For the last 6 months Winona Caesar has worked diligently to fulfill her role as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at the Digital Harbor Foundation located in Baltimore City. Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF) is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to foster innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship by helping youth develop digital age skills through maker activities and tech workforce development.
When Winona first arrived at DHF, there was a strong need to fill two volunteer positions: tech coaches and mentors. In these positions, volunteers would work directly with students to assist them with tech literacy and hands on projects in the after school program at the Tech Center. Volunteers would also be tasked with leading community classes and events in the tech center. Once Winona began her service term, she quickly settled into her role and started trying to recruit volunteers as well as set in place the tools needed to manage those volunteers. However, despite her drive and efforts, Winona kept running into the same obstacle; people weren’t interested in volunteering at DHF because they did not consider themselves to be tech literate. Winona was fully aware that volunteers didn’t need prior tech knowledge or experience in order to fill a volunteer position, but the challenge for her was finding a way to make potential volunteers aware of that fact.
Once Winona realized that volunteers had a misunderstanding about the expectations concerning their expected level of tech knowledge she decided to do some re-branding. Winona started by re-distributing DHF volunteer recruitment materials such as informational flyers, online postings, newsletters, and outgoing emails. On those materials, Winona emphasized the fact that no tech knowledge was needed in order to fill open volunteer positions. She also made sure to highlight some of the tech benefits that would come from volunteering at DHF, such as access to training and enrichment session that would help to expand skills and enhance abilities surrounding tech topics such as 3D printing and circuits. Winona wanted potential volunteers to start seeing their service as a chance to learn about technology and increase their tech skills with the bonus of giving back to kids in the community. In addition to volunteer recruitment material, Winona also understood that many of her volunteers were introduced to DHF through word-of-mouth. In order to re-brand this portion of her volunteer recruitment and outreach Winona made the “no tech experience” point very clear when engaging with potential volunteers via phone calls and through in-person conversations. When a volunteer contacted DHF and expressed interest in volunteering with the organization, Winona made sure to address any and all concerns regarding the expectations of tech knowledge or skills. By doing so, Winona not only re-branded the physical materials of DHF, but also the word-of-mouth aspect of the organization.
Since beginning her service at DHF, Winona’s efforts have led to the recruitment of nine volunteers who have served a total of twenty-three hours in service to the Digital Harbor Foundation, and a majority of those volunteers have little to no tech experience. This is a significant point because it shows the effectiveness of Winona’s rebranding efforts and the ability of DHF to reach a larger audience of potential volunteers. When Winona began at DHF she encountered one type of potential volunteer: individuals already involved in the tech community. She attributed this singular type of potential volunteer to the lack of understanding on the part of volunteers regarding opportunities at DHF and the tech knowledge required. However, in the last 7 months, Winona has started to see a shift in the type of potential volunteers who contact her. She has noticed that she now receives more calls from persons outside of the tech world who are interested in volunteering and this has led to a steady increase in the number of volunteer, and a gradual shift in the type of volunteers, serving at DHF.
Recruiting volunteers who are not directly linked to the tech world has been advantageous to both the volunteers and the kids they serve. As Winona explains it, “When we recruit a volunteer with a non tech background we are able to expose kids to someone who can help them develop an array of professional skills outside of tech based ones.” For instance, DHF currently has a volunteer with a background in business who serves as a mentor, but also serves as someone who can provide tips and advice on how the youth can enter into the world of business. Although still in its infancy, DHF hopes that this new pool of potential volunteers will continue to help the organization thrive and fulfill its mission of fostering innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship by helping youth develop digital age skills through maker activities and tech workforce development.