Web designers are saving the world for charities.
Chris Koenig, GiveCamp Founder, Microsoft
Shawn Weisfeld, GiveCamp Organizer EVENT:
CTREC Hilton, Dallas
Friday, October 21 through Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011
They aren’t secret millionaires or superheroes, but some Web developers are saving the world for charities, with leaps and bounds achieved in the form of bits and bytes.
GiveCamp was founded by Chris Koenig, a senior developer evangelist for Microsoft and an experienced volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and various homeless resource organizations who conceived of an even better way to make a difference.
“I’m not good at hanging drywall, but I am good at building apps,” he said. “So I came up with the idea of building apps for charity.”
GiveCamp is an international weekend event where software developers, designers, marketers, Web strategists and database administrators volunteer time and expertise to create custom software and websites for non-profit organizations. Since its inception in 2007, GiveCamp programs worldwide have provided design and developer services into the tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of charities.
And, what happens at GiveCamp stays at GiveCamp, so while participants don’t charge for their services, they are also not obligated to maintain the project after the event is finished.
“Volunteers are in and out through the weekend—not committing to leaving their families for a month or a year,” said Shawn Weisfeld, who organized the most recent Dallas GiveCamp event in October 2011 at the CTREC Hilton IT Academy.
Dallas ASP.NET User Group leader Toi Wright organized and ran the inaugural GiveCamp, calling the event—called the “We Are Microsoft Charity Challenge Weekend”—in January 2008. At that event, the weekend served 18 charities with more than 80 developers.
Although Microsoft remains a major sponsor, organizers eventually took the company’s name out of the title.
“We wanted to change people’s perceptions, not move units,” Koenig said.
At the first official Dallas GiveCamp, in January 2011, participants donated more than 2,000 hours to 13 charities and consumed more than 1,000 drinks and 500 slices of pizza.
But it takes more than pizza power to successfully produce GiveCamp. From the beginning, organizers embraced the “camp” concept and ideology, striving for a productive event, but one without stringent rules and processes.
“It’s a way to motivate and mobilize software developers into their communities,” Koenig said.
The result is that GiveCamp has expanded, first to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and now operates in 30 locations, including England and Australia. Individual GiveCamp weekend planners are given basic information and branding tools, but have control over their own event. GiveCamps have been successfully produced with as many as 120 people, and as few as six.
“The event has been shown to be infinitely scalable,” Koenig said. “We have a set of logos available and a starter website. Otherwise individual organizers can run with it.”
Koenig also maintains a GiveCamp informational e-mail address and locations map, and collects the events’ best practices to share on the Web.
“It’s a ‘cookbook’ to bake a GiveCamp,” he said, and it encourages individual planners to keep it local. “People ask ‘When is it coming to my area?’ and I say, ‘When you run one!’ We want to impact our local community, the people in our neighborhoods. We want to build a strong community tie.”
Projects have ranged from a new website for Jubilee Park, a Dallas nonprofit, to an HTML 5 mobile application for the YouthWorker Movement to a variety of data collection, database and donor services software.
Since GiveCamp’s mission is to make a difference, it’s very important to find the right charities, get them involved and make sure that the teams building their applications can focus on providing the highest value in a short time frame. The number of charities chosen is based on the number of participating developers, the size of the venue and the requests of the charities themselves. It is also important to ensure that participating charities are official non-profits and/or charities, with well-defined requirements that GiveCamp teams have a good chance of completing by the end of the weekend.
To foster a sense of community between the volunteers and nonprofit clients, Koenig encourages representatives from participating charities to attend as much of the event as possible.
“Having representatives from the charities on site makes a big difference not only in the quality products produced, but to help raise the morale of the development teams,” he said. “The happiest development teams were those that got to spend a large amount of time with their charities.”
Weisfeld, a local developer and longtime volunteer with First Robotics, first attended Dallas GiveCamp as a general volunteer and then as a coder before assuming his leadership role. His responsibilities included managing facilities, food and volunteers, as well as making sure that the weekend ran smoothly.
“It’s like organizing a two-day wedding!” Weisfeld said, noting that it was a challenge to find a facility that met each of the group’s unique needs.
“We need a space large enough for us, where people can get together and talk in groups without overpowering each other,” he said. “Internet and power are also important.”
Koenig went on to say that volunteer designers are also hard to find, but he has recruited—and retained—some in unconventional ways. For instance, when a GiveCamp event room was being used by a group that was slow in vacating the space, Koenig was able to turn the challenge into an opportunity.
“It was a job fair for designers, and I went in and made an announcement about our event. Two people stayed with us the whole weekend. One has come back,” he said.
Although volunteers for Dallas GiveCamp have assigned roles, they will also adapt to meet the needs of the charity, and have partnered with other organizations, as well. For example, the group’s developers teamed up with designers from marketing agency IMC2 to produce a website.
The collaboration available when being part of an international network is another positive resource.
“GiveCamp national has value in sponsorships and networking opportunities,” Weisfeld said. “We participate each year in a big conference call to brainstorm and trade questions and answers. There are also opportunities for group buys. Those types of things boost credibility.”
While other GiveCamps have an official process and timetable, Dallas GiveCamps prefers a more organic approach. The event isn’t promoted year-round, but leading up to the weekend, they use social media and update their website, sometimes up to 30 times per day.
At GiveCamp, team spirit trumps even the friendliest competition. In the beginning, GiveCamp was a contest, but they moved away from that concept because organizers felt that it went against the weekend’s charitable spirit.
“The downside of a competition is that people lose,” Koenig said. “After spending 36 hours coding, people want to feel like a winner. Now, instead of a competition, we have a big reveal where we show our work.”
Weisfeld describes the atmosphere as one of “friendly professionalism.”
“If someone has a WordPress problem, they can go to the Wordpress expert, no matter what team they’re on,” he said. “It’s all about the passion of helping charity.”
Koenig says that GiveCamp has been “life changing.”
“People give, keep giving and keep giving,” he said. “People don’t come way from this mad.”
Weisfeld writes software every day, and is passionate about it.
“To leverage that passion to impact my friends and my community—that’s what goes so far. And not just for me, but for each of the participants.” One+
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