Episode #020: How to Design Irresistible Online Volunteer Opportunities

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you. 

Are you wondering if online volunteer opportunities are something you should be offering more of – or at all – at your nonprofit? If you’re wondering, the answer is yes. An emphatic yes.  

Aside from offering flexibility in an ongoing endemic, online volunteer opportunities also allow you to engage volunteers from anywhere in the world. And they align with the remote work that many people have become accustomed to.  

Also, online volunteer opportunities are an excellent way to engage skilled volunteers who can help you evolve your agency’s digital maturity. They can help you assess and choose a volunteer management software system, develop email automations to build relationships while you sleep, improve your search rankings in Google, deploy and analyze volunteer survey results, and much, much more.  

But before we get into this episode where we’re going to talk about how to design irresistible online volunteer opportunities, I want to kick off with a few stats to help you make your decision if you’re still on the fence about involving volunteers online.  

First of all, I did a quick review of Google in Google search results. I used the keyword “volunteer opportunities.” In the U S there are 18,100 searches per month in Google right now, as I record this episode. So every month, over 18,000 people across the country are seeking new volunteer opportunities.  

So I wonder to myself, well, what’s the difference between general volunteer opportunities and online volunteer opportunities? And what I found was 3,600 searchers are searching on Google every month in the U S to find online volunteer opportunities. 

That doesn’t include anybody who used “virtual volunteer opportunities” or “remote volunteer opportunities.” The only term I searched for was “online volunteer opportunities.” And so, when I combine those and do the math, those online volunteer opportunities are about 6% of the combined generic volunteer opportunities and the search term volunteer opportunities. So that’s not bad.  

if you think about it, that’s almost, or over 40,000 people every year, looking online for online volunteer opportunities. So there is an appetite in the public for this kind of work.  

I also went and took a look at Google trends to see is the interest growing or waning. Well, interestingly enough, “volunteer opportunities,” that search term, dropped a little bit in the summer of 2020. Now this isn’t surprising given we were in the middle of a global pandemic.  

However, right now the searches online for volunteer opportunities in general is about what it was five years ago in 2017. So folks are saying, or you hear folks saying that the interest in volunteerism is waning. The data shows us different.  

Now let’s take a look at the data that I found for “online volunteer opportunities.” Interestingly enough, before the pandemic, that search term was not used very often, it had low search rankings. People were just not using it.  

But when the pandemic hit in 2019 or early 2020, the interest in online volunteer opportunities hiked quite a bit. And then over the course of the pandemic, it’s slowly waned. And right now in the last month or so, we’ve seen another spike in interest in online volunteering opportunities.  

So I don’t think we’re going to go back to the levels of interest prior to the pandemic. And it remains to be seen whether or not we’ll start to grow it again. If we’re thinking about whether or not people are interested in volunteering online, the answer is yes. Are we, do we know this is a growing or waning trend? The answer is it’s too soon to tell.  

So when we think about designing online volunteer opportunities, it’s a good idea to start with designing for human motivation in general in mind. Let’s start before we talk about designing opportunities online, let’s start with a basic framework of how work motivates us and how we can imply those frameworks to working online.  

So science tells us that human motivations have changed over time. In today’s world, there are four main things that the experts believe motivated us in the workplace, regardless of age generational affiliation, language, culture of origin doesn’t matter. There are four key ways that people are motivated.  

Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks about three main drivers of intrinsic motivations, motivations that come from within versus extrinsic motivations, motivations that come from rewards or punishments. These can be translated into the volunteer environment as well.  

And we want to focus on intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation, because it has more impact. People are more likely to continue doing something when they’re motivated from the inside out. 

for Daniel Pink, the key three motivations are autonomy, mastery and purpose. So autonomy, meaning we are self-directed that we can choose the time team and technique of our choice when we’re creating a project or completing a project.  

Mastery means we’re making progress that the challenges we’re given are matched with our abilities.  

Purpose is related to goals. It’s beyond our self-interest, and we are pursuing these on our own terms. So we’re not being “voluntold.”  

Those are the three. And I would add this fourth one, I would add belonging or relatedness. In today’s world, connection with others, using the technology of the time, and feeling accepted as part of the in-group, not the outgroup, are highly important. In the work world as a whole, but even more so in volunteerism,  

But there’s other things that impact our motivation in the workplace as well, whether we’re paid or not paid. Psychologist Frederick Hertzberg researched employee satisfaction way back in the fifties and sixties and found that there are ” hygiene factors” or other requirements that may be needed for motivation to occur in this environment.  

So there are our intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, but there’s also these hygiene, these baseline requirements that will determine whether or not we are motivated to keep coming back.  

So one is that there is a place to perform work. This is a hygiene factor in the online space. That might be a platform that volunteers can use online up what I call a there-there, so a community online where volunteers can go and feel connected with one another.  

There’s a second hygiene factor called the acceptable work environment. So when volunteers are working online, they don’t want to be treated like a cog in a machine. And so we’re creating an acceptable work environment where people feel like they are treated as humans.  

There’s other in the physical environment, acceptable work environment might be, you know, having your own space to work in or having quiet, to be able to focus those kinds of things.  

Finally, a positive team culture is another hygiene factor that impacts whether or not people are motivated at work, feeling acknowledged, keeping it positive, et cetera. That’s equally important when you’re working with volunteers online.  

So, there are some key ingredients to satisfactory workplace and role as I covered. And I want to talk after the break, and give you 10 tips for ways that we can become more focused or offer better opportunities for volunteers online.  

Stay with me. And after the break, I’ll get to those right away.  

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Okay. Before the break I covered what motivates us as humans in the workplace. And I did that to help give us a foundation or framework before we think about working with volunteers and offering and designing online volunteer opportunities.  

Wanted to make sure we had a good foundation, because sometimes we think that working online is completely different than working in person. That the motivations, et cetera are different, but actually they’re not. It’s just different tools we’re using.  

And there are different challenges sometimes, but in terms of motivation, the same foundation applies. Whether you’re working in person at your brick-and-mortar or you’re engaging volunteers online.  

So I’ve got 10 tips that are based on that foundation, but are applied to designing online volunteer opportunities. So let’s get started with these.  

Tip number one is take the Upwork approach. So design for a gig worker. Gig work or online work have discreet projects with a beginning, middle and end. Take a look at Upwork and how they describe the projects. Analyze which are interesting and sound interesting to you.  

People who are used to remote work, especially entrepreneurial work or gig work, they are used to having a beginning, middle and end an end to their project. So if you have volunteer opportunities that you can design and offer that way, you’re going to be ahead of the game because you’re speaking the language of folks who already understand a certain way of being and doing.  

Tip number two is to design for team and individual roles and goals.So make sure that everyone understands the goals and aims for their role and how their work contributes to the organization’s overall success.  

Sometimes we think that folks who are working remotely have an intimate understanding or an overall understanding of how their work is contributing to the whole, but sometimes we need to connect those dots for our volunteers and make sure that they understand that their work is valued. 

Tip number three is to have clear and detailed deliverables because you’re not working side-by-side in person with your online volunteers. You need to make things very, very explicit. What does success look like when you don’t share clear outcomes with your team?  

They are likely to veer off in different directions, and they may not be contributing to what you’re trying to carry out. And then you may need to coach them back. And you’d rather just have them step off on the right foot, right from the beginning,  

Tip number four is request a preliminary discovery call. If you’re not sure about the project you’re trying to design for an online volunteer, then request a discovery call. 

Catchafire, which we’ll link to in the show notes, is an online tool or website where folks can connect volunteers and organizations, or organizations can connect with volunteers who have digital skills. And they offer what they call explore calls, where you can ask a question and talk to an expert with no obligation.  

So it’s sort of like dipping your baby toe into working with an online volunteer. If you have a question about, for example, social media, you might post that question and request to set up an appointment and speak with an expert. So you don’t have to go all in with these. You can start very small and work from there.  

Tip number five is get volunteers to, this is directly related to Dan Pink, autonomy, mastery and purpose motivations. So explain to your online volunteers how your team will work together. 

Also, it helps no matter where your volunteers are working to use participatory decision-making and develop agreed upon goals that are achievable and make sense, and that are agreed upon by everyone.  

So if there’s a way to co-produce your planning, it’s much more motivational because people are having a say in how they’re carrying out their tasks and it feels more empowered. So rather than a top-down approach, if you can create a participatory decision-making process, all the better.  

Tip number six, help your online volunteers build their portfolios, promote your opportunity as a way to gain experience and add to their work samples and professional references.  

When you are designing online volunteer opportunities, always think of the end result and how your volunteers might benefit from it, or by using that work for future employment or to find future employment. 

The work you’re asking people to do is usually skilled when it’s online. And there’s no reason why that volunteers shouldn’t be able to eat. If not be able to share that work, at least share that they worked on that work. So think about their portfolio and how you can help them out in that way.  

Tip number seven, even though you are asking people to share or creating an opportunity where people can share their portfolios, also be clear on minimum qualifications.  

So if you’re working, you have sometimes people want to build their portfolio because they’re a beginner in a field and that’s totally fine. And you can bring people on who are beginners, but you do need to be clear on what your minimum qualifications are.  

Not everybody that you are bringing on for your online volunteer opportunities needs to be a beginner or should be a beginner. Consider for example, if you are bringing someone on board to help you design a volunteer survey, deploy it, and then analyze the data.  

Maybe you already know how to do cross tabbing or basic descriptive data, but you need someone who can do more in-depth statistical analysis. That’s probably not something you want to ask a beginner to do.  

It can be complicated. Regression analysis, correlation analysis, all of that is more complicated than your basic survey design and analysis.  

So in that case, you’re not looking for a beginner and you may want to state in your position posting or your description that some minimum qualifications are having a working knowledge of statistical analysis at a higher level.  

If it’s software that you need people to know how to use, be clear about what software platforms you need people to know really well, or maybe they’ve just have some experience with them, or maybe they’re going to learn on the job, whatever way you go. You just want to make sure you’re being very clear about that.  

Tip number eight, really important for people who are working online, promote healthy boundaries and balance. Encourage volunteers to keep a productive work life balance. When it comes to volunteerism, let them know they are not expected to check email or check your slack channel when they’re off duty. Refrain from sending texts to volunteers, unless they agree to receive those texts or in certain conditions like emergency conditions.  

So be really clear with your volunteers around boundaries. Lead the way. You don’t want your volunteers who are working and contributing their time online to start to feel like their contributions are a grind or are creating extra stress or fatigue in their life. That’s not the way you want volunteerism to feel.  

Tip number nine, let volunteers know they will also have access to social interaction with peer volunteers, even though people are working remotely. And even though people might be self-professed introverts, that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to connect to network.  

So set up fun social or co-working time from time to time. Set up a slack workspace or group chat that volunteers can log in and check when they’re returned to duty to see what’s happened while they were off.  

And tip number 10, begin, start and end with gratitude, even in the position description and recruitment post. In every email interaction or event, call out wins and successes. Thank people for going above and beyond. Point back to the mission and how their work fits in and do this over and over again, recognize people for both efforts and results.  

You know, when people are working remotely, it’s not as easy to give them that kudos in the hallway, in the break room when you’re seeing them at a meeting. So you’ve got to make an extra effort when you’re working with volunteers online,  

Those are my 10 tips on how to better design and support online volunteer opportunities. I hope you’ll rethink. If you’ve thought in the past, you know what?We don’t have time. We don’t have effort. We don’t have resource to make this happen.  

There are so many reasons we want to start working with volunteers online or expand your online volunteer opportunities. There is an appetite in the community to do this work you have current needs right now.  

I think if you think about it, you do you have opportunities. You have needs right now that volunteers working online can help you meet. Also just want to call out an episode in earlier episode of Volunteer Nation that might also be interest you, as you think about setting up your online volunteer opportunities.  

So check out episode 18, How To Use Slack to Strengthen Volunteer Teams. If you’re thinking about forming or expanding your online volunteer team, it will give you some step-by-step tips on how you need to set up your slack channels, why it’s important, why it’s better than email and some tips on how we use slack in our own company as well.  

So let me know how it goes in the show comments, or tag us on social @volpro.net. And that’s it for our show this week. Thank you for joining us for this episode of Volunteer Nation. I really appreciate you as listeners.  

We’ve had over 2000 downloads of our very brand new podcasts. And for those of you who’ve listened to our episodes every week, I so appreciate you for following us. And if you like this podcast, please be sure to share it with a friend or colleague who might need a little extra inspiration.  

I hope to see you next time for another episode of Volunteer Nation  

The Volunteer Nation Podcast is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more tips and notes from each episode, check us out at TobiJohnson.com.