The price of free time: programmer’s guide to helping a Non-profit

Congratulations! You have decided to help out a Non-Profit. Full of energy, and good intentions, you have embarked on a journey to use your professional skills to help a cause.

It’s a win-win: Surely, with a better website / CRM / tech, they will be able to help a few more people. You, on the other hand, will meet interesting folk, do something purposeful (as opposed to optimizing button colors at your day job), and learn a few things.

Here is what you need to know to not go insane:

The benefits of helping a Non-profit

You probably have personal reasons to help a Non-profit. Working on hard problems with friends is one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your life. If you are not working on a world-changing startup and you need a respite from the drudgery of corporate existence, a Non-Profit may be your best next bet – the purpose and mission are plentiful.

Non-profits are also a great place to meet interesting, like-minded people. Working side-by-side you can make real friends and create deeper connections, than you would build by exchanging the latest plots of TV shows over coffee at work.

But there also are powerful benefits directly translating to your career.

My entire programming journey started from helping a Non-profit – a scout team I was a part of. I made my first website in 1998, graduated to building one for dad’s business, and later launched a WordPress web agency. Now I work at WordPress.com, periodically reporting to the creator of WordPress himself. During that journey, I helped my high school, a local TEDx chapter, and a non-profit supporting remote work.

Working on projects is the best way to learn – you get to experiment with real-world problems and you get to try out different approaches and fail; building that tacit knowledge that makes one an expert.

Since you are not paid for your contributions, there is a shared understanding of what can be expected of you in a Non-Profit. You have a mandate to play a little, try out things your way, and goof off. To further boost learning, it feels more like play than work, encoding the knowledge much more effectively.

The traps

As with everything in life, the downsides are directly correlated to the upsides. Yes, in a Non-Profit, you can be a bit unpredictable and inexperienced. It does not feel like work and you get a breather from a corporate feel of a professional workplace.

But guess what – other people get to do that too. If you have just reserved a weekend to finish that signup page, and the people preparing the copy (texts) decided to be unprofessional – it suddenly becomes a problem.

The Hero’s (that’s you) Journey

Let’s assume you volunteered to create a website for your favorite Non-profit. Don’t be surprised, if the whole process goes like this:

  1. You start full of energy and ideas.
  2. The non-profit is eager to launch a new website because they have project X coming up.
    Project X is the most important thing, and the website (meaning you) is a blocker.
  3. You jump straight into work! You cannot be a blocker, right? You ramp up and are ready to implement the most important piece.
  4. The texts and promotional materials are not ready, despite previous promises.
  5. You try to work around these requirements – project X is most important, right?
  6. You get a call. It seems that the “About the Team” page is most important now.
  7. Let’s do a photoshoot for the Team!
  8. You still don’t have materials for project X, but you got 10 pages of UI corrections, including a bigger logo, different button colors, and some creative ideas about the slider.
  9. You start implementing those changes, still have no materials about project X.
  10. Wait, there are changes to the changes now. Can you revert to the old button color?
  11. Sometime, after a few weeks, we finally got the Project X page to work.
    The placeholder photos you chose are still there.
    “About the Team” page that got 3 meetings, photoshoot, and 12 hours of your time has gotten a total of 100 visitors this month.

Things to watch out in a Non-profit

The price of free time

Professional environments have learned a long time ago, that time is money. If everybody is salaried, the easiest way to turn a profit is to stop wasting people’s time. The correlation is clear and obvious.

I do realize that corporate environments waste mindblowing eons of their employees’ time. This is due to the scale. Big organisms being less nimble is a law of physics called inertia.

Non-profits, however, have a peculiar relationship with money. They are called Non-Profits. Duh! They get funded through donations, grants, and sometimes sales – but they are incentivized not to run a tight operation. Volunteers’ time is treated as free, so wastefulness is not controlled. It’s up to you to say no, which is hard because non-profits attract precisely the people least likely to defend their time.

It’s everybody else’s side-gig, too

As I mentioned – you can learn, and experiment with new techniques and approaches. But other people do too. If your work depends on graphic design, don’t be surprised when the designer comes up with something out-of-the-box, which naturally will be harder for you to implement, than the run-of-the-mill website.

Other people, like you, will cut corners. The designer has a family to feed, probably a day job and the thing called life. She can’t check every resolution, think about dimensions of headlines when you cram 100 characters in a title and give the proper attention to everything.

Last, but not least – without salary, recognition becomes the currency. Don’t be surprised, that “about the team” is treated as the most important page on the entire website (even if the visitors don’t care) – this is the equity paid to volunteers. Being paid with recognition also drives some folk to seek more of that compensation – they will contribute to discussions, where they have not much expertise nor understanding. These are perfect bikeshedding conditions. Beware.

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Non-profits are passion-driven

Most non-profits have a mission to fix a particular problem in the world. Hunger, poor education, lack of equality, climate change – these are all areas society is failing at and non-profits are stepping in to help.

Many people are driven to work on these problems because they feel strongly about putting up with the collective screwups of society. Non-profits tend to attract people who approach most of the problems with passion and purpose, with no patience for tedious reasoning.

This leads to: 

Passion-driven-project-management

  • Urgency is the sole method of prioritization. Things are made urgent to ensure their completion, not because they actually are time-sensitive.
  • Since urgency=priority, the priorities are fluid over time.
  • Yesterday’s priority is forgotten today because somebody who feels more strongly comes in with more passion.
  • Flashy things are more important than fulfilling the initial purpose. If you are working on a website, prepare for multiple CTAs.

Non-profit survival techniques

These techniques helped me stay sane while working within a few organizations.

  1. Find a senior member of the organization to “report to”. Ideally somebody with corporate experience, and some tenure inside the Non-Profit. You don’t want to report to a committee.
  2. Never agree to do anything ASAP. Chances are, that before you get to it – the original request will change or be forgotten. Save yourself the revert.
    Bonus points for batching change requests into sprints.
  3. They will promise you texts, materials, and whatever else you’ll need. You WILL NOT get them on time. Plan accordingly.
  4. Record yourself changing stuff in the interface – this will be a good v1 for documentation so that everyone else can implement tiny changes themselves
  5. If you are creating a website – for goodness sake, use WordPress. It will save you from reinventing the wheel.
    1. With WP, you have ready tutorials to send people to, so you don’t have to fix every typo yourself. Chances are, that other folks have WP experience too.
    2. The next person dealing with the system will know what to do with it.
  6. Use a ready template, don’t work with an empty canvas.
    Yes, it will be less original than a custom-made design, but you will be able to get off the ground and focus on what’s important – content and functionality. You have no idea how many tiny details come together to make a template work.
    Implementing custom design without an hourly rate will lead to an endless back-and-forth on every detail. It costs them nothing to throw in another change.
    The constraints of an existing template work in your favor.
  7. Every statement you hear will be over-hyped – it’s a function of passion-driven project management. You have to do the mental math of halving the emotional charge of all statements.
  8. Remember to have fun. Despite unreasonable requests, the people you are working with are probably quite awesome. Don’t forget that, and schedule some time to meet them as people – not vendors of website updates.

Working in a Non-Profit is a process of realizing that the corporate environment has its advantages and lessons to teach you as well.

Coming to work on Monday to a well-oiled machine, where every cog (including you) is humming nicely, where the work flows seamlessly through the paths of well-established processes, where everything has its place is a refreshing experience. Of course, sometime around Wednesday you are sick of it all, yearning for the freedom and creativity you get to enjoy in your organization.

Dear Manager, I am sorry I suck at feedback.

Dear ,

I have been failing our company and failing you – personally. I withheld valuable feedback.
To say that feedback is essential is an understatement. All human progress comes from experimentation, analyzing results, and tweaking the actions, one small challenge at a time.

I would even identify the most significant societal challenges as breakdowns in feedback cycles:

  • Obesity would not be an issue if a tasty cookie did not deliver faster ‘positive’ feedback than years of exercise and proper nutrition,
  • Climate Change is a result of quarterly profit cycles providing more immediate data than decade-long weather pattern changes,

We do a thing that we think is good, we get a consequence three decades later and are surprised what exactly is behind this result. Humanity is not built to work at this scale.

But let’s get back to business and the case at hand. Lack of feedback UP the „chain of command” is how companies fail. On paper, big organizations have every advantage. But as the company grows,  „The franchise blinders harden” – as Safi Bahcall phrased it in Loonshots. Ben Horrowitz agrees, and in  Hard Thing about Hard things identifies that „The biggest problem is the one that blindsides you.”.

No wonder that effective leaders not only shy away from feedback but crave and ask for it. I know you are the same way. You ask for feedback, you act on it swiftly and everything is better after the exchange. And yet, I haven’t been giving you enough feedback to you, and I find it hard to pinpoint why.

Following reasons come to mind:

  1. I consider myself a competent professional. As such, I pride myself in taking on challenges and solving problems. My default is to take your suggestions as a challenge and run with it.
  2. I noticed it’s easier for me to disagree with “two levels up” than with you. I am not sure what is causing this. Maybe I am afraid of bringing this up so you won’t retaliate on my performance review? I know this is ridiculous!
  3. I am pretty outspoken and have publicly passionately argued with the company direction. Everybody (including you) assumes that I will have the same force in private conversations, but it’s not true. Privately, I tend to concede much faster.
  4. I optimize my career to work with smart people on exciting projects. You can teach me a lot, and I always assume that you know a little more (or a lot) than me and have stuff figured out way better than me.
  5. Lastly, we all work remotely. I know blaming this on the remote environment is a noob move, but it’s tough to catch the misunderstandings early. When we are not on the same page, it’s really hard to see if it’s a communication problem, or we have different points of view.

Because of these points, I have robbed you of valuable feedback. There were situations where we disagreed, and I conceded when I shouldn’t have. I did not want to introduce more tension or come off as stubborn because I have behaved so in the past.

What can I do?

I don’t think being more outspoken is the way I want to pursue. I am plenty vocal already so that I will try a different route:

Whenever the „I don’t think he’s right”  thought appears, I will note it diligently and set time before our 1:1 to make sure my opinion still has merit. If that will be the case after a few days, I will bring this up on our 1:1. That’s what they are for.

I know this feedback is valuable for you, and I know you will act on it. I need to be better at giving you the opportunity to improve.

Sincerely, Artur.

PS: Dear commenter, if you have any tips on how to be better at giving feedback to your manager, please share!

The lazy way to being outstanding: go after hard things.

When Peter Diamandis stood under the arch of Saint Louis, with 20 astronauts behind him, he announced a 10-million dollar prize for developing commercial space flight.

15 years later: Musk, Venter, Cameron and Diamandis on X PRIZE Microgravity Flight.

The prize was called X-Prize because he did not have that money, nor did he know where it could come from. X stood for the name of foundation or individual that would finance this.

And yet, without the money, without really means to pull it off, X-Prize has renewed the interest in developing the commercial space flight industry and sparked the imagination of other entrepreneurs.

I urge you do do the same in your organization.

Doing the hard things is both the best thing for the company, for you and counterintuitively – your lifestyle.

Corporate environments and more established companies tend to be risk-averse. Everyone tries to be in the middle – do a little more than enough to be considered a good employee.

But surely in your workplace, there is a couple of things to tackle that are considered too hard, way out there, maybe not now. It is my long-standing career strategy to go after those things with guns blazing.

It’s possible because of Super-Credibility.

Peter Diamandis says his stunt was only possible because he used Super-Credibility. He tackled a venture so outrageous, bold, and out there, that people stopped evaluating it in terms of logic.

This bold claim jumped over the usual evaluation straight to emotion. People wanted it to happen, so they believed it without a proof.

Warning: this is a mechanism that can-and-is used for evil as well. Please don’t be a fake news jerk.

You can use super-credibility at work without rebuilding one of the toughest industries in the world like space transportation.

When you tackle something considered extraordinarily hard at work:

  1. Everybody knows your attempt is outrageous,
  2. People like to see outrageous endeavors succeed,
  3. Focus helps you judge what is essential and what is not,
  4. It’s a bullshit remover. And bullshit is one of the biggest momentum killers out there.

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It’s easier than you expect

Imagine you are just joining a team that has a hard problem to solve. When you ask about the Elephant in the room, you usually get:

  • This is just the way things are
  • This part is just too hard.
  • We tried once, and it ended badly.

The original decision to not touch the Elephant may have been not as clear, but as any great story, it grows in myths and legends.

With every new teammate, the story is retold and how it usually is with humans, gets more exciting because:

  1. This is how human memory and tales work. Yes, the fish was thiiiiis big.
  2. The current team has to justify – in front of you and each other – why they didn’t tackle this problem yet. To reduce cognitive dissonance, if they haven’t addressed it – it must have been too hard.

And that is not only the perception – when you are working against or around a particular piece of code or business process, you are introducing cancer growth processes – something that should not be there but is contributing to the state of brokenness.

But the Elephant in the room is much, much smaller than previously thought. His most threatening quality is that he is unknown, fuzzy – a maverick.

Why you are providing massive value

According to Ray Dalio (the most successful hedge-fund manager currently), the simplified way to solve any problem goes as follows:

  • Identify the problems in front of goals
  • Solve /work around problems
  • Repeat

When you have an untouchable problem, people will work on other stuff. The problem is that sometimes the “Elephant” will be a prerequisite to solving other tasks.

In the ideal world, the organization would throw significant resources at this issue, because solving it will unlock tremendous value. But resources are people – often the same people who have repeated for a long while that this cannot be tackled. Doing the thing now will hurt their egos.

Good people get sometimes emotionally invested in issues being unsolved.

So when you actually take the Elephant out of the bottle, you unlock all this fantastic realm of possibility. When a company does that, we call it disruption. The whole industry is changed because bottled-up ideas are now reachable.

Benefits to you

I value my quality of life. The hardest problems are interesting, but I do not want to work crazy hours or sacrifice my happiness on the altar of the company’s bottom line.

And yet, taming elephants has become my go-to strategy for more leeway and a happier work environment.

As previously mentioned, super-credibility is a bullshit remover. You get VIP passes to get around conventional processes – aka “bureaucracy.” ( Sidenote about Bullshit: I recommend “Life is too short” essay by Paul Graham ).

  1. People are used to ignoring the Elephant. It’s quiet near him, no micromanagement, a lot of autonomy and space to work.
  2. When you have a huge, audacious goal in front of you, it’s tough to wander and lose motivation.
    Procrastination is your brain refusing to waste resources on your lack of decision. Without this uncertainty, your productivity is easily 10x.

In his New York Times bestseller Drive, Daniel Pink describes what motivates us:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

Read about Daniel’s ideas on the fantastic fs.blog

All of these three things are immediately given to you once you volunteer to take the Elephant out for a walk.

Accelerated learning

Continuing to support my point with famous New-York-Times bestselling authors, I’ll touch upon Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

Trying to dissect the story behind success, Gladwell discovers, that the extraordinary people:

  1. Have a certain, but not disproportionate amount of innate ability – aka Talent,
  2. Have put in over 10 000 hours of practice during their ascent to stardom (the famous 10 000 hours rule)
  3. What is very often overlooked, that was deliberate practice. Always on the edge of ability, always challenging themselves.

Most of us have some innate ability that we utilize in our careers. Most of us have access to 10 000 hours to be extraordinary. The hardest piece to arrange is a steady stream of ever-more-challenging problems to solve.

The Beatles honed their craft on the Hamburg club scene, and Bill Gates used (illegally) his school’s computer to get better at programming.

If you can go after the Elephant during your work hours, without breaking the law or going to Hamburg, then you are in a unique position!

Tackling the most challenging issues at your organization will not only result in more leeway but is the most effective way to advance your career.

A trap: The Elephant is hard, not tedious.

The Fantastic Seth Godin has made the essential distinction in regards to succeeding at work:

Long work has a storied history. Farmers, hunters, factory workers… Always there was the long work required to succeed. For generations, there was a huge benefit that came to those with the stamina and fortitude to do long work.
Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is a risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up. You fail at hard work when you don’t make an emotional connection, or when you don’t solve the problem or when you hesitate.

The Fantastic Seth Godin.

The Elephant – the hard work I am urging you to tackle is the task that is unknown, complex, and emotionally challenging. Your Ego can be hurt, you can be ridiculed, and you can fail. That is the hard part.

Copy-pasting spreadsheets or tackling something that should never be done in the first place is safe but tedious and time-consuming. This is dead-end, laborious, and unfulfilling work. Avoid that. Or Automate.

Once you deal with the Elephant, everybody will marvel at your skill, even if you don’t have any extraordinary talents. You have seen my drawing ability and it only goes downhill from there.

Go take that Elephant out for a walk. It’s really friendly, it really needs to pee, and the weather is beautiful out there.

Hey Fellow Hacker News reader! ?

I think you could also enjoy my piece “Well, we have to measure something.”, And the perils of metrics.

It shows when Quantitative metrics can sometimes not only be beneficial but sometimes turn out harmful, despite popular opinion.