Getting the most out of GiveCamp

I recently took part in the second annual Las Vegas GiveCamp event, which is a weekend long hack-a-thon for charity. The way it works is pretty cool. They invite a number of Non-Profit groups who are looking for some assistance, then they invite dozens of volunteers to spend the weekend helping the Non-Profits in whatever way they can. This was my second year in a row at the event, and I had an absolute blast.

The tagline for Vegas GiveCamp is “Coding for Charity”, but the assistance given goes well beyond just coding. There are volunteers who bring marketing, SEO, social media, business, and yes, coding skills to the event.

The first year of the event, I was the tech-lead for two projects. This time around I joined up with a team that already had a tech-lead. While both experiences were very positive, there were definitely some things I liked and some things I would have changed about them both.

For me, there are two main reasons why I take part in GiveCamp. 1) I love hack-a-thons. Getting a group of smart people together in a room to all knock out some work over a weekend is awesome. 2) Giving to charity feels good.

This year more than last year, I saw a number of frustrated volunteers walking around trying to get their projects moving forward. They were running in to hurdles and because of it they weren't getting the enjoyment out of the weekend that they should have been, and their Non-Profit wasn't getting the work done that they needed.

On the Non-Profit side, I saw groups who showed up early and stayed late every night, I saw groups who showed up late and left early each day, I saw groups that showed up prepared and others that showed up empty handed. You won't be shocked to hear that some groups had a very successful weekend, while others… not-so-much.

If you plan to take part in GiveCamp in the future, and I strongly suggest you do, I have some personal experience and observations to share with you in hopes that it will help you have a successful weekend at GiveCamp.

Technical-Leads

At last year's event I was the tech-lead on two projects. I realized early on that it was a bad idea to have spread myself so thin before the event even started. So my first tip is to not make that same mistake.

Being a tech-lead means that you get to drive the ship. And, like any good captain, it means that your work starts before everybody else and doesn't stop until the work is done. Even though the hack-a-thon lasts for just a weekend, to make sure you have a successful project, you should reach out to the Non-Profit you are going to work with 1-2 weeks in advance to talk about the project. You will want to start building a plan as soon as possible so you can hit the ground running when you get to the event. You're going to be surprised at just how fast Sunday afternoon rolls around!

Make sure to collect as much information you can about user accounts/logins for anything and everything you might need. If you're going to be building them a website, you're going to want FTP, cPanel, database, WordPress admin access for starters. But don't forget about things like MailChimp, Google Analytics, hosting dashboards, etc. If it doesn't feel like you asked them for too much, you probably didn't ask for enough.

But above all, the most important thing you can do in advance of the event is to set proper expectations. You're going to go in to the weekend with the best of intentions. But just like with any project, you're going to hit bumps in the road. You want to set an attainable goal and make sure the Non-Profit you're working for understands what is and isn't going to be completed.

Tech / Marketing / Social Volunteers

This year, instead of being a lead, I simply joined a team that needed my help and I let somebody else drive the ship. This freed up my time to spend working on the main project I signed on to accomplish, but I was also able to roam around a little to help out some other teams. I found this really enjoyable.

A week or so before the event you should receive a list of all the non-profit companies who will be attending along with a description of their project and what they're trying to accomplish. As soon as you get the list, read it and mark the 4 or 5 groups who you think you can help the most with your skill set. Then, reach out to the tech lead for each of those groups and let them know you're interested in working on the project. Ask any questions you might have about it, and if possible, hop on a call with the tech-lead to talk about the project further to make sure you're on the same page. Do this even if you plan to only play a small part on the project. You can line up 3 or 4 projects who all need your help, assuming each will only take you a small fraction of the overall time.

Since your time at GiveCamp is limited, this isn't the time to be testing out some really cool new method. Stick to your tried and true processes as much as possible. I can't stress enough how quickly the time goes. Both years I ended up completing extra work in the week that followed GiveCamp because I didn't manage my time as good as I should have. Unless you want home work, keep it simple.

One thing that I did that really helped me stay (mostly) on track was that each day I started off by creating a list of what needed to be done. Having a visual list was very helpful in keeping myself on track. After lunch, I reevaluated the list to make sure I was on track, and then once again the following morning which was the last day of the event. After that last reevaluation, I had to make some hard decisions about what was going to stay on the list and what needed to be cut. Luckily for me, our team lead had set the expectations with the non-profit in such a way that the items that we cut were in the ‘nice to have' list and not the ‘must have' list.

This shouldn't be a high-stress weekend. If you are starting to feel overly stressed, take a few minutes to walk around and maybe help out another team for 30 minutes or an hour. If that doesn't do it, talk with your team lead about adjusting the project or bringing on more help.

Most of all, don't forget that you're there to have fun and help some people out.

Non-Profits

This post was mainly written for you guys. Because really, GiveCamp is all about helping you out so you can focus your efforts on running your non-profit.

The number one way to make sure you have a successful GiveCamp is to clear your schedule for the entire weekend and plan on being at the event and ready to work. “But wait, the volunteers are supposed to be the ones working, right?” you ask? Well, yes. But, they are there to work WITH you, not for you.

I can tell you from personal experience, if you are there working along side me all weekend, I'm going to be energized and will want to do as much as possible to help you out. But, if you come in at the beginning of the day and then leave for the bulk of the event, I'm going to do the minimum possible to complete your project. Your energy and excitement for the project is going to fuel my energy and excitement for the project.

Next up, be prepared. Actually, as much as possible, be over prepared. Remember that you have months or years of knowledge about your non-profit. Your volunteers have days, at best. If your website connects to a 3rd party service to add people to a newsletter list, make sure your team knows that so we can make sure it still works at the end of the weekend. Are we going to be switching your hosting company this weekend, then you better make sure you have the username/password for your domain name registrar along with the login info for both the new and old hosting company. If we're changing the website and you plan to change the content, you might want to start writing that a couple weeks in advance and just store it in a Word document. Does the project require new photography? Get that done early, too.

We obviously don't expect you to know all the technical details for your current website. So if there's anything you aren't sure about, reach out to your team lead and see if they can help. The more prepared you are, the smoother the weekend will go.

And finally, come to the event prepared to learn! In addition to helping you out with your project, each year there have been workshops that will teach you things like Social Media, How to use WordPress to update your website content, SEO and a terrific Non-Profit round-table. You may event want to consider bringing 2 or 3 people from your organization just to take advantage of these terrific learning opportunities.

In conclusion…

I am such a huge fan of GiveCamp. I look forward to it like Christmas. It's a lot of fun and very rewarding. If you go in with the right expectations and an eagerness to help and learn, you're going to have a great time, too!

I'm looking forward to seeing you at Las Vegas GiveCamp 2015!

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