Updated April 30, 2009

 
Feeling Good About Doing Good
 
This article originally appeared in June 2000 in CP Universe, "The online resource for Contract Professional magazine. The web site is now defunct. This version of the article was retrieved from archive.org from this URL: http://www.cpuniverse.com/newsite/archives/2000/jun/probono.html

Contractors who donate their IT talents to help others find they receive more than 'thank yous' in return -- they're developing new skills, making friends, and gaining personal satisfaction.

by Paula Jacobs

Like many IT consultants, Jack McCarrick wears several hats and works long hours. However, he only gets paid for his day job.

In addition to putting in 50-hour work weeks as an IDMS DBA consultant, McCarrick is also an enthusiastic volunteer, dedicating more than 20 hours a month to local church, school, and civic groups. That doesn't include special projects, such as the monthly parish newsletter.

For 10 years, he has chaired a community blood drive, a project that is especially close to his heart. Fifteen weeks a year, he spends up to 12 to 16 hours a week on the blood drive. The use of computer data to track donors helped the small, once-a-year blood drive in his parish grow to three large drives a year.

The honed technical skills of IT professionals such as McCarrick come in handy to many community groups, from the Bronx in New York to San Francisco to Natick, Mass. Veteran volunteers cite the personal gratification that comes from helping others as their primary motivation and benefit.

McCarrick vividly recalls a "thank you" luncheon sponsored two years ago by Hudson Valley Blood Services that impressed upon him how important volunteer work is. At the luncheon, Dr. Robert L. Jones, president of New York Blood Services, held up a photograph and article from the New York Daily News.

"I remembered the specific photo [from the newspaper], because it was a photo of two New York City policemen carrying refrigerated containers of blood. The containers in the photo caught my eye because they were marked with the New York Blood Services logo. I knew the logo well!" McCarrick says.

The blood had been rushed to help a New York City policeman who had been shot and subsequently died of massive internal injuries. In his luncheon speech, Dr. Jones said that even though policy is to maintain strict donor anonymity and privacy, he wanted to acknowledge that the blood used for that dying policeman came from the Hudson Valley Blood Services division. "Within 72 hours, as I now believe, some of the blood we collected that day made its way into the veins of that dying policeman," McCarrick says.

He says the photo Dr. Jones displayed brought back to him how the seemingly casual things volunteers do can have an effect in life-saving situations. "Everything we do can have importance, no matter how simple it may seem," he says.

McCarrick's neighborhood in Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., calls upon him in other ways as well. When the Passionist Retreat Center needed a computerized reservation and scheduling system. McCarrick spent about six hours a week for three months, designing and building the Visual FoxPro application. He still maintains it several hours a month.

As an officer of the Throggs Neck Homeowners Association in the Bronx, McCarrick has chaired various social and community events, including a 350th anniversary celebration and annual Labor Day block parties. He devotes his "spare time" to the many educational and extracurricular activities of his three teenage children.

An IT counterpart in Norwood, Mass., also devotes time to his hometown. Brian Morrison, a 28-year-old independent computer consultant, says, "I have always had a heart to give something back. It was something I was brought up with and I have an opportunity to give something back. It's a nice way to share my gifts."

Morrison called the director of the Norwood Senior Citizen Center, which is sponsored by the Norwood Council on Aging, and volunteered to teach senior citizens about the Internet. Now, twice a month, he teaches a two-hour introductory class on the Internet, for which he has received a small honorarium. Because of the course's popularity, he has expanded to a second-level class on practical Internet skills, such as using the Web for travel arrangements, shopping, or financial information.

Morrison says that one of the nicest aspects of volunteering is to see the light in his students' eyes and to know that at the age of 80-plus they are still learning. He also finds volunteering fun and particularly enjoys the opportunity to help seniors overcome their fear of technology.

One of his senior citizen students was excited about saving more than $50 on her airfare to Sarasota, Fla., compared to what a travel agent had quoted her. Another student is happy she now can e-mail her granddaughter at college.

In Benicia, Calif., Alex Montes is a senior systems integrator and principal of Dr. Computer International, a computer consulting firm. He also provides pro bono approximately 20 hours of monthly IT consulting to several nonprofit organizations in northern California -- Women Helping All People, Catholic Social Services, and Friends For Youth.

His volunteer work includes administering and maintaining a Windows NT network for Women Helping All People; installing, configuring, and troubleshooting equipment for Catholic Social Services; and designing and maintaining the Web site of Friends For Youth. For Montes, the most gratifying part of his job is the response he receives when he solves the technology problem of a nonprofit organization. He points out that a key challenge in the nonprofit world is to keep pace with new technology within tight budget constraints. "Simple issues like designing a Web page for them, remotely accessing your office PC from your home PC, and finding information on the Web become a pleasure when you see not only productivity going up but the personnel very excited about their new tools," says Montes. "That's what I get from selected pro bono work -- being on Cloud Nine."

Connect with Others

In addition to the satisfaction that comes with helping others, volunteers point to the opportunity to make new friends. Volunteering is an invaluable way to meet others with common interests and become involved in a new community. The friends you meet in a volunteer setting share common values, so these relationships often become lifelong bonds.

"Another chief part of the satisfaction I receive is from the constant interaction with people," explains McCarrick. "Many friendships and bonds have come from my pro bono work. I am always enjoying the involvement of the people who work with me in the various groups and organizations as well as meeting, in many cases, the people these groups serve. Of course, a great 'return' to me in this involvement is also what I learn from others, especially because I meet a wide variety of people."

For Jake Barth, volunteering provided a perfect opportunity to become part of a community immediately after he and his new bride moved to Natick, Mass. After joining the young couples' group at Temple Israel, the local synagogue, Barth volunteered to update the synagogue's Web site with the group's activities.

Soon after, Barth was tapped to become the synagogue's Webmaster. He spends approximately three to five hours a week updating the Web site with the latest events, working with committee and board members to publicize their programs, and sending a weekly e-mail reminder about upcoming activities. He also performs other functions, such as adding new features, including a guest book and calendar.

Barth maintains a busy professional consulting career, helping companies implement, customize, maintain, and upgrade PeopleSoft financial and distribution software. Yet, despite a hectic work schedule, an active toddler, and a new house, Barth sees volunteering as an important aspect of his life. "I feel good about helping out the synagogue and getting more involved with what goes on there," explains Barth. "It has helped me become more connected to the community and I enjoy the recognition that I receive."

Learn New Skills

Volunteering also lets you share your technical knowledge with others and learn or test new skills, which often may lead to a new career. "I find it very fulfilling to use my technical skills to help out others in the community. I'm also developing new skills and abilities that I get to use in a real-world setting," says Barth, who has learned HTML code and perfected his Web skills in his pro bono work.

McCarrick agrees. "For most of my life I have enjoyed the satisfaction of helping other people. Hence, as I learned new technologies and other skills -- computer, managerial, administrative, etc. -- during my professional consulting career, I naturally used these in my pro bono work as the needs arose."

For David Crampton of Brisbane, Calif., work in the nonprofit sector provided a transition path after he left a longtime career as a systems integrator at a computer company in the Bay Area. Crampton now works for a minimal hourly rate at Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp., a real estate management firm that owns and operates 25 buildings in downtown San Francisco for subsidized, service-assisted, low-income housing.

As a one-person IT department, Crampton does everything from managing and administration to troubleshooting and maintenance. He manages a Novell 4.11 network with 50 Windows 95 workstations and a few Windows NT stations. He is also deploying new workstations running Windows 98, used by the building managers, who have very low computer literacy but are responsible for collecting rent and keeping records.

Crampton finds the environment different from the corporate world. "The people at TNDC say 'thank you'. That is a big deal!" He hopes that this work will lead to a new career. "The setting up of computers and training people to use them is what I want a large part of my consultancy to be. Perhaps my network administrator work will draw me into larger shops."

Getting Started

If you decide to volunteer your IT skills, consider this advice from seasoned volunteers so you can enjoy a successful and long-term volunteer career.

Paula Jacobs is director of The Jacobs Group, a Massachusetts-based business communications firm.

 
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