Managing Offsite Volunteers via the Internet

Managing offsite volunteers virtually is not vastly different from managing people on-site: it involves basic management skills such as setting and communicating goals, assessing progress and giving regular feedback. You probably don't see onsite volunteers every moment at your organization, so it won't be altogether foreign territory to work with volunteers virtually.

Managing online volunteers even affords managers several benefits, such as having an automatic, extensive written record of volunteer activities (via e-mail and chat archives). Still, in a virtual environment, some adjustments in styles and approaches to volunteer management must be made to ensure success. For instance, volunteers working via home or work computers can feel isolated or undervalued, and gradually uninspired about the work your organization is doing.

Volunteers, on or offline, can be wonderful ambassadors on behalf of your organization, particularly if they have a satisfying experience while working with your agency. Volunteers tell friends, family and colleagues about their activities with an organization, so it's important for a volunteer to feel valued and supported by your organization during his or her assignment.

In the traditional office, much of the communication and inspiration with volunteers occurs informally. But opportunities for information exchange are very different in the virtual office. Managers must give special consideration to how this communication process can take place virtually as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Many volunteers who work virtually with your organization will work only on a short-term basis, because of personal preference; they may complete one project in two weeks and then withdraw from your program, content with this short-term virtual experience. This is not uncommon. Some of the following management tips may not be necessary in such short-term cases.

Management via the Internet comes naturally to some people; for others, there is a significant learning curve. Keep in mind that not all of this information may be applicable to your organization or to every manager.

There are many simple things you can do to help managers feel comfortable about managing volunteers virtually, and, in turn, help volunteers provide you with the best possible support. The following are process tips; on another page, we also offer advice regarding Online Culture - learning the different styles of "personalities" online, interpreting people's written communications and assisting volunteers and managers alike in being clear and effective online.

The Volunteer Manager's Role

Volunteers are responsible for meeting their deadlines, but the manager is also responsible for looking for new ways to inspire the volunteer to achieve their goals. It's true that online volunteer must rely more on internal motivation and inspiration than onsite volunteers, but that doesn't mean that the volunteer manager doesn't play an active role in helping to motivate and inspire volunteers. It's the volunteer manager's job to make sure that online volunteers feel in touch and in tune with your organization.

Coaching and mentoring

The traditional office environment includes external motivational and inspirational devices such as displays of charts, graphs, goals, and messages. Consequently, selecting self-motivated individuals is a prerequisite to your being able to effectively inspire the volunteer!

You may have to give directions to volunteers on how to find important information and resources as part of their assignment; for instance, is there a special database on the Internet that has information that applies to your organization, but can be difficult to find via commonly-used online search engines? Are there particular online publications that might be difficult to find as well by someone not already familiar with them?

Schedule regular meetings, on and offline

Volunteers need to talk with you regularly to assess needs, give feedback and discuss problems. And you need to communicate advice on performance immediately.

Most of your interactions with offsite volunteers can be done by e-mail, but make sure you do set up occasional "live" meetings, either by phone or with the volunteer visiting onsite, to help the volunteer feel less isolated and more a part of the team. Regular meetings for setting timetables and assessing progress will give volunteers the necessary guidance to keep them on target.

Creating and Maintaining a Successful Program

Briefly, here are some key points to help make your virtual volunteering program successful for everyone involved:

    Honesty is the best policy: be open with volunteers about problems and challenges

    If something isn't working out during an assignment, for whatever reason, talk to the volunteer about it, either via phone or via e-mail. Even via the Internet, people can get a sense of something amiss with someone else. Treat the volunteer with the honesty you would want as a volunteer yourself.

    Be patient, be supportive, and remember that not every volunteer job is right for every volunteer

    The better your screening, orientation and supervising process, the less chance there is for misunderstandings or incomplete assignments. Remember that it is easier to start small and increase assignments than to start big and risk overwhelming your volunteer.

    Require volunteer participation in surveys and evaluation

    The success of a program cannot be determined without evaluation. Take the pulse of volunteers on a regular basis to trouble shoot. In addition to your regular interaction with volunteers via e-mail, work with the volunteer manager to prepare an online survey to e-mail to your volunteers.

    Fine-tune your style and technique as necessary

    Slight adjustments in styles and approaches to virtual volunteer management may need to be made to improve success. Commit to being responsive to feedback from both volunteers and your volunteer manager, and be flexible enough to make changes when and where necessary.

    Allow volunteers to withdraw from the program

    Just as you need to be prepared to expand the virtual volunteering program, you also need to be aware that volunteers will withdraw from the program, either to move on to other volunteer opportunities within or outside of your organization, or to take a break from volunteering altogether. It's imperative that you get feedback from volunteers to be clear on their reasons for withdrawing; if it's because of problems with your virtual volunteering program, you will need to know so you can make necessary adjustments in the program.

    Celebrate the successes

    How will you honor your online volunteers? Both offline AND online! Again, online volunteers should receive the same invitations, information and "thank yous" sent to onsite volunteers, either via email or postal mail. Develop a Web page that honors volunteers. If there is a way for volunteers who are geographically too remote to attend onsite celebrations, try to come up with a way for such volunteers to participate via technology such as phone or a live chat.

    Manage According to Objectives

    Managing volunteers virtually is best done by setting goals, coaching volunteers on their activities towards those goals, and periodic reviews and performance appraisals. The volunteer manager must be certain that the volunteer understands what is expected of each of him or her as part of each assignment, and that there are real objectives and deadlines associated with each assignment. Ensure that the volunteer understands how each assignment is in support of a particular organizational objective and goal as well.

    For many virtual assignments, particularly working with technical assistance volunteers, you can manage by results rather than by process. One company describes it as not managing the way elementary school teachers do, by attendance and citizenship, but, rather, managing as college professors do, by results. Another example: manager's may have to shift from a "steamroller" approach in which employees are told how to do work, to a "snowplow" approach in which the manager becomes the facilitator and enabler of work. It's a shift from being a supervisor who controls the work being performed to a facilitator who provides help, assistance, and planning through electronic mediums.

    However, for some volunteer assignments, such as working directly with clients, attendance and process are just as important and results, and "eyeball management" is appropriate.

    Inclusion and Recognition

    In your continuing efforts to make volunteers feel included, make sure that all staff understand to treat online volunteers with the same respect and recognition of onsite volunteers. Staff should be given regular updates on volunteer activities, on and offline, and know how to interact with volunteers online.

    Keeping offsite volunteers informed of team, project and organization information is crucial to helping them feel included. Make sure that all pertinent office memos are regularly distributed via e-mail to remote volunteers. Be sure volunteers receive any electronic newsletters you send to supporters highlighting program activities and accomplishments as well.

    Online volunteers should receive the same invitations, information and "thank yous" sent to onsite volunteers, either via e-mail or postal mail. Managers should speak often of online volunteers' contribution to the organization. Develop a Web page that honors volunteers. If there is a way for volunteers who are geographically too remote to attend onsite celebrations, try to come up with a way for such volunteers to participate via technology such as phone or a live chat. You could even create an area where online volunteers can interact with each other about their assignments.

    Asking volunteers for input is a form of recognition -- it says, "I value your opinion." So be sure to include volunteers when looking for suggestions about improving or expanding your program, or about an area the volunteer has indicated some experience in.

    Establishing Guidelines

    Managers of remote volunteers may feel an even stronger need to maintain frequent and ongoing communications with online volunteers, to make up for seldom or never seeing each other face-to-face. By providing clear and concise guidelines to volunteers concerning the expected frequency of communications, what types of communications are expected when (such as an itemized list of results - weekly, monthly, quarterly), and the desired format and content, the manager will avoid being inundated with unnecessary information and productivity can be enhanced for everyone. It also is an effective means of further assessing the volunteer's written communications and reporting skills.

    When the Virtual Volunteering Project was active, it required its own online volunteers to report in via email on each Friday or Monday. The Volunteer reported:

    • the number of hours worked
    • what percentage of the assignment was left to do (is it half done? 75% done?) and how "on track" the volunteer felt
    • what tools and resources proved most valuable in completion of the assignment
    • any problems/obstacles the volunteer encountered during the assignment.

    Reply to these progress reports as soon as possible to acknowledge receipt. If the volunteer doesn't report in, be proactive -- write him or her to check in on progress. Without such ongoing communications, your volunteers will feel out of the loop and unsupported. This ongoing communication will also provide you with an automatic written record of volunteer activities and progress.

    You can also use web-based forms for volunteers to report progress. However, please be aware that most organizations report that they need to send constant e-mail reminders to get volunteers to use these forms. Stress in the volunteer orientation and in all communications that completing these forms regularly is mandatory to volunteering with your organization

    Develop a procedure to track this information, keep this information in a centralized location (a spreadsheet, a folder, a directory, a database, etc.), and review this information regularly! You will need to be able to communicate how many hours volunteers have contributed to date, or for a certain period. This can also help show you who is contributing the most hours, and what impact online volunteers are having at your organization. Communicate to your volunteers what the elements for success in their assignment are! This is also discussed during orientation, but it may bear repeating.