At SXSW, a chance to turn attendees into micro-volunteers

A view of Austin, Texas where the SXSW conference is held annually. (Photo via Flickr user Robert Hensley) I’ve been working in disaster areas for years. I have seen every shade of volunteerism, but no experience was as formative as coordinating recovery in my hometown. I remember one volunteer in particular - a man who saw a list of items we needed online and drove groceries across three states to deliver them. We thanked him, hugged him, and left him in the doorway of the church with nothing to do.

I remember watching him stand there for a few minutes, out of place entirely, mission accomplished but reluctant to leave. My sister quietly observed him, then asked if he’d like to join the group distributing lunches for cleanup crews. He spent hours distributing meals and thanked us profusely before leaving.

Why was this man so intent upon helping a small community in rural Massachusetts? Why was participating so important for him? Why, after bringing us supplies, did he have trouble asking to get involved?

I spent the next few years building a community disaster technology company. I’ve had many experiences as the volunteer and outsider, offering a small amount of help to devastated communities. I’ve experienced confusing hope and foiled generosity. In disaster area after disaster area, I’ve felt the sharp twinge of shame in not being able to commit to long-term support.

Volunteers and micro-volunteers are people who decide to commit a few hours to help or show solidarity. They are outsiders who feel excitement, guilt and a thousand other emotions. How would you design for them?

I am joining a team of design coaches at SXSW this year to tackle this problem. Our challenge: lead a group of attendees in a human-centered design workshop around micro volunteering. The workshop will include an introduction to design thinking, getting participants from prompt to prototype testing in just four hours. The experience includes coached fieldwork.

Building a successful micro-volunteering program requires an understanding of both local challenges and potential volunteers. Attendees will be called on to see people on both sides of the equation. Those participating in the workshop stand to make a significant impact on the future of a conference known more for its networking opportunities than volunteering. With the launch of SXEve planned for 2015, a new vertical dedicated to the memory of the late SXSW director Eve McArthur, there is an opportunity to introduce a new facet to the SXSW experience rooted in micro-volunteering.