New Directions for Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge

Over at the Nerdery Blog, Mike Durheim posted about new directions for the Overnight Website Challenge. For those that don’t know, the OWC is an annual event put on by the Nerdery where teams of web developers from inside and outside the company come together to donate their time towards helping a non-profit build a new website in just 24 hours. I’ve participated in the past and had an excellent time helping out a non-profit here in KC.

Full disclosure: I still work for the Nerdery, but am not currently on any internal committee related to the OWC: I post here only as an interested party in response to Mike’s public call for commentary.

Some warnings

One of my concerns is brought up by the following paragraph from Mike’s post. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’d like to present some warnings nonetheless.

A basic website remains tremendously valuable to a nonprofit, but during our Web Challenge’s lifespan The Nerdery has drastically changed. We have evolved into a company whose focus and capacity goes well beyond creating basic websites for smaller organizations, having evolved into a more sophisticated, full-service custom software design and development company.

It is undoubtedly true, for the Nerdery. But just because we are getting more sophisticated and taking on bigger challenges in our professional capacity, it does not follow that we must then do so in our philanthropic and volunteer activities.

Outside Teams

As we move forward in looking at different opportunities to provide different services for our non-profit friends, I want to caution us to remember that there are participants in the OWC from outside the Nerdery.

I worry that targeting bigger projects would be an unnecessary burden on other teams, especially ad-hoc teams that aren’t all from the same company. They don’t have the benefit of having worked together for months or years. They may find the OWC complex enough in coordinating amongst each other over a small “brochure-ware” site. Bigger projects would only disadvantage them more.

In addition to ad-hoc teams, often some of our participants come from smaller companies, even some that solely focus on small businesses and non-profits. Teams from these companies can provide a different and more focused perspective on what their non-profit really needs: helping them is their bread and butter. When talking to the owner1 of one of these businesses, he was extremely excited about fielding a team: his employees are great at understanding non-profits and building the kind of websites those nonprofits need. The OWC is right up their alley! I don’t want us to pivot to a new approach where his participation would no longer be feasible or compelling.

Scope Creep

One of the most appealing aspects of the OWC today is that you don’t need a whole support team: you and your friends can spin up a basic site and get it running on provided hosting in less than a day.

I’d like to see the OWC continue to be a challenge that is attainable in a single 24 hour period. I think expanding the deadlines or time frame would discourage participation and could transition it from being exciting to being a chore.

Smaller is Fun

Speaking personally, launching a small site in a quick turnaround is actually a welcome diversion from the sort of work I do on a daily basis. Working on larger enterprise systems involves different set of skills and activities, and often takes more time to get even simple things done. I actually look forward to working on a “basic site” where I can use a simpler CMS and make a big impact quickly without fighting the bureaucracy that is often associated with enterprise development.

Tracks

While I do have the concerns listed above, I am definitely excited for the new ways that OWC might be able to help non profits, and have some ideas along those lines.

We’re considering piloting new and different tracks at the 2016 Challenge. Perhaps teams will take on a larger-scale nonprofit organizations looking to do more than just build a new website.

I like the idea of different tracks for the challenge. I wish it was spelled out a little more clearly, but it sounds like the idea is that teams could sign up to volunteer in ways that fit their unique skills and abilities. So some teams could continue to volunteer as web developers: launching a new site overnight. But other teams could contribute in different ways, and not all of them need be as technical as the web development track.

Operations & Infrastructure

In our last challenge, my team was a bit overstaffed for the complexity of the project, and thus one of our teammates was able to dedicate most of his time towards helping our non-profit get some operational and infrastructure needs sorted out. He was able to get them on Google Apps for Non-Profits so they could have shared calendaring, documents, and other office infrastructure. Each core team member could have a domain email address: sarah@nonprofit.org instead of sarah.nonprofit@hotmail.com. He was also able to set them up with Paypal for taking donations and Mailchimp for newsletters.

Content Strategy

Our team was lucky in that our non-profit’s representative worked as a content editor and came prepared with basic content, imagery, and a brand guidelines. But other organizations might not be so lucky. OWC participants who have experience in UX and content strategy can provide a tremendous advantage to their non-profit.

Marketing

I’ve been thinking of my friend who focusses on small businesses and non-profits and some of the services he offers professionally. In addition to web development, he also offers marketing and tech service which I think might also make sense as tracks.

While it might sound tacky, people can’t donate or contribute to a non-profit if they don’t know about it. Thus even non-profits can benefit from professional marketing services. Teams on this track could help non-profits get Google Analytics set up on their web properties, create Facebook, Twitter and other social network accounts, and teach the basics of online marketing and SEO.

Tech Support

Many non-profits may have an ad-hoc collection of laptops that need updates or hardware upgrades. If sponsors could provide hardware, some teams in this track could install and upgrade the computers. There might also be email or other server infrastructure that could be enhanced.

Enhancements or Fixes

A non-profit might not need a new website, but could benefit from someone knowledgeable taking a look at their Wordpress setup and optimizing its performance or configuring it in a better way. Maybe they could use new integrations with social media, calendaring, newsletters, or donation collection services.

Integrations and other apps

Some non-profits might have disparate systems that could benefit from some integration work. Maybe they want to have an internal scheduling system drive a calendar on the website, or help with collecting their data and generating reports so they can optimize their donations.

Maybe a non-profit doesn’t need a new website, but could benefit from simple internal apps that helped with reporting, automation, sign ups, time tracking, inventory management, or year end tax documents. If properly scoped to be completed in 24 hours, small apps like this could offer a compelling challenge as well as a big help to the organization.

Closing Thoughts

I’m a big believer in the OWC. I think its a unique and exciting way for technologists to give back to their community in ways that they are particularly skilled. I want to make sure we keep what I love about it (small teams, quick turnaround, feasible project scope) while we investigate new ways to help.

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the new direction and can’t wait for the next one.


  1. 1.Shout-out to Ben at Igniting Business. Seriously, he’s excellent. Go check him out