Volunteers + the Right Technology = Your Dreams Come True

Submitted on Fri, 3/9/2012 - 1:10pm
Running an effective, successful volunteer program can be a game changer for your nonprofit. Here are some tools, tips, and strategies that can help you succeed in each of the three phases of the volunteer lifecycle.

Thanks to the Internet and all sorts of other exciting 21st century technologies, our world is becoming increasingly connected, personalized, and flexible. This includes the nonprofit world. Nonprofits can no longer afford to have separate buckets for donors and volunteers.

The truth is that volunteers are donors are volunteers nowadays. According to a study done by Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund and VolunteerMatch in 2009, two-thirds of volunteers donate to the organization they serve. Additionally, volunteers donate on average ten times more than non-volunteers. Blackbaud’s recent study confirms this trend, showing that “advocates” of a cause are seven times more likely to give.

Running an effective, successful volunteer program can be a game changer for your nonprofit.

Why Should You Care About Technology for Volunteer Engagement?

At the risk of preaching to the choir: technology is important. You really just can’t do anything these days without technology – except maybe write a letter and send it using a normal stamp. Oh, and you can finger paint, too.

Technology is a critical tool to help you on your quest to have the best volunteer program ever. For example, according to the “The Social Side of the Internet”, released last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 80% of Internet users participate in voluntary groups, compared to only 56% of non-internet users. (Who are those people?). Put plainly, that means people who use the web are more likely to get involved in a cause than people who don’t.

The Internet, and accompanying technologies, is now a key way to engage support for and participation in your cause. Using these tools will increase your visibility, your accessibility, and your overall capacity to get stuff done and effect change in today’s world. So it’s imperative to figure out how you can best use technology for your program. This often means building your own system from various tools.

The 3 Phases of Volunteer Engagement

At VolunteerMatch, we like to think of the volunteer engagement lifecycle in three parts: Recruitment, Management and Retention/Recognition. In other words: getting the volunteers, working with the volunteers, and keeping the volunteers. Here are some tools, tips, and strategies that can help you succeed in each phase:

Recruitment

Recruiting volunteers is not just about finding people who are willing to give their time. It’s about finding the right volunteers, those who possess the skills, motivation, and passion that matches your organization’s needs. Technology can help you target the exact type of volunteers that fit your nonprofit.

Online recruiting platforms like VolunteerMatch and Idealist help you get your needs and opportunities in front of millions of eyes. Both of these sites also have tools to help nonprofits best use these services, including free webinars and resource lists.

And then there’s social media. Some highlights: Facebook events, Twitter hashtags like #VolunTweet, and LinkedIn’s new “Volunteering & Causes” profile section. New ways of using social media for volunteer recruitment are being created every day, so this is an opportunity to step outside your organization’s regular recruitment box and get creative with your voice and brand.

As the technology needs of nonprofits become more sophisticated, funders are stepping up to help out. Last year Johnson & Johnson developed and released a free widget called &you to help organizations spread awareness about their cause and needs to the wider Internet community. Check it out and build your own – it’s free!

Finally, the once and future king: email. In no way is email a thing of the past; it is still the primary communication tool for most people on the planet. Building a strong email list is a great way to stay connected to your community of supporters and get them involved when you have specific needs.

Management

No matter what the size of your organization, managing volunteers is simply easier with technology – from training and orientation, to event coordination, to record-keeping. And depending on the nature of your nonprofit, different technologies will be more relevant and useful for you.

Have you heard of microvolunteering? Sparked.com, while not the creator of the new trend in online, crowd-sourced micro-task volunteering, certainly has helped popularize it with its cool platform. Check it out to see if you have needs that can be filled by microvolunteers.

Who doesn’t love video? Creating simple YouTube videos can be a great way to orient and train volunteers to be a great addition to your organization.

For simple record-keeping, don’t underestimate the power of good old fashioned Excel, or even its Open Office or Google Docs equivalent. Just because it was around in the 90s doesn’t mean it’s not a useful, tried-and-true way to stay organized and on top of your volunteer program.

During special events, it’s handy to have a way to communicate with your volunteers on the fly. Text messaging can be a great way to do this – companies like FrontlineSMS work with nonprofits to make text messaging a viable and valuable tool.

There are, of course, plenty of paid volunteer management platforms that could be right for your organization, depending on your budget. Some examples include VolunteerHub, VolunteerSpot and VolunteerMatters. You can also re-purpose database solutions such as Salesforce, or fundraising and constituent engagement platforms like Convio and Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge.

Retention and Recognition

This phase of the volunteer engagement lifecycle is possibly the most important part of your program. You relationship with your volunteers does NOT end when they've finished weeding your garden or painting your walls. Make sure they understand the impact of their work, that you appreciate them, and that they are still needed even in between big events. They’ll be more likely to come back – and to bring friends. There are plenty of fun technology tools with which to accomplish this.

You know what they say about engagement: go where the people are. And the people are on social media. Pretty much all of them. So use Facebook to thank your volunteers for their help. Use your blog to tell their story of impact. Showcase their generosity on Flickr. Tell them about it on YouTube. Send them fun, sincere emails about how great it is to work with them.

Note of Caution

Should you go out and try all of these tools all at once? No. You will get overwhelmed, feel burnt out, and probably will end up doing none of them well. Instead, pick and choose a couple of tools in each category. Try them out for a while, and if they don’t produce the results you’re looking for, try something else. After all, no one knows the needs and strengths of your organization better than you.

In the end, discovering and implementing the right mixture of technology tools will help you develop an efficient, effective and vibrant volunteer program. These tools will enrich the experience volunteers have with your organization and will make your job and your life easier. You can’t beat that.

Going to the Nonprofit Technology Conference? Learn more about piecing together the technology tools that are best for your volunteer program at my session, "It’s Alive! Tools to Piece Together Your Volunteer Engagement Frankenstein".

Shari joined the Communications team at VolunteerMatch in August 2010, and is responsible for all things online including blogs, newsletters, and social networking. A writer who's passionate about nonprofit capacity building, she's hard at work reaching out to nonprofits and volunteers to enrich the VolunteerMatch community. Before joining VolunteerMatch Shari led marketing and outreach at GreatNonprofits, a nonprofit online startup. Bred in Boston, Shari graduated from Stanford University with a BA in Psychology and a BS in Biological Sciences, and got hooked on the Bay Area lifestyle. With good food, good wine, and good weather, the only thing that's East coast about her now is her allegiance to Boston sports. Connect with Shari on Twitter or LinkedIn.