What is community? A quick look at the Wikipedia defines community as “a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment” and I think that pretty much nails it. In this column, I talk about the developer community as a whole and highlight some people, organizations and events I think you should check out.

This month I’m going to take a brief departure and talk about the growing phenomenon in the developer community known as GiveCamps. If you’ve never heard of these, keep reading (you better keep reading either way, bub).

What Exactly Is a GiveCamp?

GiveCamps are the brainchild of Microsoft Central Region Developer Evangelist Chris Koenig. A quick trip to the GiveCamp.org FAQ says that GiveCamps are “a weekend-long event where software developers, designers, and database administrators donate their time to create custom software for non-profit organizations.” This sounded like a pretty cool idea to me, so I reached out to a few of the folks that have organized GiveCamps recently and got their take on the how and why behind their events.

How Do You Host a GiveCamp?

There are three key factors to hosting a GiveCamp. You need one or more charities in need of help, a group of volunteers (this includes developers, DBAs, designers and possibly more depending on what you’re making) and you need a place to host the event. Sponsors are nice too, but not absolutely essential.

Some of you may cry foul on this last comment, and say sponsors are absolutely essential. That’s fine if you can get them, but don’t let lack of sponsorship keep you from moving forward. People can always come up with their own lunch, just like they do every other day of the week.

Let me go into a little more detail on the three factors I just mentioned:

  1. Charities Surprisingly, finding a charity to benefit from your efforts isn’t as easy as you might think. Not everyone understands what you’re trying to accomplish or has a need that can be addressed in three days. Still, with persistence and a lot of legwork you can usually find at least one charity that is excited to work with you. For those of you who like numbers, here’s an interesting one: in Dallas alone, nearly 60 charities over three years have been served with new Web applications. If you look at all the GiveCamps across the U.S. that number jumps to over 200!
  2. Volunteers You’re going to need a lot of people to pull this off successfully. Not just IT folks either. An event like this takes a lot of coordination and it’s definitely not a one person show. You need someone to contact the charities, someone to coordinate the volunteer effort, someone to locate a place to have the event and all the logistics that go with that. You need people to promote the event and of course you need lots and lots of people to do the actual project development work.As I mentioned above, you’re going to need designers, DBAs and (please forgive me) developers, developers, developers! You might also benefit from a business analyst or two to make sure you are actually building something that resembles what the charity expects.Also, and this is important, remember you are dealing with volunteers. Sometimes work life or even good weather can wreck the best of plans. You’re going to have some people drop off at the last minute, so aim for more people than you need and you just might end up with enough. (Extra people can always find SOMETHING to do.)
  3. Location You can have charities coming out of the woodwork and volunteers lined up around the block, but if you don’t have a place to hold your event then it’s a bust. When looking for a location, there are a handful of things to keep in mind. You need a place where people can work comfortably for long hours (remember this is often a three day - all day event) so proper lighting, ventilation, decent chairs, etc., are a must. White boards are also handy. If you are fortunate enough to have multiple teams working on projects for different charities, then you may also need separate spaces. Finding all of these requirements for free can be difficult!Try your local training centers, colleges, consulting companies and of course Microsoft. If at all possible, this should be one of the first details you nail down, before even approaching the charities and volunteers.

Why Host a GiveCamp?

If you’re looking for something to do that potentially has a huge impact on other people, you really can’t go wrong with hosting or supporting a GiveCamp.

By making it easier for charities to help other people, you’re really getting a maximum return on your efforts. Not only do you get a chance to do something good for your community, but the charities are also immensely grateful as well. (Let’s be honest, charity work doesn’t look bad on the old resume either, no matter whether you’re organizing or volunteering.)

I’d like to thank Chris Koenig, Chris Woodruff and Donn Felker for their invaluable insights into GiveCamps, which made writing this article possible.

For more information on GiveCamps, please visit http://www.givecamp.org

Next month I’ll write a bit about what is involved with setting up and running a Code Camp.

Got an event coming up? Drop me a line and tell me all about it.