United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS):
Assisting Others As An Expert Volunteer
This article was part of the online Knowledge Base hosted by the United Nations Information Technology Society. It was written by Jayne Cravens, and is an example of the kinds of resources that were a part of the UNITeS Knowledge Base to help volunteers applying ICT in the developing world, and to help organizations who wanted to involve such volunteers.
Assisting Others in Your Area of Expertise
Volunteers often support an agency's staff members or other volunteers in a particular area of expertise. For instance:
Problems can arise in such situations when the volunteer "expert" is assisting
a staff person with working with a system or technology that the volunteer
understands quite well, but the staff doesn't. How do you balance making
the topic accessible in the way you present the subject without talking
"down" to the staff person or other volunteer?
- a nurse volunteering her time online to talk to nurses in a health
clinic in a developing country about how to use a particular software
to track records or activities
- a volunteer lawyer with international expertise using e-mail to
clarify a legal issue regarding immigration
- a volunteer accountant explaining financial practices to a non-accountant
- a professional IT person donating their time to support a community
technology center in a developing country
Other problems can arise around differences in culture -- perhaps
the online volunteer is used to sending brief e-mails with very short
sentences, but the recipient thinks that such short sentences mean the
sender is unfriendly or even angry.
The following suggestions should be kept in mind by all online volunteers
donating their "expertise" to an NGO in a developing country -- and
most can be applied to face-to-face situations as well as online:
- Listen to what the staff member and the organization need
as a result of your donated services. Is there a concrete goal or
outcome that is wished for as a result of your activities? Making
sure you understand the expectations of the organization will help
prevent misunderstandings about the service you are providing.
- Mutual agreement on a plan of action between you and those
you are helping is the most crucial step of successful technical assistance.
Outline the expected outcomes, approaches and resources and estimate
the time you think it will take to complete the project.
- An NGO can ask a lot of a volunteer, so make it your job
to be clear about what you can and cannot do. Define the project using
milestones that match your available time and skills and meet their
needs. Do not overcommit yourself.
- If an NGO does not train you about volunteering or give you some
kind of orientation, ask for it! Learn the organization's mission,
get an overview of the organization's programs and current events,
and have a list of all staff, in case you encounter these people online
in the course of your service.
- Remember that you were a beginner too, once upon a time.
- Those that you are helping are experts in many areas as well.
Respect their knowledge, as you would expect them to respect your
own. Don't forget that you are talking to professionals; it is ignorance
about a particular area, not stupidity, that has put the NGO staff
in need of your services.
- Respect the time of the NGO staff and other volunteers.
They have many responsibilities outside of what you see as a volunteer.
They may not be able to devote as much time to an issue as you think
they should; help them to do the most they can with the time they
- NGOs operate in a world of very limited resources and ever-shrinking
budgets. Don't be surprised if they don't have a staff member
devoted solely to human resources, legal issues, computer systems,
etc. Also don't be surprised if they don't have a budget to buy and
maintain a large computer system. Respect those limitations by helping
them to do as much as they can with their available resources.
- Think about the language you are using to explain something;
using terms that only a fellow expert would understand will frustrate
the person you are trying to help. Use common language whenever possible,
avoiding jargon, and fully explain technical terms you need to use
a lot. Learn what you can about THEIR work and put things in a context
they can understand. And remember -- English may not be their primary
- If you encounter resistance to a suggestion, particular
in an area where you consider yourself an expert, try to diagnose
the cause: differing priorities? lack of information about you? lack
of information about them? bad timing? preconceived assumptions? Once
you have identified the reason for the resistance, it will be much
easier for you to deal with it constructively.
- Exude quality in your service to the agency. For instant,
if you are inputting information into a database and misspell a name
or input the wrong phone number, the work you've done is not just
useless, it can be damaging!
- Build sustainability. Don't just do it for the NGO staff
- involve them in the process. Explain each step, give background,
and write down procedures or troubleshooting steps, if applicable.
The most important part of your service is that what you leave behind
works and can be sustained by the organization.
- Provide technical documentation (e.g., how parts of a database
relate to each other) and user documentation (e.g., how to do the
data entry and how to solve the most common problems faced by the
user) for the first piece before moving on to the next piece. This
way, if you must discontinue work on the project, the NGO staff has
the documentation needed to easily integrate a new volunteer into
- Make sure whatever system you recommend for the NGO to use, whether
this is a type of software or an organizational model, meets the unique
needs of the agency you are helping. Is this a widely-used system?
Is there sufficient documentation available on how the system works?
Can the staff effectively use or even alter this system without always
relying on your expertise? What kind of support is available for this
Phil Agre of University of California, San Diego, offers additional excellent
advice for people helping others with computer and software use; this
information is for traditional, face-to-face volunteer settings, but the
many of the tips can carry over into online settings:
- If you are designing a Web site, a database program, or other computer-related
product, what you may view as a "feature" may be viewed as unnecessary
or distracting by the NGO staff member or other volunteer who has
to use it. If a flashy interface doesn't provide the user with
an easy-to-use tool, it's of no real use to the user.
- A computer is a means to an end. The person you're helping probably
cares mostly about the end. This is reasonable.
- Their knowledge of the computer is grounded in what they can do
and see -- "when I do this, it does that". They need to develop a
deeper understanding, of course, but this can only happen slowly,
and not through abstract theory but through the real, concrete situations
they encounter in their work.
- By the time they ask you for help, they've probably tried several
different things. As a result, their computer might be in a strange
state. That's not their fault.
- The best way to learn is through apprenticeship -- that is, by doing
some real task together with someone who has skills that you don't
- Your primary goal is not to solve their problem. Your primary goal
is to help them become one notch more capable of solving their problem
on their own. So it's okay if they take notes.
- Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer user
who's not part of a community of computer users is going to have a
harder time of it than one who is.
- If something is true, show them how they can see it's true.
This resource was based on the original document "Dos and Don'ts for Technical Assistance Volunteers" created by the Virtual Volunteering Project.
Phil Agre has posted his excellent publications about computing's impact on community and social practice on his Web page How to help someone use a computer.
To see the complete, original UNITeS web site and its resources, including its extensive knowledge base, look up unites.org at archive.org
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This archived version of the UNITeS web site is hosted by Jayne Cravens