Engineering for Good: Help Make the World a Better Place by Putting Your Skills to Work as a Volunteer

Engineering for Good: Help Make the World a Better Place by Putting Your Skills to Work as a Volunteer

BY John R. Platt Posted: 18 Nov 2016

“Everybody can be great,” the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “because everybody can serve.” It’s one of the late leader’s most famous quotations, a call to public service that still resonates today. King also added, “You don’t have to know Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the Second Theory of Thermal Dynamics in Physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

But what if you do know the laws of thermal dynamics, or have advanced skills in engineering, or can write code? Can you also put those skills to work on a volunteer basis, helping to improve lives and making the world a better place?

Yes, you can. It turns out that nonprofits and other initiatives around the world can make use of the unique sets of talents possessed by people working in science and technology. That could mean anything from mentoring at a school robotics competition to helping a nonprofit solve a technical issue to creating public tools that can help professionals around the world.

There’s no shortage of need. A quick glance at the great site VolunteerMatch.org reveals more than 1,000 volunteering opportunities in each of several major U.S. cities, with another 6,000 virtual volunteering gigs. Searches on local Craigslist sites reveal hundreds more, while dozens of different nonprofits that we looked at while preparing this article each had entire lists of volunteer positions waiting to be filled. The majority of those requests are for low-skilled activities, but many involve technical skills and specific knowledge that nonprofits have a hard time fulfilling themselves.

With so many organizations needing volunteers, how can you narrow it all down to find the right opportunity for you? Mary Duffy, volunteer coordinator for Caravan Studios, a division of the volunteer service TechSoup, says it’s best to start with something you’re passionate about. “Look for an organization whose mission resonates with you,” she says. Whether you care about climate change, poverty, social justice, education or anything else, there’s probably a nonprofit that not only serves that mission but can put your tech skills to use.

Next, Duffy suggests seeing if any of the nonprofits that you pick already have volunteering channels in place. They may list opportunities that they have open or a general call for volunteers. “If someone was to contact a nonprofit and say ‘I have these tech skills and I’d really like to apply them to your organization to help you with a specific part of your mission,’ it really makes a difference,” she says.

Another avenue is to see if there are any local high-tech volunteering groups in your area. For example, TechSoup operates a wide range of local meetups called NetSquared. The groups, many of which boast hundreds of members, meet every few weeks in 60 different cities around the world. The meetings attract not just technology professionals but also staff members from local nonprofits, allowing both sides to exchange ideas and talk about their needs.

Similarly, you may find local hackathons in your area devoted to solving common or uncommon problems. “That’s a great avenue for people with to lend their tech skills toward building something for the public good,” Duffy says. (Try sites such as Hackevents or Hackalist for calendars.)

Your own company may also have its own volunteering avenues in place. Bloomberg, for example, encourages its data scientists to do pro-bono work for various nonprofits such as UNICEF. The company also sponsored a conference called the Data for Good Exchange this past September, allowing the public and non-profit sectors to how big data could assist their goals and operations.

Another avenue could be to do things on your own by creating public resources that students and professionals around the world can use for free. Kurt Heckman, president of the online calculator site vCalc, says dozens of people with very specific technical skills have contributed calculators to their site, which he created as a way to give back to the community. vCalc also organizes an annual contest for college students called Coding for Community. “I’m pretty happy that we are making an impact,” he says.

Regardless of how and where you volunteer, Duffy suggests that it’s important to establish a bit of structure going in. “Define how much time you have to dedicate to an issue and what the duration of time might be, so everyone’s on the same page,” she says. For example, you could declare that you will be available for something like “8 hours a month for six months.” That allows both sides to understand the scope of the volunteer role, something that nonprofits admittedly might not always be best at doing on their own since their needs never end.

Volunteering through any of these avenues can do a lot of good in the world, but you may also find that you help yourself along the way. “Volunteering improves teamwork, creates international connections and enhances our skills,” says Paul Sain, CEO of Fusion Apps, who encourages his team to contribute their coding skills to open-source applications. He says the work allows him and his co-workers to discover new concepts and ideas that can only serve to enhance their talents and professional reputations.

Duffy puts it a bit more concretely: “Everybody gets something from volunteering, and usually the volunteer gets the most,” she says. “To feel like you really went into an organization and had an impact that will really help them to serve their clients, it’s a great feeling.”

She adds that volunteering helps you to get outside of yourself and see the great work going on in your community. “You don’t see that a lot of times when you’re cranking out code. To be able to go face to face and see the work, and then realize you’re part of that community, it’s a great thing to do.”

John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to IEEE-USA InSightScientific AmericanTakePart and other publications.

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Elizabeth Massie
Fantastic article! Volunteering is win-win in such an altruistic way. I hope many will read this and consider volunteering.
Posted on 11/22/16 9:01 AM.