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Preparing for a Nonprofit Hackathon

Many agencies and freelancers give back to their communities at a nonprofit hackathon. You've been invited, so what should a nonprofit do to prepare for this event?
Nonprofit hackathons are becoming all the rage these days as so many agencies and freelancers give back. But what should a nonprofit do to prepare?

Many agencies and freelancers give back to their communities at a nonprofit hackathon. You’ve been invited, so what should a nonprofit do to prepare for this event?

Nonprofits are unique. They all have lofty mission statements and yet more lofty goals. When boiled down to their most essential component it can often be summarized as changing the world, create opportunities, break down barriers, inspire empathy, promote sustainability and so on.

Given that most nonprofits have bare-bones resources, it’s a massive undertaking to get things off the ground and spreading the message of the good work they do. Nonprofit leaders and volunteers need to be crafty and they need to be persistent to convince people to donate their valuable skills and time for their good cause. So what is a nonprofit to do?

Well, I can at least tell you about one thing a nonprofit can do. If a nonprofit needs help with their online stuff, a hackathon could be just the thing. In fact, I organize one called Website Weekend LA.

A hackathon is an event that brings together many skilled individuals who donate their time and skills to build something awesome. If you find a nonprofit hackathon, sign up! These hackathons cover a lot of ground. As with hackathons like Website Weekend LA, the Rebrand Cities and WordPress partnership or 48in48, it’s common for volunteers to build websites. That’s the primary purpose but not the sole aim. It sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it?

What Kind of Help Can You Expect from a Hackathon?

The mission and scope of hackathons will differ from event to event and from organizer to the organizer. Many times these types of hackathons focus on the web portion: building sites, redesigning layouts, recreating brands. However, the website’s not the only thing to work on.

Sometimes nonprofits just need to organize their content, their message, and create a plan for producing their content so that they’ll have something to put on the website in the first place! Volunteers, with a knack for content wizards, can help you with a content strategy. If your nonprofit is lacking a visual identity and overall messaging, there may be designers on-hand who can help you define your goals and build a visual identity around it all. Again, each hackathon will be different and have different focal points.

Your job is to make sure that your nonprofit is ready for the big day. So what do you do?

How Can You Prepare for a Nonprofit Hackathon?

Preparing for a hackathon is difficult as no two hackathons will ever function alike. However, there are a few things that I think apply to any hackathon.

First off, remember that volunteers are people, too. They have real jobs and life commitments and they are taking time out of their life to give you their most precious resources: time and skill. The absolute worst thing you can do is not to be prepared to take advantage of your designated volunteers. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

That said, I’ll tell you this: communication is crucial.

Know who your primary point of contact is.

For Website Weekend LA, we made sure that every nonprofit was assigned to a Project Manager, someone who would work as an intermediary between the nonprofit teams and their respective team of volunteer designers, developers, etc.

Your point of contact should have a conversation with you ahead of your hackathon event to discuss goals and deliverables. If this person does not proactively reach out to you then be ready to reach out on your own or contact the event organizers to get the ball rolling. It is imperative that you and your team have a plan of action before the event.
Understanding your resource needs

Knowing what your goals and deliverables are should be a sigh of relief, that’s typically the most difficult part of planning for an event like this. Next, you’ll need an understanding of the resources and people you’ll require.

People Resources

What type of talent does your team need? Do you need developers? Do you need content people to help with copy? Social media strategists? Who do you need to bring your project to completion? That’s the question.

Your team lead or project manager will know after you discuss your project just who you’ll need. This provides you an opportunity to assess the talent your organization has and decide who might be able to help during the hackathon.

Nonprofits consist of teams with various talents, so make sure you’re putting those skills to good use! If you have any folks on your team, who can help with aspects of the project make sure they are present for the event. Sometimes you just need people to do data entry or even just provide emotional support!

Make sure you know who from your team will need to be on site for the hackathon. Often, you’ll need someone in charge of making important decisions—it’s best to have them at the table rather than on the phone.

Access to nonprofit Assets

An often overlooked detail is access to a nonprofit’s assets — things like website hosting access, admin access, access to specific software services, etc.

I’ve had teams who couldn’t complete their work because they didn’t have access to their organization’s FTP server and web host control panel.

Ideally, your team lead/project manager will ask you for these things up front. However, it’s a good idea to ask, proactively, what logins the team will need to complete their project.

It’s a long weekend, plan accordingly

Most of these hackathons do not run continuously 24hrs a day. But the days are long and arduous so make sure that you bring snacks. Your organizers should stock food and snacks for the event, but if you have dietary restrictions, it’s typically a good idea to bring a small cooler or bag with things for you and your team.

What about conflicts or random stuff not going right?

While unlikely, it is possible you may have disagreements with members of your volunteer team at the event. Such differences should be discussed with your team as soon as possible to make sure you’re all on the same page.

Misunderstandings occur when there’s a deviation with the goal and the process and tools used to achieve it. A discussion with your team lead should quickly resolve the issue. If you find you’re not getting to the point of resolution, then you and your team lead should track down an event organizer to discuss.

There are times when, perhaps, you do not have the right resources to get the job done. This is why communication is so important! Ideally, these potential “traps” get caught before the event. However, stuff happens, and you can’t plan for all possible outcomes, so you improvise. Again, wrangling your team lead and event organizer is the best thing to do as they may be able to wrangle additional talent for your organization’s needs.

Bring your enthusiasm and your story.

One of the things that makes a nonprofit hackathon special is that you get so many passionate individuals who want to make a difference and they’re doing so in the best way possible, with their time and their skills.

Have fun; it’s a Nonprofit Hackathon.

An event like a nonprofit hackathon contains super doses of energy, passion, and stress. A lot is happening in a short period of time so roll with the punches and enjoy your time.

Nonprofit hackathons are just one way to achieve an incredible outcome and bring your organization’s technical and marketing needs up to scratch. If you have participated in a hackathon before, we’d love to get your insights in the comments below.

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