Firms discover the benefits of voluntary work

IT professionals are finding that volunteering their skills to help local communities can boost their own project management...

IT professionals are finding that volunteering their skills to help local communities can boost their own project management skills.

IT minister Stephen Timms launched the IT4Communities initiative last month to help IT professionals to use their expertise to benefit communities and charities.

The initiative is backed by the British Computer Society, Intellect, the Professional Contractors Group, the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and Computer Weekly. It is aimed at anyone with professional IT skills at any level, whether suppliers, users, small or large organisations.

IT expertise, which has become the cornerstone of most businesses, is invaluable in local communities, whether it be sharing computer skills with the elderly or developing a Web site for a charity. Members of IT departments that have worked on similar schemes attest to their value on both a social and professional level.

In early October a team from the IT department at the Leeds office of law firm Eversheds created a Web site for Hyde Park Source (HP Source), a charity set up by residents in the Burley area of the city to improve the local environment.

The project, which is part of the Leeds Cares initiative linking businesses with community projects but not part of IT4Communities, saw a team of 11 volunteers from law firm Eversheds working closely with Burley residents to build the Web site. This involved a day to train HP Source members on the applications and another day spent creating the site.

While the charity benefited greatly from the IT professionals' knowledge, the Eversheds staff also gained from the experience.

Genevieve Swindell, Eversheds' team leader for the project, said, "The HP Source project has been a good team building exercise and we hope the charity will benefit from our efforts by improving its profile in the area."

These sentiments are echoed by Eversheds' northern region IT manager, Cameron Briant, who highlighted some of the skills that Swindell herself acquired. "She has benefited from the project management experience. This has also given her the confidence to stand up and take the lead in more day-to-day operational projects," he said.

From a management perspective, Briant underlined the project's value in bringing the IT team closer together. "The cost to Eversheds was minimal but the benefits in terms of team-building were major," he said.

"At the end of the day, the Eversheds staff wanted to get this project to work. They were highly motivated and some of the work was actually done in their own time."

Simon Davey, co-ordinator of IT4Communities, highlighted the voluntary sector's desperate need for IT skills. "Historically there have been very few places for the voluntary sector to go for IT support," he said.

Davey believes that volunteering can offer IT professionals, particularly those in major corporations, a rare chance to gain real-life project management skills, such as those described by Briant.

"It is interesting to be in the perspective where you are dealing with the client, writing the technical specification and delivering it," Davey explained.

That can be a novelty for a lot of people who work in large companies, he added.

Davey said the IT4Communities Web site has received more than 400 registrations from IT professionals eager to volunteer and IT4Communities was expecting to have 80 projects available for ITers to work on by the end of last week.

Eversheds is already planning future volunteering projects. "We will definitely be getting involved next year. I will be looking for projects that can involve even more people," Briant said.

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