Alliance, Exalt Youth, Fortune Society, HELP USA, Immigration Equality, Neighborhood Housing Services of NYC, Nonprofit Coordinating Committee, Resilience Advocacy Project, Sage: Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders, United Neighborhood Houses, and the Vera Institute of Justice. Later in the month we’ll dig into the specific projects, but for now, we want to discuss some of the practices we’ve put in place to avoid many of the problems that sink pro bono tech.

In order to set our partner organizations and digital professional participants up for success, we address these challenges in the following ways:

1. We Pre-Scope Each Project

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As we discussed last week, many digital professionals who set out to do pro bono work can encounter unexpected “technical debt” which greatly increases their workload, and often leads to burn-out and unfinished projects. We mitigate this risk by working collaboratively with our nonprofit partners to pre-scope projects in two important ways:

  1. We host a series of in-person assessment and scoping meetings with our partners and do our own technical analysis of the systems that will be tied to the project.
  2. We ensure projects can be completed in a 6-week time-frame — the length of a Delta.NYC cycle — to prevent scope-creep.

By doing both of these tasks, we are able to anticipate potential obstacles incoming teams may encounter, allowing us to better prepare them.

2. We Make Sure The Work Aligns With The Organization's Strategic Priorities

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We focus on projects that tie directly to our partners’ strategic priorities so that we can be sure our teams are delivering high-impact work. Our partners understand that in order for the Delta.NYC teams to function at their highest level, they will need a solid communication plan and feedback loop in place. By tying projects to strategic priorities, we can ensure that both our partners and Delta.NYC teams are able to give and get what they want out of their projects.

3. We Recruit An Entire Cohort of Digital Professionals

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We design the Delta.NYC experience around a cohort model. The cohort model cultivates a sense of community and gives digital professionals the opportunity to problem solve outside of their direct teams. Rather than run a single project on it’s own, pulling from the skills and expertise of 3–5 people, the cohort model taps into a wide variety of expertise and perspectives across more than 60 professionals. This enhances the experiences of participants, allows for richer networking and learning, and provides increased support when challenges arise since teams can see how other teams are handling similar issues.

4.We Put Together Multidisciplinary Teams

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All of this prep work allows us to much more accurately determine the skill-sets and disposition needed for each project. Rather than matching an individual to a project, we build diverse teams to work on projects together. We accept digital professionals into the Delta.NYC program based on their skill-sets and allow them to select onto projects themselves based on their interests.

By using this system, we have a remarkably high-rate of success in placing professionals on teams where they’re not only able to utilize their skill-sets, but are also contributing to a cause they believe in. Many of our partners nonprofits do not have the staff capacity or budget to do this work on their own, and having access to an entire team of digital professionals provides value beyond the project deliverables. 98% of our nonprofit partners and digital professional participants were interested in participating as part of another Delta.NYC project.

5. Lastly, We Spend Lots of Time Filling the Most Important Role — The Product Manager

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After we define a clear scope of work alongside our partners, we spend a large amount of time selecting and placing Product Managers.

Put simply, a PM can make or break a team. Because they are the point-person for both the non-profit and the digital professional team, they have the responsibility of not only keeping the project on track, but also having to communicate milestones, developments, and challenges to two vastly different worlds.

This is why we spend extra time onboarding PMs. Each PM attends an in-person planning meeting with their nonprofit partner, where we transition all of the pre-scoping materials over to them. PMs are given the opportunity to work with their partners ahead of their team in order to refine and flesh out the rest of the project scope. Additionally, we host a PM-specific kickoff event where we train them on working within the public sector, goal setting, and leadership development.

Furthermore, by spending several hours getting to know the rest of the PMs in the cohort, they are able to rely on one another and troubleshoot any issues together as challenges arise throughout their Delta.NYC engagement. Our goal is to make sure they have the support systems and structure they need to have a successful project, and that they can easily transfer knowledge and skills between each other.

Next week we’ll introduce you to the cohort. Until then, feel free to let us know if you’ve done pro bono tech work, and what processes helped (or hurt) your project.