Jan 05 2022

The Technology You Need to Manage Your Volunteers Digitally

Coordination and effective management are key, whether people are volunteering in person or online.

There was a time when being a volunteer meant filling out a form, showing up at a specific location, maybe grabbing a name tag or a customized T-shirt, and offering your services — perhaps participating in a cleanup effort, convincing passersby to sign a petition or helping with the operations of a big event.

But that was when volunteering was happening mostly in person. A recent study from Fidelity Charitable found that while one-third of respondents planned to volunteer more during the pandemic, the nature of their volunteer work was changing. Before the pandemic, 57 percent of respondents to the study had volunteered in person, compared with 8 percent who had volunteered virtually and 9 percent who had both in-person and virtual volunteer experiences. During the pandemic, virtual-only volunteering more than doubled while in-person volunteering fell by roughly 60 percent. Looking ahead, virtual-only volunteering is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to the survey; yet, nearly a quarter of respondents now expect to volunteer both in-person and virtually moving forward.

This evolution may require a shift in strategy for nonprofits looking to deliver services to their constituents, and there are a few ways that strategic shift could appear.

Tailor Volunteering Opportunities to Digital Settings

Volunteering hasn’t always been an in-person endeavor. There are prominent examples of digital volunteering being used effectively before the pandemic. Among associations, micro-volunteering is a popular alternative to in-person volunteering, and might involve moderating an online community or offering mentoring resources to new members of an organization or professional field. Such opportunities can be facilitated by developing a mobile app to bake meaningful volunteer work into the user experience, and platforms such as ServiceNow can simplify that process.

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The idea behind this strategy is to leverage the small pockets of time — a few hours or a few minutes — that people may have to volunteer. That would allow them to use their unique skills to assist their constituents, share their knowledge, advocate on social media or even research a bigger problem. As the American Bar Association explained in 2016, micro-volunteering can help scale volunteer opportunities to larger audiences.

“If your bar association has, say, 5,000 members, and you’re only plugging 100 to 150 of them into meaningful volunteer service — and two-thirds of your non-volunteers would accept a convenient opportunity — then that’s a sizeable pool of talent and energy that you may be leaving untapped,” writes Marilyn Cavicchia, editor of the ABA publication Bar Leader.

Build Digital Infrastructure That Maximizes Your Volunteers

It’s one thing to know what volunteering opportunities are available — it’s another to build the infrastructure that can connect the perfect opportunity to the perfect volunteer.

A good place to start, as sgEngage contributor Annie Lewallen notes, is to tackle the problem from a different angle rather than applying a ready-made solution.

“Organizations get accustomed to the events/actions they typically run in person,” Lewallen writes. “This new environment is an opportunity to rethink solutions to strategic problems and create innovative virtual events that inspire supporters to do more.”

One place to look for that tailored fit might involve taking a data-minded approach to managing volunteer resources. For example, if you have a willing volunteer with specialized skills, such as a doctor or engineer, it doesn’t make sense to put them on a general task if their expertise can be maximized based on location and need.

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This is a perfect use case for a customer relationship management platform such as Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics, which can help nonprofits connect the dots so that they use their specialized volunteers in the most effective ways possible. It can help with fundraising as well.

Maximize In-Person Volunteer Experiences with Technology

Of course, not every volunteer experience will lend itself to a digital-only setting. For example, if the volunteer effort requires physical cleanup or travel, there’s only so much that a virtual connection can do.

But that doesn’t mean technology can’t play a role. Building a base of managed cloud services — using an office suite such as Google Workspace or a custom-built application designed through a no-code programming tool — can help nonprofits leverage tools like Chromebooks onsite so that they are working with minimal technology on the ground but still benefit from a broad infrastructure.

This kind of cloud-first approach helps a nonprofit like Team Rubicon maximize its capabilities even in the challenging environment of a disaster, such as in the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado.

Adding sophistication to the volunteer management process, whether ahead of time or in the thick of it, can help nonprofits uncover new opportunities and maximize them down the line. And when it’s not clear whether that opportunity will be through a mobile app or onsite, that’s a major advantage.

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