Lately I’ve been doing volunteer webmaster work beyond the four walls of my church. It’s still church-work – sometimes obviously so and sometimes not – but it’s for other good causes. After one less-than-stellar experience, I truly love doing this work.

What makes this possible? I’d say it comes down to two things: understanding why I do this work and then setting great boundaries.

Why Volunteer

Over and over I read that the key to happiness is helping others. That jives with my experience, but then there’s the question of whom do you help and how? At my church, a lot of emphasis is put on “justice work” – what other faiths might call charity or compassion. Some run soup kitchens, some do prison ministry, some work at under-served schools, and so on.

If you, like me, love many aspects of web work, then doing websites for such people is a natural way to help. There are so many wonderful organizations that have poor or non-existent sites. And you get to do what you love for a good cause. What could be better?

How to Volunteer

So that’s the theory. The reality, however, can be mixed. Working with people is messy. They’re not like computers. Computers may get frustrating, but they don’t have hidden agendas, negative emotions, etc., etc.

The key in my experience is to set up great boundaries. For example, at my church, Communications people are constantly telling others that the web staff just does the plumbing. We don’t provide the water, i.e. the content; we just channel it.

What this means is, in the earliest stages of volunteering on a website, get as much clarity as you can on exactly who will provide the content (including photos) and who will maintain it. Similarly, make sure that the people you will be working with have a good sense of your area of responsibility and expertise.

I’m constantly amazed at non-webmasters who will tell me what a good website needs. They typically fall into the classic trap of assuming what they like works for everyone. While I don’t pretend to know everything about websites, chances are I know a good deal more than they do about whatever the particular topic-at-hand is.

PDFs are a great example. I have lots of experience with when and how best to use PDFs. PDF is not (as some think) the devil’s handmaiden. Nor is it a format you can use for most of a website — though I’ve had people try to order me to do just that. (Typically they are caught in the print paradigm.)

A certain amount of explaining your position is fine, but if they can’t listen to you, then you need to get out. Fast. I don’t know what it is with such people, but sometimes they’ll go so far as to say that you’re being arrogant, stubborn and the like. Yikes. Of course, you want to avoid getting to that stage if you can. Volunteering is all well-and-good, but it doesn’t mean you have to tolerate such behavior.

Fortunately, in my experience, such people are increasingly in the minority. They used to be more common when the web was less understood. My rough estimate is that it’s now down to about one in three. Just be on your toes early on and don’t commit until you’re fairly certain you can work well together.

The last key boundary is to be clear on time. Figure out if and how your schedules can work together. Find out when they will provide you key content. And be realistic and forthright about your own time. I only volunteer to do small sites (say 30 or fewer pages). At the front end I say that I usually do volunteer work on weekends, so it will take a while. If my pace works for them, that’s great. If not, then they can look for someone else, and no harm is done.

Once you have your work lined up and boundaries delineated, then the fun starts. You get to tap into some amazing work, find out what’s really going on, discover what they love on the web, and stretch your skills to meet their needs. You’ll not only be creative, you’ll make friends and get to laugh together — and I bet you’ll make a difference in the world.