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Nonprofits: Challenges in Technical Communication

by Nate Jarchow

Volunteering time at a local nonprofit, PC's for People, I have learned a few things about preparing technical documentation. The scope of audience within a nonprofit can vary widely. Many nonprofit organizations deal with a select population with unique, perhaps multiple, identified needs. Learning to identify the target audience and to design a document that's accessible are two major challenges in dealing with nonprofit technical documentation needs.

In creating documentation for PC's for People, the first task I had was to identify the audience. PC's for People's clientele consists mostly of people who participate in various Blue Earth County social service programs. Most people have never owned a PC and have little to no experience using one. Often clients have low levels of education or other needs that may impact learning new skills. An appropriate assessment of functional skills is important in determining the level of language to use in creating documentation.

The approach I took was to design documents that are simplified yet practical. Building functional skills quickly boosts user confidence. Documentation that implements incremental steps or skills can start a user at a basic level and affords the user unhindered access to further skill development. I found it helpful to keep things as basic as possible, using pictures and very short sentences or phrases. Breaking down steps into very small parts and showing the users a natural progression to learning often made topics less "scary" for the user.

An advantage of working with a novice audience is that you can get a good feel for what your audience needs. Identifying PC's for People's audience first-time computer users made document creation much easier. The audience's skill priorities should be evaluated. I identified three general activities that interested this audience. People getting their first PC wanted to use it for personal word processing, getting information on the internet, or having their kids use it for school-related activities. Identifying these areas of interest focused my beginning project scope down to a manageable task.

This preliminary planning will facilitate creation of the necessary documents. Ultimately, laying a foundation of basic practical skills will allow the user to progress to more complex tasks at their own pace. Rather than limiting the tools to an outline of isolated tasks, this type of training documentation empowers the user. Once practical skills are mastered, the learners have the opportunity to become self-directed in pursuing the use of PC technology in useful ways to enhance their lives.


Sources

Burnett, Rebecca E. 2001. Technical Communication, 5th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt.

Campbell, Nancy J. 1998. Writing Effective Policies and Procedures. New York: Amacom.

Kaiser, Paul. 2004. Suggestions for Helping Learning Disabled Students to Write. http://www.ldresources.com/articles/suggestions_for_writing.html

Malcolm, Andrew. 2004. Writing for the Disadvantaged Reader. http://www.stc.org/confproceed/2002/PDFs/STC49-00096.pdf

PC's for People. www.pcs4people.com

Zhang, Yuehua. 1993. The Holistic Quality of Texts Created by Elementary Students with Learning Disabilities is Improved when Appropriate Computer-Based Software is Employed as the Writing Tool . http://dwb.unl.edu/Diss/YZhang/YZDissPaper.html