Developing a Foundation for a Virtual Volunteering Program

Once you've put in all the necessary systems to make sure that your organization is ready for virtual volunteering, it's time to set up some internal groundwork to ensure success in your online program.

Most of the systems you need to put in place to get your program off the ground and to ensure success revolve around HUMANS: the concerns you will encounter with such a program will primarily revolve around people issues rather than computers, and the use of the technology rather than the technology itself.

Keep in mind that not all of this information may be applicable to your organization or to every manager. Also remember that this is new territory for EVERYONE! We're all still learning.

These are tips to help you introduce the practice of virtual volunteering into your organization, and to train your staff in the concept and reality of virtual volunteering:

First Steps

Become familiar with the dynamics of online culture
Most of your communications with online volunteers will be done via e-mail. Learning to communicate in text-only can be a challenge for volunteer and manager alike.

Allow e-mail exchanges in an existing volunteer program
For instance, if you have a phone support network, matching clients with volunteers around a certain issue via phone, why not give these volunteers and clients the option of also conversing via e-mail?

If you allow mentors and mentees to meet face-to-face one-on-one, off-site, what about allowing them to exchange e-mail addresses as well?

In these cases, it's assumed that your organization conducts extensive background checks on and training for volunteers, and that you feel these offline programs are running smoothly and successfully.

This step creates no extra work for volunteer managers, the volunteers or the clients, if your organization is already engaged in these exchanges offline or via phone. It's a gradual introduction to virtual volunteering without even saying the words!

(the Virtual Volunteering Project Web site provides detailed information about how to ensure safety for all participants in a virtual volunteering program.)

Create e-mail versions and/or Web versions of all materials given to volunteers at orientations
Again, this does not create ongoing extra work for volunteer managers. This step helps get staff and volunteers used to using the Internet in the course of their regular volunteer-related activities.

Communicate with volunteers who have Internet access via e-mail
Send reminders about upcoming meetings, updates to your web site, an e-mail from a client who has nice things to say about volunteers, a survey about what it's like to volunteer at your agency... not only does this get your current, on-site volunteers used to using the Internet as part of their association with your organization, it also helps support the image of a caring, proactive volunteer manager!

Join an Online Discussion Group
A great way to learn about the nuances of communicating with people online is to become a part of an online discussion group. Start by joining an online group specifically for volunteer managers. If you work with young people, you might consider joining a discussion group of a TV show that's popular with teens, and observe how the youth interact with each other. You can also join groups that interest you personally -- for a particular hobby, your favorite author, a sports team you follow, even a political issue. As you observe (or "lurk") on these groups, notice the variety of ways people relate to each other via written communications, the differences in communication styles among people of different age groups.

Create a discussion list via e-mail for your volunteers
Why not let volunteers talk with one another? An online discussion group for your current volunteers can create a sense of team, provide a forum for ongoing feedback, and encourage collaboration among participants. It also gets your current volunteers used to using the Internet as part of their service.

The Virtual Volunteering Project Web site features information about the pros and cons of allowing volunteers to communicate with each other online, as well as information on how to faciliate and setup such online discussion groups.

Educate staff and key volunteers about virtual volunteering
Help everyone understand why virtual volunteering should be/will be implemented in your organization. Share materials on the Virtual Volunteering Project site with them, including:

  • benefits of using the Internet to find and involve volunteers and
  • examples of ways an organization can involve volunteers via the Internet.

How to Be a Champion for Virtual Volunteering

The volunteer manager can do many other things to create support internally for a virtual volunteering program and ensure its success:

  • Provide vision.
    Virtual volunteering is an educational process. Resistance may exist because of a lack of understanding. Be aware of the changing needs of your working environment and how virtual volunteering can meet those needs.
  • Be an advocate for your program.
    Clear understanding and constant promotion of the benefits of virtual volunteering are essential.
  • Practice what you preach.
    Are you involving at least one online volunteer? You need to obtain firsthand experience about virtual volunteering!
  • Become the subject-matter expert.
    Keep your eyes and ears open for all information pertaining to virtual volunteering and even telecommuting, and how virtual activities are being conducted around the world.
  • Don't force virtual volunteering on anyone.
    Participation by staff or volunteers should be voluntary. Explaining the benefits carefully to prospective online volunteers and managers enables them to make an educated choice.

Getting Staff Buy-in/Overcoming Staff Fears

For many agencies, this is the toughest part of introducing virtual volunteering to an organization -- overcoming staff fears and getting buy-in for the concept.

Start by talking with appropriate staff members and volunteers about the potential for virtual volunteering at your organization, and why different staff members and volunteers want, or don't want, to do this. Our Project has heard from a lot of people who would love to try virtual volunteering at their own organizations, but who feel that the other staff or volunteers aren't "ready" or are uneasy about the whole idea of virtual volunteering. This feeling of "unreadiness" can come from a variety of issues: 

  • Staff members are still getting used to the idea of the Internet as a concept, let alone a tool. And now you're talking about involving "unseen" volunteers?
    Working with the staff to make e-mail communications more effective, and showing the staff the numerous organizations already engaged in some form of virtual volunteering can help them see the value of such a program at any organization. Some organizations involving volunteers virtually require these volunteers to come onsite for at least one face-to-face meeting/orientation with key staff members. This helps staff see that these are NOT "virtual" volunteers -- they are just as real as onsite volunteers! For some managers, there is no substitute for personal discussion, and in such cases, these managers may be able to only manage virtual volunteering with individuals that do occasionally make onsite visits.
  • Staff feels volunteer management is already time-consuming and that adding a virtual component will make it more so.
    Our Project stresses again and again that virtual volunteering is successful only in those organizations that already engage volunteer successfully in traditional, face-to-face settings. If this is not the case with your agency, it's probably not ready for virtual volunteering. However, if your organization is successful and effective in its volunteer endeavors, creating virtual components of these endeavors should not be a substantial burden. The key to getting buy-in in this situation is starting small, with a virtual volunteering pilot project.
  • Staff fears that you are trying to replace onsite volunteering with virtual volunteering.
    Virtual volunteering should not be looked at as a replacement for face-to-face volunteering; instead, it is an expansion of your volunteer resources, an augmentation of your organization's activities, and another way for someone to help support your organization and give back to the community. For some people, it will be a preferred avenue of volunteering, but for many people, it will be an additional avenue of volunteering.
  • Those in charge of technology use at your organization claim that your organization doesn't have the computer or Internet capacity to involve volunteers virtually.
    Virtual volunteering has little to do with technology and everything to do with people. Virtual volunteering does not increase Internet costs for your organization, if your organization already has access to the Internet. The Internet affords a volunteer manager many critical resources, in addition to a new way to find and involve volunteers.
  • Staff is unwilling to be one of the first organizations involving volunteers virtually.
    Numerous organizations already engaged in some form of virtual volunteering. Becoming familiar with them can help staff see that this is a new idea, but not an untried idea.
  • Unfamiliarity with the details and practicalities of virtual volunteering, coupled with some unwillingness to learn more about these matters until you're certain you'll be able to do it.
    Again, the key to getting buy-in in this situation is lots of staff education (see above) about virtual volunteering, your being an advocate for this program, you involving volunteers yourself, and starting small in introducing the program with a virtual volunteering pilot project. Also share the essay "How I involve online volunteers", a first-hand account of how Jayne Cravens, manager of the Virtual Volunteering Project, recruits, screens, assigns, manages and acknowledges her own online volunteers. The following ideas can help as well.

Your target should be those employees who already work with volunteers in some capacity, as well as those volunteers who have a long-term relationship with your organization and work with other volunteers.

Because at this point you already have systems in place such as gathering email addresses from potential volunteers, you can demonstrate that the organization would be building on information it already has to institute such a program. 

  • Prepare a written plan
    Develop a mission statement, goals and objectives for your virtual volunteering program, and the introduction of a pilot project. Inventory resources, barriers, expectations, champions, etc. for such an endeavor. Identify the potential costs and fears voiced by staff members in your meetings with them about virtual volunteering and outline ways to allay those fears. Establish a timeline. It is imperative to have a plan. Identify activities and assign responsible parties to complete them. Still, when building the timeline, be flexible enough to allow for changing dates. 
  • Establish executive-level support and commitment
    Without support from your organization's leadership, a virtual volunteering program can be doomed to failure. Executive level commitment and ongoing support can help break down managers' reluctance to virtual volunteering and get such managers to participate long enough to see the positive results. If you've addressed the program's potential and addressed staff concerns, obtaining support should not be difficult. 
  • Review the online resource Introducing New Technology Successfuly Into an Agency

    This document will provide you with suggestions for dealing with staff reluctance and stress around technology issues.
  • Do an in-house training on virtual volunteering
    Once you've introduced the concept to the staff and gotten their initial buy-in to at least explore the idea, do a workshop on managing volunteers virtually, to show that it's not vastly different from managing people onsite. Address the training requirements for supervisors, volunteers and office-based support staff to be involved in working together virtually.
  • Amend policies & procedures manual relating to volunteers
    Some adjustments will need to be made to your policies regarding volunteers, to cover volunteers working virtually. For instance, what is your reimbursement policy for expenses a volunteer might incur working via the Internet? You may want to state in your policies that volunteers working virtually must provide their own equipment (computer, modem, software, Internet Service Provider, etc.), and that all expenses must be approved by the volunteer's staff contact before they are actually incurred if the volunteer wants to be reimbursed.

    You should also define in your policies what would be grounds for a online volunteer dismissal, such as:

    • posting information on behalf of your organization to Internet discussion groups without written approval
    • misrepresenting your organization in a written communication
    • transferring confidential information, including passwords, to third parties
    Use your current written policies as a guide for defining the boundaries for your online volunteers. The Virtual Volunteering Project offers its own policies for online volunteers as a guide for other organizations; see our Handbook for Online Volunteers for this information.

Once you've completed laying the groundwork for a virtual volunteering program, you can explore the introduction of a virtual volunteering pilot project.

Other Resources

Also see:

  • Identifying and Creating Assignments for Online Volunteers
    Just as with offline volunteering, a first step in creating tasks for online volunteers is to look around and see what needs to be done in general for your organization. However, when thinking of virtual volunteering tasks at your own organization, also ask: how do your volunteers already work with staff and clients? Could you add an online component to one of your existing volunteer programs? These suggestions, created by the VV Project Team and citing various other resources, can help you identify tasks for online volunteers.

Some information on this page is based on:

    Robert Moskowitz's "Are You Ready To Telecommute? An Objective Checklist To Determine If Your Company And/Or You Are Ready For Telecommuting", published in MicroTimes magazine.

    Successful Management in the Virtual Office, by Bernie Kelly and Bruce McGraw (no longer available online).

    Pacific Bell Network Telecommuting Guide. Pacific Bell's telecommuting program was one of the first in the nation.

Links to other telecommuting resources can help you learn more about managing and working virtually.

Special thanks to the Virtual Volunteering Project workshop attendees at the 1997 International Conference on Volunteer Administration for their contributions to this information.