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How To Get Started Working With Online Volunteers

Working RemotelyVolunteer Management

Today we present the third article in our Connecting for Change series, TechSoup Canada’s deep dive into all things online volunteering. So far we’ve looked at the many ways volunteers are lending a virtual hand these days, and offered a series of guiding questions to help prospective volunteers zoom in on the right opportunity for them. In today’s post, we explore online volunteering from the perspective of nonprofit organizations with a round-up of tips and recommendations to get started attracting, collaborating, and managing teams of online volunteers.

Step 1: Identify the Opportunity

If your team has never engaged with volunteers in an online capacity before, it can be helpful to invest time upfront in identifying opportunities for collaboration. Start by thinking about your organization’s values, principles, and mission––how do they inform the establishment of new volunteering roles? For example, your organization may be committed to the values of diversity and collaboration: what opportunities are there to embed these values into the way your online program is developed and managed over time? What are some of the areas where online volunteers can make the most difference in supporting your organization’s mission?

Pro Tip: If you are thinking of collaborating with volunteers in a sustained manner (beyond the sporadic task or event, that is) consider writing separate mission, purpose, and vision statements for your online volunteering program. These will help focus your recruitment, management, and retention policies, which we explore in greater detail in the sections below.

Step 2: Set Up Your Systems

Working with online volunteers does not have to be a resource-intensive process. However, if your organization is interested in formalizing its online volunteering program by turning the collaboration into a long-term (or recurring) offering, then it is important to carve out some time to think about how this commitment will fit into your nonprofit’s day-to-day operations. For example, will you recruit volunteers on an ongoing basis, at set times of the year, or on a per-project basis? Will there be a limited number of positions available or will you take as much help as offered? Will you appoint a dedicated online volunteer manager or will you rely on staff to share coordination duties? Will you require the signing of contracts or MOUs? These answers will give you a better sense of how to set up the right systems to make sure both staff and volunteers feel supported and remain happy.

Pro Tip: Once you start recruiting online volunteers you’ll need to keep track of who is in your team at all times. Do this by keeping an up-to-date database of volunteer names, emails, location, time zone (if applicable), roles and, of course, platform handles. This will become especially helpful if you need to grant backend permissions or share passwords with team members. The database will be a huge help in coordinating the onboarding process as well. If you are looking for a tool to help you manage your database, CiviCRM is a free, open-source platform used by over 11,000 nonprofits. TechSoup Canada members can also access Sumac through our catalogue, and the company’s website has really useful information regarding their volunteer management software.

Step 3: Set Expectations

Finding volunteers that are a great fit for your nonprofit is very similar to recruiting new employees. Communicate your needs clearly and honestly, and be strategic with your messaging so as to attract candidates with the skills and personality that best complement your organizational culture. You can do this through your social media channels or newsletter, for example, or by posting a volunteer ad on industry networks and discussion boards. When coming up with the ideal candidate’s profile, some ideal qualities may include:

  • A person who is reliable but can work in a flexible environment and has a good sense of humour;
  • Somebody with a strong curiosity and passion for the issues (and communities) you serve;
  • The ability to self-motivate and ask for help when needed; A strong internet connection and experience with web-based tools;
  • [X] number of hours to dedicate to the role.

(see our second post in the series for more ideas, and check out Volunteer Canada’s helpful tips on screening).

Similarly, think about what you can offer and what you are willing to commit to to make the volunteering experience a rewarding and successful one for others. You may want to offer:

  • A commitment to responsive and reliable communication;
  • A clear and accurate job description with meaningful and rewarding tasks;
  • A thorough introduction to your organization and its culture;
  • Full and clear instructions on how to perform tasks and who to go to to troubleshoot issues;
  • A safe environment where questions, ideas, issues and concerns can be expressed freely and comfortably;
  • The opportunity to adjust tasks, responsibilities and working hours if need be;
  • Prompt follow-up to inquiries about letters of recommendations, reference checks, and other requests that support a volunteer’s capacity-building journey.

A little coordination goes a long way in ensuring transparency, efficiency, and inclusion.

Step 4: Create the Culture

If you decide to make online volunteering a permanent fixture of your organization’s life, you’ll quickly learn that a little coordination goes a long way in ensuring transparency, efficiency, and inclusion. Recruiting and managing online volunteers is a process that can be streamlined with the establishment of policies and protocols that help you keep track of all the moving pieces. To this end, you may want to write an internal policy handbook to help your team understand how online volunteering fits into your nonprofit’s ecosystem, as well as to provide guidelines on important tasks like onboarding, reporting, and more. You can also develop a suite of templates to assist with recurring tasks like orientation and tech training, anticipate FAQs, provide tips for success, and outline organizational dos & don’ts. (For inspiration on how to get started, check out Volunteer BC’s handbook on starting a volunteer program as well as their templates.)

Pro Tip: Most nonprofits are equal opportunity employers, so extend the same principles to the recruitment of online volunteers by promoting a culture of inclusion and respect. Review volunteer roles and assigned tasks to remove unjustified barriers to access, and advertise your openings broadly to attract a diverse range of candidates.

Step 4: Invest in the Relationship

Since online volunteers work remotely, it is important to avoid ‘out of sight, out of mind’ syndrome. Provide ample opportunity for check-in, feedback, and celebration so that your volunteers feel a sense of belonging and ownership. To do so, consider:

  • Sending a welcome message to all new volunteers––this could be done in the form of an email where you introduce yourself, describe your role, reiterate the important role volunteers play in the organization’s life, provide contact information, and more.
  • Writing an orientation toolkit––organize onboarding information so that volunteers can have easy access to everything they need to know to get started right away. You may want to create a PDF or a dedicated webpage where you centralize resources such as tech demos and tutorials, terms of service, training protocols, and more. If your nonprofit has staff guidelines on how to represent the organization to members of the public, include those as well so everyone is on the same page.
  • Celebrating involvement––share volunteer accomplishments with your staff so that others can see their hard work and extend their kudos. Organize periodic socializing events to boost morale and foster inclusion, for example, by holding volunteer happy hours, games’ nights, and more. If volunteers work in set increments of time, check in at the end of their term to offer them an opportunity to renew their commitment and/or to celebrate the end of your collaboration.

Pro Tip: To keep momentum and enthusiasm alive, show your appreciation by sharing or creating opportunities for professional development and capacity-building for your volunteers. You may invite them to attend webinars or e-courses, offer letters of reference or custom certificates of completion at the end of their term, share networking opportunities with them, and formally recognize their status in the form of volunteer badges and other perks.

Step 5: Keep Volunteers Safe

The advantage of working with volunteers remotely is that you may cross paths with talented individuals who live in cities and countries outside of your own. Whether you are working with volunteers close to home or far away, make sure that you follow the same safety and wellbeing protocols as you would with your in-office staff. Maintain volunteer privacy and confidentiality, and think about how sensitive information may need to be handled in the event of an incident. If volunteers are helping you from afar, ask them if and how they would like to be publicly recognized for their involvement. Freedom of expression and norms for online participation vary greatly from country to country, so make sure you are not accidentally endangering your volunteers by making assumptions on their behalf.

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Does your nonprofit work with online volunteers already? What strategies and tips have helped you when you first started? As always, we’d love to hear from you! Tell us your story and share your thoughts with the TechSoup Canada community in the comments below.