Thursday, September 22, 2011

Volunteer Websites - Keeping a Good Relationship with your Webmaster

A lot of not-for-profit organizations and ultra-small businesses are caught in a catch-22 when it comes to their online promotion.  They need a professional website presence to give a first good impression online, but they don't have the money to pay for a truly high-end custom job.

Many of these organizations solicit a donated website like any other donation.  But building a professional website is not the same as simply writing a check or dropping off a load of supplies.  There are numerous factors involved and good communication is essential to a good working relationship.  Here are some tips for working with a volunteer webmaster that will make everyone's life easier.

If your organization's membership includes a web professional, DO ask them if they would be willing to donate their time and/or other resources to a project.  Some pros are happy for the chance to contribute to their favorite cause or need to build their portfolios.  DON'T merely assume that their skills are yours for the taking.  Freelancers may not have the time or may not be able to afford to donate their resources.  Salaried employees may not be permitted to use company assets in this fashion.

If you are not able to pay for a webmaster's services, DO consider other forms of compensation.  Like promoting their services via advertising in your organization's publication.  Or endorsing them on LinkedIn, Yelp, Yahoo Local, Google Local, etc.  Or providing them with a testimonial to use in their advertising.  It is very difficult for web professionals to write off their services on their taxes.  A creative approach I learned from a colleague involves exchanging checks for the same amount:  the webmaster gives a donation to the org, the org pays the webmaster.  Both sides break even but the advantage is reporting to the IRS.  Yes, it's legal.

DO decide what your site is going to entail before embarking on the project.  DO include the webmaster in the conversation to determine exactly what services they will be able to provide, and how much time.  DO put these decisions in writing so both sides know what to expect of each other.  DO allow the webmaster to set some limits.  DO agree to a "sunset" time when further development or maintenance is turned over to another group member internally.  Remember, they have to work their pro bono assistance in with the jobs that pay the bills!

DO appoint one or two people as the webmaster contact for your group.  It is easy to let a creative endeavor like designing a website become a tug-of-war between personalities.  DON'T drag the webmaster into any internal conflicts.  It will sink your project as well as alienate the very person trying to help you.

DON'T add more features or requests on to the project after it starts.  The webmaster has to measure the amount of time they can donate.  Additional development not previously discussed may be infringing on time that someone else has already bought and paid for.  There's even a term for it:  "scope creep".  Unless there has been a critical oversight, or a significant change in the organization, avoid last minute additions or "emergency changes". 

DO invest time and effort into learning to maintain the site, if you don't already know how.  DO know if you require any software, or how to manage the content management system (CMS) that is going to run the site.  The more the organization can handle itself on the web, the less likely you'll get into a bind if you need changes made and your volunteer is no longer available.

DON'T assume that you'll have your webmaster's services indefinitely.  Situations change, business picks up, life moves on.  Besides, some people get very comfortable having a professional at their side, and forget that they're working with a volunteer, not a paid contractor.  That's the fastest way to destroy an otherwise good relationship.  Service-on-demand-without-question is a commodity that you pay for.  See the comment above re:  sunset time.

Finally, DO take the opportunity to learn all you can from your volunteer.  You'll be able to apply their insight and technical tips to future communications.

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