Online volunteers: Nonprofit predictions and challenges
“The critical concept here is that no activity is inherently a volunteer or an employee role; it all depends on finding the most qualified person to do the task. … And if a task can be done by a volunteer, there is an excellent chance that at least some of it might be accomplished through online service,” say Jayne Cravens and Susan Ellis.
Cravens and Ellis have recently published The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, which is written for nonprofit organizations and NGOs that engage virtual volunteers to meet a mission.
Schools, courts, parks and other government programs as well as grassroots and membership associations will find this book exceptionally useful. Even for-profit corporations supporting any of the above organizations will find this Guidebook helpful in designing and managing a virtual volunteering program.
Cravens and Ellis have focused their careers on volunteering, the advent of virtual service and the ultimate blending of the two strategies. The Guidebook covers the full spectrum of volunteering online: preparation, recruitment, assignment design, screening and selection, orientation and training, advanced techniques, evaluation and accessibility.
Predictions and challenges
In our Page to Practice™ book summary, we asked Cravens and Ellis about their predictions for online volunteering and the most common challenge among nonprofits that attempt to create these virtual programs.
Cravens and Ellis: Jayne is most excited about the prediction that there is going to be a greater diversity of volunteers because of the demand for virtual volunteering opportunities from many different types of organizations and because of the appeal to such a wide group of people for these types of tasks. “I don’t think it will happen overnight, but it will happen–it’s inevitable.” Susan loves the international nature of the Web and how volunteers who are working on a cause can find and interact with anyone else on the planet sharing that cause. So many issues are global—concern for the environment, the rights of women, ending diseases—and have no geographic borders. And volunteers are much more free to contact and collaborate with anyone, regardless of politics or funding restraints. So virtual volunteering has inherent power to change the world! We both also feel strongly the principles of volunteer management will remain valid and important, no matter whether applied onsite or online.
Cravens and Ellis: Fear is the most common challenge: fear that this will create more work, fear that this will somehow put people and the organization in danger, and fear of failure. So often, when either of us write or talk about virtual volunteering, we’re addressing people’s fear of it. We’ve also found only organizations already capable of involving volunteers successfully in the real world are likely to be comfortable working with them online. So, as we’ve already mentioned, no organization should “create a virtual volunteering program”; it should examine its strategies for including any type of volunteer in its work and then recruit, deploy, and support volunteers whether onsite, in the field, or online.
If you share this fear or other anxieties about tapping virtual volunteers, consider some of the following ways to prepare from Cravens and Ellis:
– Make sure volunteering opportunities are visible on your website.
– Overcome resistance by giving the benefits listed above and emphasizing how it will increase everyone’s skill sets.
– Address tech-related issues such as IT assistance and the ability to update online forums, volunteer applications, etc.
– Update policies and procedures, such as electronic signatures on documents, ways in which volunteers should represent the organization online (e.g., identifying their affiliation when they send an email), confidentiality protections, reporting procedures, reasons to terminate online volunteers, correspondence archives, protocol for sharing photos and names, etc.
– Combine your recordkeeping system with the one you already have for tracking onsite volunteers, although it may be in a different format.
– Discuss the use of asynchronous tools (people do not have to be online at the same time to communicate), such as e-mail, blogs, podcast recordings, Facebook, etc.; synchronous tools (people need to be online at the same time), such as chat rooms, instant messaging, live blogging, live webinars, etc.; online communities or forums for volunteers to share information that is found nowhere else and connect all volunteers to the organization; and cyber deputies, who are volunteers that help with your online communications in roles ranging from facilitating online forums to guiding volunteers through the application process to posting photos on the website.
– Create a flowchart that shows all steps from the definition of a task to recruitment of the volunteer to the completion of the project so all people involved are clear how the communication works. For example, if a candidate calls to express interest, where does this information go? If a candidate emails to express interest, where does this email go? Who tracks all this information? When does the volunteer resources manager (VRM) become involved?
At the time Benjamin Franklin invented the first volunteer firehouse in 1736, no one could predict more than 65 million Americans would volunteer today. Even more unlikely would be a prediction surrounding how technological advances would revolutionize how we can support our communities.
Volunteer service is no longer limited by work schedules, hours of operation or logistics. In this particular case, the accessibility of volunteers online also means additional systems must be implemented by the nonprofit to protect the volunteer and the organization. Remote volunteers necessitate the development of alternative recruitment and screening processes, work agreements and evaluation measures, online orientation training tools, virtual mentoring and coaching, and online recognition programs.
Learn more about other Page to Practice™ nonprofit book summaries related to this title:
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