Digital technologies offers huge untapped potential for charities to engage more with volunteers, according to a recent report published by Eduserv (a not-for-profit IT provider). This report, Engaging Volunteers through Digital Tools, begins by outlining a need to engage better with volunteers and to support them more effectively that was expressed by all of the volunteer managers consulted. Many charities were making efforts to use online means of engaging with volunteers, but they were often finding it a complex and resource-intensive experience. It proved to be very important to align the specific needs of the organization and its volunteers with the affordances of the online platforms they chose to use. With suitable technologies deployed effectively, charities felt that they could help dispersed volunteers to communicate with one another as well as to be more effectively connected with the parent organization. The report focuses on positive experiences from Friends of the Earth and the National Trust. Key advice based on the case study experiences includes:
- Understand volunteer needs and motivations
- Have a clear business case
- Manage data effectively
- Be clear about the specific needs of the organization
- Choose platforms that allow volunteers security and privacy
- Use convenient features (such as ability to manage rotas or submit expense claims online) to drive broader forms of engagement
Underlying this practical advice lies a conception of volunteering as a social activity, dependent on access to resources and information but also requiring support, encouragement and a sense of being engaged in an activity with like-minded individuals. Digital platforms for volunteers have the potential to enhance the experience both practically and socially but it is not inevitable that all volunteers will use them, just because they are on offer. Any digital platform for volunteers will potentially have to compete for their attention with a plethora of other work-life pressures and may be more attractive to some volunteers than others. It remains to be seen how far the sector will move in the direction of centrally-provided online volunteer platforms, and how far a messier, more diverse picture driven in part by the volunteers themselves will in the end prevail.
In the Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, Cravens and Ellis suggest that all volunteer organizations should consider setting up an online forum where volunteers can access information, read news, and make contact with one another and with employees and volunteer managers within the organization. The authors warn that organizations who do not do so may find that volunteers set up such a forum themselves, and troublingly, this volunteer-led online interaction may not be immediately visible to the volunteer manages who should be aware of the issues being discussed. Free-standing forums set up by volunteers may also inadvertently have the side effect of airing dirty linen in public, or inadvertently breaching confidentiality guidelines. Cravens and Ellis suggest volunteer organizations should take what amounts to a carrot and stick approach: offering volunteers the benefits of an informative, lively forum well-integrated with the work of the organization; and providing them with clear social media policies that remind volunteers what it is not OK to say in the public spaces offered by social networking sites. Cravens and Ellis point towards this template for a social media policy for volunteers, offered by Volunteer Now., which begins from the stance that social media communications are never guaranteed to be private Just as so many commercial organizations are keen to protect their brand from unguarded comments leaking out in online space, so too are non-profit organizations, and these social media use policies help to make the various responsibilities clear. Volunteers need spaces to let of steam and share experiences, and online forums can provide a good way to do this for dispersed groups of volunteers, whether they work onsite or offsite. It’s important, however, to think carefully about how sensitive issues will be addressed, and where they might best be dealt with offline.
I have been reading with interest The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, published by Jayne Cravens and Susa J. Ellis. It’s to be the last such guidebook because, the authors tell us, their judgment is that increasingly virtual volunteering is becoming integrated into the work of volunteer organizations alongside their onsite volunteering, and it is no longer meaningful or useful to separate the two. Whilst their advice points towards specific kinds of volunteer task that may be carried out online, and highlights particular tools that are useful for managing, motivating and mediating interaction with volunteers who work virtually, much of their message is that virtual volunteering should be treated in a very similar way to the onsite kind. Cravens and Ellis are thus at pains to point out that their work refers to virtual volunteering and not virtual volunteers, as if these were a separately identifiable breed. Virtual volunteering involves commitments of real time, and much of the recipe for success that Cravens and Ellis propose revolves around remembering that there are real people carrying out virtual volunteering tasks, and managing them accordingly.
The UK’s New Year’s Honours list for 2015 makes notable recognition of the efforts of volunteers. Third Sector notes a sizeable list of key figures in the voluntary sector who received honours this year, including awards of CBE, MBE and OBE to a number of chief executives of charities. The honours are not, however, confined only to those at the top of voluntary sector organizations. Numerous people who volunteer within their communities are also honoured for their work, many such individuals receiving the British Empire medal. The Cabinet Office notes in its commentary on the New Year’s Honours list that 74% of the recipients of awards were undertaking “outstanding work in their communities either in a voluntary or paid capacity”. The citations accompanying the names of recipients are necessarily sparse, but they reveal a wide array of activities among volunteers: awards were received for volunteering in in sports clubs, for teaching mathematics and music, as guide at heritage site or for helping at a nature reserve, as volunteer coastguard, prison visitor or police assistant, as fundraiser or event organizer.
In these awards, the sustained, dedicated work of volunteering embedded “in the community” is celebrated. Arguably, a very traditional notion of volunteering is portrayed. The aspirational models of volunteering we see in the awards lists have undertaken prolonged service, usually in just one or a small number of capacities and by-and-large they appear implicitly to take on hands-on, face-to-face work. No “digital volunteers” were overtly mentioned (although the sparse citations may, of course, hide significant online work within more traditional roles). The word “digital” appears in the full awards lists just a few times, largely in connection with the work of digitising government and public services and at no point in connection with volunteers. “Online” and “social media” are absent, and “Internet” appears just once, again in connection with government services. The newer breed of digital volunteers and micro-volunteers may thus need to look elsewhere for their aspirational role models at least for now, although future honours lists may come to recognise that work “in the community” can increasingly take on many guises. At least some future volunteers may work in much smaller chunks of time, possibly spread across a wider array of organizations, and conduct much of their voluntary work from their own homes, but their efforts will still merit being celebrated. It will be important to understand more about the way that various forms of recognition, from formal honours to simple thanks, apply to volunteers across diverse forms of volunteer experience.