Many thanks to Rachel Morris, a GiveCamp 2011 alumna, for providing this post, the first of several articles to help prepare volunteers at New England GiveCamp.
I came into GiveCamp 2011 with some trepidation – I’d been selected as a Project Manager and I thought perhaps it was because my primary skillset (database design/integration) wasn’t that useful for the year’s projects. While I’ve acted as de facto or actual PM for numerous projects, I wasn’t quite sure how to handle a 48 hour one. Looking over the painfully scant “scope” statement I’d received, I realized my biggest concerns were just the same as they would be in a longer term project:
- What does the client know they want and what do they need? (Not always mutually compatible, nor mutually exclusive!)
- What does the client not know they need but are likely to, given what they’re asking for?
- What will happen after project handoff to ensure ongoing success?
As PMs, we’re responsible for answering or, at least, interpreting, these questions on behalf of our client, whether that’s a department manager in-house or a customer in the field. We act as translators between end user-ese and geekspeak. (If a project fails to achieve its goals, it’s more often than not a translation error on our part.)
As responsible managers, we’re also liable for resolving one more question, both to provide the client with a realistic goal set, and for the sanity of our team members in the trenches:
- What can be accomplished in the time we have, with the resources we have?
The answers to the first three questions are critical to clarifying reality of the last.
As PMs at GiveCamp, we’re amongst the few, outside the project’s coordinators, who are asked to give a little more time than the standard 48 hour commitment. How much we give is up to us, but at a minimum, an initial contact with our clients is critical to a running start when we get on site. I prefer a phone call, but email may be the only option, given time constraints. The trick is just how we can draw out answers to our core questions from potentially non-techie clients.
Ask the right questions
- What is your mission statement? Any project we work on at GiveCamp should be in support of their mission statement, either directly or indirectly. It can help guide the tone and design of the project. It also gives you and the team something more personal to hang your hats on.
- What are your GiveCamp project goals? Get them to reiterate in their own words (ideally in greater detail) what the project’s goals are. You may hear things differently than you interpreted the brief application write-up. You can ask for clarification and for prioritization if there are numerous goals.
- What will this project do for your organization? Again, this can provide you much greater insights into the true needs of the group. It may show you how best to prioritize if you can only achieve a portion of the desired outcome in the time given. Sometimes you can draw this out of a client by asking leading questions, such as “What doesn’t your current website provide that you wish it did?” or “What are the biggest time sinks that your volunteers have, which this project may alleviate?”
- What level of in-house technical support do you have? The better a sense of this you can get at the outset, the more you can target the tools and results needed. You may need to ask more specific questions such as “Are your team members comfortable writing functions in Excel from scratch?” or “Do you use an outside company to manage your website?” which may lead to awareness of other issues, such as dissatisfaction at the cost of using such a service and desire to have greater in-house control.
- Are we working on this project as a replacement for an existing tool? If the answer to this one is yes, ask for details. If it’s a website, get the address and review it with them. If it’s a database or other tool you can get a copy of, review that as best you can. Have it available for feature comparison while developing – you don’t want to provide a new tool that does less than the existing one.
- Who will be attending GiveCamp as a representative of your organization? You may additionally need to ask if they are fully empowered to make decisions for the group, or if they’ll be needing to check in with other people. You’ll also need to know what their availability is, both at GiveCamp and via phone and email that weekend. Be sure to get contact information for all the key players, and provide them with yours as well.
- Who will be taking over administration of the project at the end of GiveCamp? This may not be the same person as the attendee(s), in which case you may need to delve deeper into that person’s technical expertise and possibly even speak with him or her to determine what s/he sees as the project needs.
- Are there existing materials to be incorporated in the project? This can include existing datasets, content from web pages, import/export files, or even lists of board members scribbled on a piece of paper. If content is needed to show the proper results, see if you can get at least draft copies of things before the project starts.
Depending on your project, you may also need to get the client digging out specific technical details that could take some time to find. If we are modifying an existing website, we need the account details. If we’re creating a mailer tool, we may need to know what mail client they use. It may be critical to know what operating systems and primary office software they are using. Try to determine these potential needs ahead of time – gathering the data in a hurry on a weekend may not be possible.
Make sure that they also have details about their organization available to you, such as mailing address, corporate standing and EIN number (they’ll need this to get registered for some of the free services GiveCamp has had donated), and, if it looks like it will be necessary, a credit card for such things as domain registration. In our project’s case, we also ended up needing the bank routing number to set up their online donation processing. Have the non-profit representative do the entry of such items when possible, so you’re not responsible for the safety of their information.
Get in touch with your team
As critical as it is to be in touch with your GiveCamp client, you should also touch base with your team in advance of the project. Once you’ve spoken with the client and subsequently formulated answers to our top three questions, it’s time to bring the team’s knowhow into play to answer question four. Give them additional insights into the task and ask for details as to how their skills and experience can support it. Try to get an understanding of why they’ve signed on to GiveCamp – it will help you keep them motivated.
Make sure you know what tools are being donated to GC this year – it may strongly impact the direction of your project. Ask for opinions about which tools we should use to achieve the stated goals. If you have a pro at installing XYZZY CMS, why would you struggle to use PLUGH CMS if it makes no difference to the end user? (If it does, you’ll have learned that through your client interview).
Get the team chatting via email if possible and, if you can clarify components of the project that need tackling, let them begin brainstorming development approaches. They may show up with code or designs already half done, either from previous similar projects or because they’re that enthused to get going!
Always Set Expectations
Even before everyone arrives at GiveCamp, try to have realistic expectations of what can and can’t be accomplished in a 48 hour window. Send an email to the team and the client restating your understanding of the project and clarifying what you believe will be accomplished. While they will have heard it already, it can’t hurt to reiterate to the non-profit client that they need to be prepared to take over whatever the results are at the end of the weekend, finished or otherwise. With just a few hours’ advance preparation, your GiveCamp team will hit the ground running and positively impact the direction of a non-profit in unimaginable ways.