Online Volunteers: Don’t Ever Call Them Virtual

March 3, 2015       Patrick Sullivan      

The street address 76 Reservoir Road, Atherton, Calif., is ostensibly the headquarters of the Global Women’s Leadership Network (GWLN). Visitors would be lucky to find any staffer on any given day. That’s because the six-person leadership team, all volunteers, are only there once every two weeks. They work remotely the rest of the time.

Not only is the core leadership team made up of volunteers, the group uses online volunteers for every aspect of operations, from graphic design to public relations to fundraising. And without an occupied physical headquarters, they all do their work remotely most of the time.

Online volunteers can do many tasks for your organization. Just don’t call them virtual. “We make a big deal that volunteers aren’t virtual. They’re online volunteers,” said Susan Ellis, president of Philadelphia-based consulting firm Energize, Inc. “They’re engaged in virtual volunteering.” The distinction is important, said Ellis, because online volunteers are real people spending real time on real tasks, and calling them virtual diminishes their contributions.

VolunteerMatch.org has about 5,000 online volunteering opportunities available at any given time. Idealist.org has more than 1,400. “There’s definitely been an uptick,” said Shari Tishman, director of engagement at the San Francisco-based VolunteerMatch. “I think it’s going to be hard to give you a year (when virtual volunteering ramped up), but there’s increased awareness among nonprofits that this is possible. When you pair it with skilled volunteering, the impact can be incredible.”

Tishman said that when a volunteer is strictly off-site, the projects they take on should be “discrete projects that volunteers can take ownership of and self-direct.” It’s easier on the volunteer and the manager if the volunteer does not have to constantly check in. They should have “projects where the resources they need are easily available online as opposed to having to get office supplies or (information from) special programs,” said Tishman.

Graphic design is especially well-suited to online volunteering, said Tishman, because it’s “something nonprofits rarely have the capacity for, and volunteer designers love to use their skills for something they care about.” Grant writing, web development and social media management also can be done from a volunteer’s home without ever having to set foot in an organization’s headquarters.

Advertising Director Summer Oram mentors at-risk high school kids through the organization iCouldBe. Oram and her mentees go back and forth via iCouldBe’s web-based platform, going through a curriculum that includes college and career preparation, financial literacy, and social media, among other topics. Oram, who lives on the West Coast, has never even seen the kids she mentors, and she doesn’t have to see them.

“It’s about opening their minds to think about a situation differently,” said Oram. “Sometimes these kids come from difficult home lives. They’re working after school. Their parents aren’t available. They’re in foster care. Getting some extra time from an adult who’s interested in what they’re doing is like shining a light on a plant that hasn’t caught enough energy.”

Oram said iCouldBe requires mentors spend at least 10 hours per school year on each student, and she estimates she spends much more time. The platform, which functions as a private forum, is easy to use for both the mentors and the mentees. But for iCouldBe, based in New York City, it’s a robust and intricate project that it developed internally.

“As much as we are a mentoring program and have staff with expertise in mentoring and project management, we’re also a software developer,” said Executive Director Kate Schrauth. “We developed it internally and it has evolved over time.”

The big benefit for doing everything in-house and online, said Schrauth, is that the organization has a huge repository of data used to drive operations and efficiency. One of the organization’s first discoveries, said Schrauth, was that students disengage when their mentors type more words than they do. “We can now pull the word counts and intervene immediately,” she said.

Ami Dar, executive director of Idealist.org in New York City, agreed with Tishman that awareness is one piece in the more widespread availability of virtual volunteering opportunities. Technology is another piece. “The technology is just increasing that rate,” Dar said. “You can shoot a video, take a photo and send something in” to an organization without ever having to set foot in the organization’s headquarters.

Virtual volunteering is attractive to many people, said Dar, because the perceived time requirement can be low. That’s something of which Idealist is trying to take advantage. While the details have yet to be worked out, Dar and his team are thinking about “all the things somebody can do on their phone while waiting for the bus,” he said. “People are willing to help out at a moment’s notice but don’t want to feel like they’re committing.”

If your nonprofit is equipped for email, it’s probably equipped for online volunteers. “I think probably email is the only really important thing. Maybe the phone, too. It’s how everyone communicates,” said Tishman.

“We just ask our volunteers to have a computer and a cell phone, and that’s pretty much it,” said Grace Fong, GWLN’s marketing director. Fong said most of the volunteer staff collaborate using cloud-based technology.

Some projects require more than just email. When the students in Volunteers of America’s Action Team connect with seniors at the Alexandria, Va.-based VoA’s senior centers, sometimes they use the Skype or Facetime video conferencing tools. Those are still mobile accessible tools.

“It doesn’t require anything more than just having a computer or smartphone,” said Tanisha Smith, VoA’s national director of volunteer services. “It’s not something that you need some kind of P1 line (high-performance Internet connection).”

While offsite volunteering can come in many forms — canvassing, building a house for Habitat for Humanity and being a Boy Scout troop leader all require no contact with the home office — those positions that can be considered “virtual” are most often technology skills-based.

“I think the increase of technology-based skilled opportunities we’re seeing is nonprofits waking up to the need they have and the fact they can use platforms to engage folks who want to help out,” said Tishman. “Nonprofits are realizing the possibilities and skilled professionals realize their skills can be helpful.”

Dar said that not all remote volunteer opportunities are for skilled positions. On Idealist, he said, “You see things like videographer, but you also see things like ‘be a social media ambassador.’ Some are skilled, some aren’t. Just like face-to-face volunteering, there’s both. I don’t think there’s more of that (skilled positions) just because it’s remote.”

The volunteers at GWLN are in many respects no different from volunteers who are on-site every day, or volunteers who do not rely on technology for their positions. The key, said Fong, is making sure the volunteers feel connected and respected.

“The biggest problem with volunteer organizations, because we don’t have regular compensation, is there’s a lot of attrition,” said Fong. While she said there is a core of the leadership team and some other dedicated volunteers, “Without people managing things consistently, relationships get lost.”

Ellis said this is a problem all organizations that use volunteers face, not just those organizations that have online volunteers or a volunteer leadership team. It’s possible that online volunteers can feel less connected to their organizations, “But the same question holds true for anyone who works remotely,” said Ellis, co-author with Jayne Cravens of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Fully Integrating Online Service into Volunteer Involvement.

Volunteers who drive the elderly to medical appointments can feel disconnected. So can volunteers who regularly come to an organization’s headquarters but don’t have much interaction with staff or other volunteers. “There’s nothing that says working online has to be distant, but if who they’re working for isn’t giving them attention, they have a right to feel distant,” Ellis said.

Schrauth said iCouldBe puts forth a variety of efforts to keep their volunteer mentors engaged and coming back, such as monthly communications, training, private administrator areas on the platform where the mentors can get support, and regular thank yous. Communicating the mentors’ impact is a big part of iCouldBe’s engagement strategy, according to Schrauth.

Said Oram, who has been volunteering with iCouldBe for six years, “I don’t feel like I’m out there alone. I feel like I have a group of people going through the same thing as me. When I need someone, they’re there. They’re not reactive. They’re proactive. They make you feel like what you do really matters.”

Another potential challenge, said VoA’s Smith, is the communication channel between a volunteer and a manger. “If you’re relying solely on technology — say, email — as your form of communication, sometimes people can come across differently (than they mean to). It’s hard to read emotion and get a sense (of the meaning) without body language,” she said.

What volunteers GWLN takes on, and how they work, is dependent on the relationship of the volunteer with the manager. Fong’s department is the only one with team members. The other members of the leadership team have anywhere between four and eight volunteers under them at any given time. “I need people on a continual basis,” she said. For the other leaders, “It’s on a project-by-project basis.”

Megumi Sakae, volunteer manager for GWLN, said project-by-project makes it “easier for volunteers to connect and meet their deadlines. If you feel connected, you tend to stay longer.”

Managers of online volunteers must work particularly hard to establish that connection, said Smith. The sense of accomplishment around a task well-done, whether the volunteer is simply trolling for social media bandwidth, completing a skills-based assignment from home or interacting with paid staff at an organization’s office, is the same. The sense of goodwill and camaraderie might be lacking online, though.

“I think there’s a strong connection when you are face-to-face and have that physical presence,” Smith said. “You can see the smiles and feel the pats on the back. In that respect (volunteering online versus offline) is a little different.”

Fong and Sakae both said they always make sure the volunteer is getting as much out of the partnership as the organization is, just like any other volunteer relationship. One of the keys is making sure the volunteers’ goals are “something that can be shared and supported and aligned with the organization’s vision,” said Sakae.

“I always ask my volunteers if they want to do something else,” said Fong. “You don’t want to make them do something they don’t want to do. There might be something they want to learn to do or already know how to do. Because we don’t offer compensation, we have to reward them through appreciation and make sure they understand how much impact they make.”