Organising a WordPress charity hackthon in Lebanon

tldr: On July 8 the first do_action charity hackathon outside of South Africa took place in Beirut. 30+ volunteers gathered, 3 charities got new websites (90%) completed and Nabeel and I had an unforgettable time as the co-organisers. Total cost approx $250.

On January 19th this year I pinged an Automattic colleague, Nabeel on Slack with an idea:

I was going to be in Lebanon over the summer doing some volunteering and decided it would be cool to try and do something in Lebanon. At that stage I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. Or how glad I would be afterwards!

Over the next two months Nabeel and I chatted back and forth and settled on attempting to organise a do_action charity hackathon. Having lived in Cape Town and worked with Hugh Lashbrooke over the years I knew all about the awesome event he’d conceptualised and had run successfully in South Africa and it felt like the right type of event to pursue.

Over the next three months, Nabeel and I worked together chatting over Slack to pull the event together. The public do_action organiser’s handbook Hugh has created is excellent and gave me a lot of confidence as we went about it. We chatted to Hugh, got a login, published our event and waited.

I was most worried about finding a venue and sponsors or ending up with hungry volunteers or a big bill for pizza I would have to pay myself – but in the end the thing that was the biggest challenge was getting charities to sign up. In fact, it nearly scuppered the whole thing.

No charities, ship nearly abandoned

From March 24 charity sign ups were open.

Nabeel and I followed up with any and all contacts we had including a professor of Nabeel’s at AUB, reaching out to friends I knew worked in tech in Beirut, going to a random members club in London to meet Monty Munford and see if he could help, Googling charity registries in Lebanon, reaching out on Twitter to companies and NGOs, and more.

We created events on Facebook and, I pinged a bunch of meetup organisers in Beirut relating to software.

After an introduction from Rosie Spinks, I had a great meeting in London with Nasri Atallah of Bookwitty, who connected me to his Keeward collagues – this would prove to be a super valuable connection!

But by May 19 in spite of all of our efforts we still had zero charity sign ups.

Both feeling pretty stuck and run out of leads Nabeel and I agreed to give it just one more week and if we had no sign ups or breakthrough of some kind, to cancel.

As luck and universe would have it, on May 22nd we had a rather ridiculous but awesome breakthrough. Hugh pinged me to say a developer in Beirut had just registered to host a do_action hackathon!

Coincidence? A pretty ridiculous and amazing one!

Ali Basheer had spotted the WooCommerce meetup I had registered to host on 5 July (we were going to be there, why not!), discovered there was no WordPress meetup for Lebanon, decided to organise one and in registering to do so stumbled upon do_action and signed up to host one without realising we were planning an identical event.

Hugh put us in touch, I Skyped Ali and we spent the first five minutes laughing at the serendipity of it all. He was confident he’d be able to find some charities and that we should go ahead for the event on July 8 as planed, so we did.

From there on out the event came together like magic.

Learnings, considerations and costs

Having a local organiser / partners is critical. It was all well and good my wanting to do this as I was going to be in Beirut, and it meant a lot to the volunteers to have two Automatticians there with them – but Ali really made the whole thing happen. Local connections and familiarity is priceless and we couldn’t have done it without him. I don’t recommend trying to organise a do_action event without a local passionate WordPress person or partner.

Try to get a free venue! Of course it is always ideal to find something for free but we didn’t know if we would. We had various connections at Beirut Digital District, as did Ali, and in the end chose to host it there over our second option (a local coworking space) as BDD offered it to us at zero cost, including coffee and water. Also, Ali preferred it and said it was the best option as it was well known to local developers.

Sponsorship isn’t just about money
. We had some partners come aboard whose biggest support was opening up access to their resources and networks. Money is helpful but it actually isn’t the most important thing.

  • Automattic offered to put $1,500 towards a videographer / photographer which was awesome. In the end, Ali had two friends who wanted to contribute to the event by doing photos and video for free, so we saved money here 🙂
  • The Olive Grove, a coworking space in Beirut, supported us by letting people know about the event and reaching out to a number of charities directly encouraging them to apply
  • Pressable sponsored free hosting for the charities, and also gave us a coupon code to pass on to all of the volunteers as a thank you
  • Keeward a local web agency were hugely supportive and offered to run a workshop for the charity owners. They also supplied developers and designers to serve on the teams. I think they would make a fantastic partner for us in the MENA (Middle-East North Africa) region for WooCommerce!
  • Dunkin’ Doughnuts sponsored a sea of doughnuts for breakfast!
  • Strategies DC, Ali’s company, sponsored lunch 🙂

Agenda: Our agenda was as per the below, we stuck to it pretty well and ended the day with pizzas after the groups did their presentations.

Choose themes in advance. On the day the only glitch we ran into was that we didn’t vet the themes, or push the team leads to pick a theme in advance, so all of them chose weird themes with visual editors and bugs and had to wipe and reinstall WordPress about an hour in. This wasted precious time and was a bit discouraging! I am sure this is in Hugh’s do_action guidebook but it’s really key to have a theme that the charity likes and suits their needs, vetted and chosen in advance.

Manage and set expectations. Something Nabeel and I felt we could have done better was carefully manage the charities’ expectations and set the expectation we had of them. With just one day and too little time to build custom sites, it’s critical to set expectations appropriately.

Comms: Nabeel sent an email the week before with a list of to-dos (getting DS info, setting up Pressable etc), this worked well. I think maybe we could have sent it a little sooner, we were both just very busy! I sent an email to all volunteers and charities 48 hours before with a Google map, info about timing, etc.

Design: we kept design reqs. to a minimum. Gareth Allison (another awesome colleague) designed us a logo for the event, and Cristel Rossignol stepped in to create a certificate for each participant. Thank you both so much!

Costs: In the end, our only costs for the event were soda, snacks and pizza coming to a few hundred dollars and the costs of a few themes that were purchased. As the WordPress Foundation made the call to put $2k towards any do_action events, we were well within budget.

Photos: checkout the album here.

In conclusion

The event was a success. We had sign ups even (in fact mostly) in the week before which is apparently fairly normal for Lebanon. It took some guts to not freak out about this but the signs ups did roll in and by the day we had one full team, one nearly full team and one team that wasn’t full but had help from some roaming extra people.

At about 7:30pm a member of each team presented their site and progress, one was 99% done and the other two still needed some work and were on staging. The team agreed to meet again to finish up and I can’t wait to see the finished sites.

Would we do it again? Heck yes! In fact we are already making plans.

The week before the hackathon Ali hosted his WordPress meetup and Nabeel and I also hosted a WooCommerce meetup – we met so many awesome people who are excited about WordPress! We had a little organiser dinner the night before (where I got to meet Ali’s vivacious fiancé), and my heart was bursting.

Lebanese food is so, so, good. The WordPress community there is growing and so keen to learn.

I can’t wait to head back to spend time with my new friends and connections, eat more tasty Lebanese food, walk the corniche, and do more exciting stuff with WordPress.

3 thoughts on “Organising a WordPress charity hackthon in Lebanon

    • Well, I have a wonderful mum – YOU! – who cheers me on and makes me believe I can do these things 🙂

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