March 15, 2013

Tech Across Your Org: Risks and Rewards of Combining Volunteers and Social Media

No matter the size or tech-savvy of your nonprofit, there’s something out there that will undoubtedly be a game-changer for your organization’s social media efforts. It’s not a fancy new tool or a fun new hashtag sweeping the meme-sphere. The best kept secret of the social media world is: A volunteer.

This is not to say that volunteers are a magic cure-all for your social media woes. Engaging volunteers to help with social media at your nonprofit comes with its own set of very real risks – but the rewards make it more than worth it. You just have to know how to minimize and prepare for these risks so you can maximize the rewards. Here are some examples:

Risk: Attrition

You took the time and effort to recruit a great volunteer with the skills and experience to take your organization’s social media program and run with it. Problem is, after three weeks they decide they can’t give you ten hours per week, or they find a full time job and now you’re back to square one.

How to prepare: To keep volunteers working with you long term, make the expectations of the role clear from the get-go, answering big questions like When, Where, How, with Whom, etc.

Another important way to keep great volunteers around is to track their impact, measure results, and adjust when necessary. By treating a volunteer project like any other program at your organization, your volunteer will recognize the importance and stay committed.

Finally, show your volunteer that you appreciate him or her! Recognize his/her contributions with words, with perks, and with warm smiles.

Reward: You’ll have a dedicated volunteer who knows your organization almost as well as you do, who can operate semi-autonomously, and who increases your capacity at little cost to your nonprofit.

Risk: Brand Drift

Your volunteer might not realize that you only use the word “nonprofit” vs. “non-profit,” that you refer to your clients as “partners,” and that you only use certain shades of red in your graphics. Suddenly they are representing your organization in a way that drifts from the main vision your overall communications strategy has set forth.

How to prepare: Provide comprehensive and clear training for your volunteer about the policies and practices at your organization. Additionally, be sure to maintain open, two-way communications so he or she can come to you with questions and incorporate your constructive feedback graciously.

Reward: Working within the brand guidelines you set out, your volunteer will be empowered to add his or her own voice to your social media personality, and lend greater creativity in a field that depends on it for success. And you won’t have to spend so much time editing everything your volunteer drafts.

Risk: Loss of control

Your volunteer decides to use your Twitter handle to start a fiery discussion about Obama’s fiscal policy – despite the fact that you are a non-partisan environmental agency.

How to prepare: Loss of control on social media is scary but necessary. Providing very clear guidelines for your volunteer regarding what is fair game and how they are authorized to use your accounts will minimize a lot of risk.

Make sure your nonprofit has an established crisis management plan in case your social media messaging goes awry. And finally: take a deep breath, and let go.

Reward: Setting your volunteer up to have ownership over your social media accounts will tie him or her more closely to the work. Your volunteer will proactively engage his or her own network and energetically build yours.

Real-Life Examples

At VolunteerMatch we work with interns to increase the capacity of our online communications program. The key for us has been keeping our program flexible so we can mold it to what each intern is looking to achieve. We’ve seen real success with allowing interns to run their own social media campaigns, such as our #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest.

Even more impressive than our own engagement of volunteers for social media is that of other organizations in the VolunteerMatch network. Search “social media” on, and you’ll get hundreds of opportunities to help, most of them virtual. So maybe the secret’s out, as more and more organizations realize the value of volunteers for their social media goals.

Short Version: Tips to Take With You

To send you on your way, use this set of tips to minimize the risk of engaging social media volunteers, and to maximize the rewards for your organization, your volunteers and your community as a whole:

  • Set clear expectations.
  • Provide comprehensive training and orientation.
  • Maintain constant, open communications.
  • Allow a certain amount of ownership over projects and accounts.
  • Take a deep breath, and let go.
  • Track, measure and adjust.
  • Appreciate your volunteers!

To recruit social media volunteers, don’t forget you can post a listing for free on

Note that this article is part of the “Risks and Rewards” March, 2013 issue of NTEN:Change. Send your executive director, board, and leadership staff to to read the entire issue, and subscribe to this quarterly journal for nonprofit leaders!

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Shari Ilsen
Shari Ilsen is Online Communications Manager for VolunteerMatch, the Web’s largest volunteer engagement network. VolunteerMatch helps more than 90,000 organizations around the country connect with the volunteers they need. Connect with Shari at @silsen.