One of my earliest experiences with IT work was volunteering for a local charity. It was a home for developmentally disabled adults. I assisted with their computer systems, creating accounting and budgeting spreadsheets, building a Web site, and more. It was also one of the most personally satisfying IT experiences I have ever had. In high school, I was extremely active with charity work through the Air Force Junior ROTC program that I was in. Ringing bells for the Salvation Army, visiting local nursing homes, and more were part of that experience. None of these had any kind of payoff for me other than a sense of satisfaction with myself.
Over the years, I fell out of this practice. Recently however, I have begun doing work like this again (not in an IT capacity, however). I still find it immensely rewarding. I have decided to offer my services as an IT professional to some non-profit organizations as well. IT services are typically quite expensive. If I can help where I can, I want to.
The Open Source Software folks talk about how they are changing the world by giving away free software. Yes, it is great that businesses can save money and new technologies are being developed. Right now, there are children who have been severely abused in shelters, addicts trying to recover from their disease, prisoners trying to learn a new way of life... the list is endless. And there are non-profit organizations trying to do something about of these problems. It is easy to look at some of the recent scandals and problems with the large charities out there and say, "well that does not look like something I want to be involved in, and they have enough money to hire IT professionals anyways." That may be true. However, for each huge charity that may put only 10% of its budget to actually helping people, there are a hundred local charities operating on a shoestring budget. These charities are where you can deliver the most help, and they are the ones with the least ability to get IT help.
One of the great things about volunteer work is that your resume is not nearly as important as your willingness to help. If you are looking to learn a new skill, volunteering is a great way to put it into practice. It can also help build your resume, because you will have the opportunity to try things which you are not qualified to do "on paper." For example, a local group that I am involved with is beginning a VoIP project. I have no experience with VoIP, but I have a lot of experience in general networking, systems administration, telecommunications, power protection, and other things peripheral to a VoIP project. The person who was asked to do the VoIP project has zero knowledge of any of these things. This organization was delighted when I offered to help out, and now I will have the chance to learn VoIP when I might not otherwise have the chance to do so.
We all know what kinds of productivity gains IT can deliver to businesses. But non-profit organizations, particularly those that operate on the local level, often cannot afford the capital investment to leverage IT properly. I am not familiar with any services or Web sites that help worthy organizations find volunteer IT help, or help IT pros looking to do some good deeds assist a good cause. If you know of such an organization, please let me know. I am also considering starting a Web site to assist with this. If you are interested in helping, please let me know via TechRepublic private message. I think it is high time we put the spirit of the OSS community to work in helping others with problems more important than the TPS reports.
Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.