Episode #025: Nonprofit Tech Transformation + Wellness with Beth Kanter

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.  

Okay, welcome everybody to this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. We are here to talk with Beth Kanter about non-profit tech transformation and wellness. We’ll talk a little bit about wellness today.  

You know, I’ve been following Beth for a long time, since about 2009. When I started my consulting practice only two years after smartphones hit the market. Yeah, gang I’m that old, and she’d already been blogging for six years! She’d already been on the internets, sharing her information, her insights, her wisdom.  

And I picked up her first book in 2010, which introduced me the idea that nonprofit tech was directly linked to the future sustainability of our space and it was really the key to unlocking our connections with communities. And it was a key for me to think about how we connect with each other using technology. 

And subsequently, we started our nonprofit management academy, our VolunteerPro Membership Community, and on and on and on. So it’s been fantastic to follow Beth and I am so pleased to have Beth here. 

Beth Kanter is an internationally recognized thought leader and trainer in digital transformation and wellbeing in the nonprofit workplace. She is the co-author of the award-winning happy, healthy, nonprofit impact without burnout. And co-author with Allison Fine of the best selling The Network Nonprofit. 

And that’s the book I picked up back in 2010. And it’s fantastic if you haven’t grabbed a copy. Yes, it was published first in 2010, but it is an absolute fantastic guide to just about everything digital marketing. And I don’t think it, it hasn’t lost its relevance. So pick it up if you can. We’ll post a link to it in the show notes. 

Beth was named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and recipient of the NTEN Lifetime Achievement award. Congratulations on that, Beth, by the way!  

She has over three decades of experience in designing and delivering training programs for nonprofits and foundations. As a sought-after keynote speaker and workshop leader, she has presented at nonprofit conferences around the world to thousands of nonprofits. 

Her most recent book, The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human Centered in an Age of Automation was published in 2022. You can learn more about Beth at www.bethkanter.org. And by the way, I will link to the book in the show notes as well that I’ve been reading.  

It is also fantastic, if you wanna just think about and learn about how technology is changing and why there’s a bit of urgency for nonprofits to pick up on the trends. But before we get into all that, Beth, maybe tell our audience a little bit about yourself. How did you get into nonprofits and technology and, and just tell us about your origin and story a little.  

Beth: Sure, Tobi! But first, thank you so much for inviting me to your podcast for this conversation. I’ve been very much looking forward to it. So how did I first get into nonprofit work?  

Well, I did it right out of school, right in 1980. So I’ve been in the nonprofit sector my whole career. But when I was studying in school, I was actually a music major. Classical music major on flute, and my goal was to play flute professionally. 

And when that looked like it wasn’t gonna work out. I took a look at arts administration, our orchestra management, more specifically. And I got my first couple of jobs working at the Boston Symphony, New England Conservatory. And eventually I was the executive director of the pro chamber orchestra. I was the only staff, but I grew it and I got to learn everything from the ground up. 

And then from there, I was a consultant with arts organizations for strategic planning, marketing, fundraising, all those sorts of things, even consulted with the NEA and somewhere in the early 1990s, somewhere around 1992, I took a job with the New York Foundation for the Arts. 

It was a remote job to help develop ArtsWire, which was an online network for artists and arts organizations. And that’s when I really started well getting obsessed with technology and how it could help nonprofits with mission-driven work. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last number of decades.  

Tobi: That’s fantastic! You know, I didn’t know this because we didn’t talk a lot about your story. I didn’t wanna ask a lot when we had our pre-interview and talked before. I actually have a degree in a modern art history theory and criticism. And I started my nonprofit career in the arts community, working in nonprofit art galleries and organizations. 

Beth: So there you go. Liberal Arts, you have to all the way, right? I think, you know, my music training helped me. Music was great because of the piece of the brain it develops – so what is it? Your right brain? Oh no, your left brain, all the things like accounting and planning. All the linear things you need to do, but the left brain, you also need to be creative. So I thought it was the perfect preparation for a career in nonprofits. 

Tobi: Yeah. I mean, when I studied art history, it really helped me. I started working in the arts community and then moved into social services, but it helped me just be a better critical thinker in some ways to see the world differently, to look for different things. 

Because as an art historian, you’re always looking and analyzing. And how does this piece of art have social impact in the world? Or where did it come from it? Et cetera. It’s cool stuff.  

So there have been 12 years between the Network Nonprofit and the Smart Nonprofit books, which you wrote with the fabulous Alison Fine. And I’m hoping at some point, maybe we’ll have her on the pod. I’ve read both. I will be honest. I’m still working my way through the Smart Nonprofit, but I’ve picked out some fantastic learnings and insights already that I think will help our audience. 

Amazing and highly recommended. Again, I’ll link to them in the show notes. So gang, you’ve got to go out and get your hands on these books! 

But your first book reads more like a primer or guide on digital marketing. To me, that’s the way I felt. Your most recent includes some strategies and tactics in part two, but part one really feels like a manifesto about the urgency for nonprofit tech transformation. Would you agree with me on that, or do you think of it differently? 

Beth: Well, a couple of things. I like the word urgency. I think we, especially with this technology, we don’t want to apply urgency to adopt. We wanna adopt it thoughtfully. Be well prepared and reflective. And I think back 12 years ago. When Allison and I wrote The Network Nonprofit, we were at the very beginning of social media and we thought that it was important for leaders to know about and embrace these new technologies.

I mean, we were a little bit naive, I guess, if looking back on it because not realizing what the potential was. That technology’s kind of neutral, and it can either do great things or it can do evil things. But back then we were urging nonprofits, especially leaders to jump in, try it and experiment. You know, fail fast and with this next technology, we’re saying, back up. Slow down and take a more thoughtful approach. 

So smart tech is kind of a phrase that we came up with to describe advanced digital technologies that identify patterns, using something called algorithms, which is basically a set of rules. Or we like to call it recipes, like a recipe to bake a cake and it takes a lot of practice to do them well. 

And it also takes a lot of data. I think, in the book we say “Library of Congress size” amounts of data. And the difference is that it’s doing tasks and making decisions that only people did and decided until now. So, so we’ve reached that kind of reflection point where before a couple of years ago, it was only organizations like NASA and big organizations who could afford this expensive technology, but now it’s become democratized. 

So this is that inflection point where it’s become accessible to even the smallest nonprofits that are out there. And so, and it’s becoming really embedded in everything we do, even though we may not realize it. It’s like the refrigerator humming in the background. We wrote the book cause we want nonprofit leaders to be prepared for this next chapter of technology, which is awesomely powerful, but it also comes with some cautionary tales. 

Tobi: Yes for sure. And I think in the book, you bring up some of those things around ethics and privacy and you know, who owns the data who has the right to be forgotten if they wanna be forgotten in your data set, those kinds of things. Really interesting stuff. When we speak with nonprofit leaders with limited resources…I mean, you’ve heard this a million times, I’m sure. Both time and money, I think are the biggest barriers to tech adoption or at least that’s what people tell us. What do you think is the ROI they should consider when they’re making these calculations on whether or not they should invest? 

Beth: Oh, that’s such  a great question! Well, okay. In some ways, it kind of depends. You know, it depends. But more broadly I’ll speak about it first, I’ll talk about a little bit about the challenges because we kind of glossed over that. I know we. and I’ve been dealing with technology and nonprofits for like over 30 years now. 

So the technology has changed, but people haven’t that much. You know, we have the scarcity mindsets, we don’t have the budget, or I want this. You know, it has to be instant and it has to work right away, forget about piloting. We want this to work right now and I want results right away. 

And again, thoughtful adoption does take time. There’s also those that are so overwhelmed with the work they have to do before them. It’s really hard to make, even make a shift to begin to adopt something new because it’s not just grabbing software off the shelf. It’s really gonna change the way you’re working and you have to be prepared for that. 

And that requires training. And then I don’t know about you, we were just talking about this before we started. Whenever you have a new tool or the tool you’re using changes, it takes a more cognitive overload to figure out what steps are there. And that doesn’t feel good. 

We wanna be on automatic pilot and just get stuff done. And when you’re adopting a new technology that ultimately is going to give you a dividend of time, or it’s gonna make you more efficient, or it’s gonna raise more money, you do have this learning piece that has to happen first. 

And I think a lot of organizations throw out their hands and quit too soon, if you will. So I think that in this adoption of, with limited resources and time, we really have to think about the concept of drawing down. Now drawing down, it’s been used in two different areas that have nothing to do with technology. 

The first is like, when you retire, you’re drawing down your pension. So your pension’s generating resources for you while you’re also taking money out. Or the whole concept of drawing down your carbon. so we can not have climate change get worse. So when we’re thinking about adopting technology, we’re also thinking about working differently. 

So maybe would, there are some things that we have to stop doing to put focus into more thoughtful adoption, so we can really reap those benefits.  

Tobi: Yeah. I mean, I almost think it’s sort of an irony when people say we don’t have the time to take the steps to save time. Right?  

Beth: Well, it’s not really we don’t have time. It’s really, we don’t wanna make this a priority right now. And what’s really is underneath of that is we don’t wanna feel the, you know, we’re really comfortable. I used to face this like 15 years ago, 20 years ago when I was teaching classes on how to use Excel. And I literally saw somebody write down the numbers on a piece of paper, take out a calculator, add them up and then put them into the cell.

And I said, you know, there’s an easier way to do that. The software can do that for you. And it was like, well, I don’t wanna change. So we don’t wanna think about change, take the time to change.  

Tobi: Yeah. It’s the discomfort and we’ve always done it that way. This way. I think we’re gonna talk more and I think talk about some ideas that might inspire folks to actually take the leap. In our three most recent volunteer management progress report surveys, we do an annual survey of the nonprofit of volunteer managers in the nonprofit sector around the world. And for the past three years, we’ve asked them to rate their digital maturity across a number of areas. And one is just the general overall “what’s your digital maturity.” or “how would you self-assess your digital maturity” when it comes to working with volunteers and using tech to engage volunteers?

And we asked them from lagging to maturing. And over the past three years, it’s been really curious. First year in 2020, it was 13% in 2021. It was 24% in 2022. It went back down to 18% of folks who thought they were maturing. 

And so there’s this bump in the middle. And I feel like people started using more tech during the pandemic. And then once they did, they realized how much else they were, you know, what else they were missing out on. I’m not sure if that’s the case. That’s one of my sort of theories about it. But are you seeing similar trends like that in the general nonprofit space around tech adoption and how people are feeling and how much they’re actually taking on?  

Beth: That’s a really great question. I was lucky enough to do a project last year with Techup. Techup has as part of their launch of their assessment tool, their digital maturity nice assessment tool. So it’s a set of instruments that an organization can take of all, any size. And assess where they are along a continuum, and it goes into great detail, this sort of overview section. 

And then you can analyze each functionality, fundraising, marketing, probably volunteering, operations, et cetera. And as part of that, I facilitated some workshop sessions, focus groups with other folks who work with nonprofits that offer similar tools. There’s a number of them out there as you probably see net hope, Tech Soup, NTEN has a wonderful tool as well, as well as instruction that goes with it. 

And so some of the things that I heard around digital transformation trends in the nonprofit sector and mind you, this was at the end of 2021. So the positive stuff we heard was that after years of putting tech digital transformation on the back burner, because the pandemic forced like 10 years worth of adoption in the space of a couple of months, because people had to do it. 

They had to pivot, they had to figure out a way to do virtual. Distributed teamwork. They had to figure out a way to deliver their services to people digitally. And now there was that urgency. They had to do it right. Or else as a safety issue and also, you know, life and death. Especially when you think about like food banks and having to get those services to people. 

And also, nonprofits were more open to this. There was less resistance that seemed to melt away. We’ve always, you know, the always we’ve done it this way, sort of.   

Tobi: We have to do it right.   

Beth: Also investing in training and technical professional development. I think the negative thing that happened and maybe why we saw this kind of bumping up and then going down was that I don’t think a lot of organizations did it thoughtfully because they had to go so fast. It’s just like put everything we do in a zoom meeting. And you know, and that doesn’t necessarily work.

You have to really learn to work as a distributed team and, and learn like the concept of asynchronous work versus synchronous work and all those sorts of things and how to really collaborate on Google docs or whatever collaboration platform. So I think maybe after getting used to that kind of sudden shift, then there was like, okay, a lot, some of this isn’t working, how do we improve it? And also dealing with this kind of “just because we can, should we?”

And I think that happened with a lot of organizations where they realize they didn’t just have to serve a local geography. They could go beyond that and also hire beyond that, too. They could hire remote staff. So some of that’s like, okay, so now how, and they did that without really thinking through the business plan for that. So I think there’s like a pause for that. I think what’s really needed now is thoughtful adoption and investment as kind of this next phase. And maybe that’s with that coming back and doing more planning and being more reflective and like real, not just grabbing something off the shelf and moving because we have to.  

Tobi: Right. You talked earlier about thoughtful, purposeful adoption and things. We need to be cautious. What are some of those things that you think nonprofits should be legitimately cautious about? You know, early on we’re all like, “Yeah, tech is great!” Early in the days of tech, I think people, it had a halo effect, it was just like all tech is good. If it’s innovative, it’s good.

And I think over the years, as you mentioned earlier, things have lost a little patina, lost a little bit of their shine, right? It’s not necessarily always democratic. Those kinds of things. Yes, it can be biased. Yeah, it’s not a blank slate. It’s not equal for everybody.

In your mind, what are the things folks need to legitimately be cautious about? Not that it’s gonna stop them from moving forward, but just to slow, slow the roll a little bit and think about the things that could harm folks.  

Beth: Absolutely. So I’ll talk a little bit specifically about smart tech. And we wrote that book. It’s not a technical book at all. We wrote it for nonprofit leaders, because we really believe that it’s a leadership challenge. It’s not a technical solution. It’s not a matter of just getting the techies to do it, because there’s implications for organizational culture. For the way we do our work. For the way we do fundraising. For the way we’re building relationships with key stakeholders. 

And as I mentioned before, smart tech, it uses data. It uses algorithms and it’s automating different tasks. So we have to be really conscious about approaching it in a very human-centered way. And the term we like to use is co-bonding, which is figuring out what should always be human tasks and what can be delegated to the machine. 

And what does that path look like? So that’s one piece of it backing up a bit before we even get to that, we wanna make sure that we’re solving the right problem. And as you mentioned before, shiny object syndrome, we don’t wanna just do it because that organization’s doing it. How does this make volunteer experience better? Or how does this make the staff work environment better? Or how does this create a better relationship or experience for our donors? And in order to do that, we need to use things like design thinking methods and get feedback from them.

So there’s that piece. The next thing, we sort of touched on it a little bit, about potential bias and if we think about the use of these technologies and social services, and they’re making decisions about who’s getting benefits and who’s not, we can very easily shut out black and brown people. So we have to be really careful about any bias that’s inherent. That’s been built into the data or the algorithms.

What were the assumptions that the technologists had in building this particular algorithm? I’m not saying that nonprofit leaders need to roll up their sleeves and know how to write code. No, not at all, but you need to ask the right questions because once you figured out the problem, what is the right tool to solve the problem, and then making sure that that vendor or that technologist or technology company has values that are aligned with your nonprofit organization.

And then there’s a piece, and we went back…Allison and I went back and forth on what we should call it. We did call it threat modeling, which is from the cyber security field. But it’s basically thinking about what are the unintended consequences. Where are the potential ways that we could do harm? You know, we’re stewards of data, privacy issues, or how decisions could be keeping people out, how it can amplify implicit bias. And we need to just go slowly. So I think those are some of the things that organizations need to be legitimately cautious about, but it’s not something to keep you away. 

Tobi: Yeah.  You know, when you were talking about delegating tasks to the machine, right? We have a problem in the nonprofit sector around staff being hesitant to delegate tasks to volunteers. So, I wonder if there’s gonna be any similar or if there is any similar grasping or holding onto things where people feel sort of threatened. 

And in the case of volunteerism, sometimes people feel threatened by volunteers. And I usually assure people, no, they do not want your job., But have you seen that, where people are embracing, “I wanna delegate everything to the machine” or “Well, wait a minute. I don’t wanna delegate any of my stuff to the machine!” 

Beth: Yes. Yes. There’s all of that. So the first one delegating all of it to the machine that comes where a leader might say, oh wow, this can make us very efficient and I can reduce my head count. Yeah. This technology should not be used to reduce head count over to place human jobs. 

It’s used to amplify and enhance human jobs, not reduce head count. I mean, somebody still has to take the donors out to lunch. And I mentioned the term cobonding before, and that’s really thinking through what are the tasks that are inherently human, like empathy, creative problem solving, relationship building, and what are the tasks that should be delegated to the machine? 

And the machine is really good. Or the smart tech is really good at crunching a lot of data, doing grunt work that can free us up for a higher level, more fulfilling work experience. And for both staff and volunteer. Give us some more free time or just give us, you know, I don’t know about you, but when I have to do grunt work, it’s really exhausting and I, then I don’t feel like doing the creative stuff.  

Tobi: Exactly. And it’s funny, there’s another similarity, you know, the alignment of when folks don’t wanna delegate to volunteers, they also are not, if they wanna delegate to volunteers, sometimes it’s the grunt work. You know, I’m thinking, you know, why not find a tool that can help you save your time for working with volunteers. 

And again, volunteers in addition are not really there to supplant employees either, just like tech. They’re not there to supplant the employee. The volunteer is there to supplement, enhance, et cetera. And so if you can use the three together, you know, the paid employee, the volunteer, and some smart nonprofit tech to take on the more mundane tasks that even volunteers don’t really wanna do, you can free up your time to spend your time supporting that key stakeholder group and that key stakeholder group can spend time being out in the community as an ambassador for your organization.   

Beth: That’s exactly it. What can you do with this dividend of time? It’s making me think about some of the examples we looked at from food banks and this, this was during the pandemic. Rrobots, which are a part of smart tech, were being used in the food banks to restock the shelves when it wasn’t safe for us to go into the warehouses because we didn’t have the vaccinations yet.

And if you think about maybe there may be some more vulnerable people volunteering, and they don’t wanna endanger that. So now that things are a little bit safer, because we have vaccines and we know a little bit more about the virus. 

Should you continue to have the robots stock the shelf? Um, and if you do, you have to rethink, so what is it that our volunteers can do? What’s the new task, right? So I was thinking about like, okay, so if the robots continue and do some of this restocking the shelves. Although, some people may have enjoyed that, you have to really think creatively about how do you wanna engage your volunteers?

Because we know that when people come in and they volunteer that it’s kind of a pathway towards donation. Right? And then you were talking about having them become ambassadors in the community, or maybe giving tours of the food bank. 

What the smart tech does both for volunteers and both staff is it allows us the opportunity to redesign the work experience. So it’s more fulfilling because there’s a higher level of cognitive tasks that might be involved that may be more fulfilling. 

Tobi: Yeah. And I think it reduces…you know, in the book you talk about yhe leaky bucket syndrome as it applies to donors. But I also think there’s that leaky bucket syndrome when it comes to volunteers and that when we’re not investing in, real core human needs and fulfilling those real core human needs, one of them is doing something meaningful or satisfying. 

Another is connection and belonging. Another safety, if you can augment their work with smart tech. There’s so many ways to start being able to invest more into meeting those core needs and not becoming that leaky button bucket for volunteers as well.  

Beth: Right. And the leaky bucket is also about trying to find new people all the time and bringing them in but not focusing on what the experience is for them from beginning to a more in-depth engagement. And one of my favorite examples of how smart tech can do this comes from some of the database products that are out there that do use algorithms and data. And so like, imagine, and this is for, you know, I see a lot of them in employee volunteering area, but let’s say that you’re a company and you have a volunteer management database that’s built with smart tech.

So what can this do? It can make a more customized experience for the employee who wants to volunteer and connect them with the type of experience that really matches their interests rather than making them wade through a lot of things that are not as interesting to them. 

So let’s say that they express an interest in animals or dogs and they wanna be connected to a shelter. So the algorithm could match them with an experience at a shelter, maybe walking the dogs, and find a shelter that’s near work or their home. And so the first engagement they go in, they walk the dogs and then the algorithm automatically sends a message to them. 

How was your experience, you know, on a scale of one to five? And if they rated a five, they might send additional information about other volunteer opportunities or “Come sign up regularly for Wednesday, walk the dog,” whatever it is.

Maybe they said it was a one, which was a terrible experience. And at that point, the system might automate a message to the volunteer manager or the executive director to call that volunteer and find out why was this experience less than fulfilling? What can we do to improve the experience? And so if you have a system that’s automating a lot of those but keeping the human side, there you are! You’re getting to better impact by creating a better experience for the volunteers. 

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. And you’re focusing your time. I mean, volunteer managers wear many, many hats and they’re always juggling priorities and you’re deploying the most human of the job at the right time, which is, and they don’t have to get over.  

Beth: You know, if this is an organization that has hundreds of volunteers, it would be really hard to wade through all that data. Right? You get overwhelmed. But the algorithm can sweep through all of that and say, here’s a list. These five people did have such a great experience, you should call them first. 

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, it’s so good. So good. Let’s talk a little bit more about volunteer engagement and what’s been happening in the pandemic. There was a report from NCVO. I’m gonna link to it in the show notes. It was in July 2022, but it was built off of a survey they did in 2019 prior to the pandemic. 

And they’ve been continuing to produce reports. You know, the volunteer experience they interviewed about 10,000 volunteers. It was a qualitative study as well as surveying. But what they’re finding now and in the last year of the pandemic really is two things that are really impacting volunteerism. And there’s been a significant decrease globally in volunteerism. 

So we’re, we’re always looking for how are we gonna bounce back and how are we gonna become more resilient given what we’re faced with? One of them is lack of digital connectivity. people appreciated the convenience of connecting via zoom or in other digital ways with remote teams. But they also noted that there’s been created a digital volunteering divide, you know, sort of the haves and the have-nots, whether it’s skill or a lack of tech tools. 

And then there’s the second area. We’re starting to see a lack of appetite for volunteerism. So there’s a reduction in formal volunteering, but then there’s lots of people helping people, informal volunteerism, neighbors helping neighbors. There’s sort of a surge in that. And, you know, globally, we often see more of that in more developing countries and formal volunteering in the U.S. Canada, et cetera. 

But we’re really seeing across the board now, more informal people being more interested in helping each other and also thinking about, you know, how am I gonna get back to the simple pleasures in life, spending time with friends, et cetera. So. How might, you know, we’re gonna do a little brainstorming here. How might smarter nonprofit tech solutions help with these two problems? Any ideas?

Beth: Sure. I think these are complex problems and maybe a simple technical solution is not gonna solve them. I think we need to take a step back. So, a couple things came to mind as you were talking, you know, it’s a parallel. This kind of the virtual connection is not enough Social capital needs to be rebuilt and that needs to happen in the workplace.

And also in the relationship between organizations and volunteers, and rebuilding social capital, leaving time, unstructured time, getting to know people. Think about all the things that are happening as people are coming back to work that leaders are doing in the nonprofit sector to rebuild that social capital, which is giving time for people to connect.

Of course, there’s some tension in that from a staff business side to connect, for what I have all this work to do. right? But, but it’s really, we need to get back into relationship with one another, because relationships are the lubricant of getting work done. 

And I think relationships are the magic. Getting volunteers to have a really great experience. The digital divide, uh, you know, was here before the pandemic. Yeah, it, it was accelerated and amplified because of the pandemic. But I think, you know, there are many government and technology companies and nonprofits that are working on this issue in many communities. 

So I think that if I was running a volunteer program that I’d wanna be part of those coalitions and see what was happening locally. To see ways that we could, you know, I could get some help bridging that divide. And I think that the last thing about people wanting to engage in the other pleasures of life, and not wanna volunteer and take off, stroll on the beach and, you know, life.

We were all taught life is short, right? So maybe, and everybody is kind of reevaluating what their priorities are. And it may not just be work. And so I think this becomes a market demand issue. And I think that this becomes an opportunity maybe for a collaborative campaign that rebrands what volunteering is, you know, maybe what some of the benefits are that you know about doing good giving back to the community and really thinking about reframing that volunteer experience as a connection to overcome loneliness that we’re all facing.

Because of this past burnout, because when you have purpose, it’s a vaccine against burnout in a way when you have a sense of purpose. So I think there’s that market demand issue. And maybe it’s like even rebranding what, you know, volunteering isn’t just coming in and doing free work for people. 

Tobi: Talkin’ my language, Beth! Right?! 

Beth: You know, it can give them a sense of purpose. It can help give back to the community. And the other thing I think we need to rebrand too, is that structured volunteering and nonprofits is not the only way. That this informal volunteering, we have to honor that. All the mutual aid that’s happening, just being kind to people. And there’s a lot of movement around that, particularly in philanthropy circles. So those are just a few things. Thoughts off the top of my head.  

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think too. you know, people have been through trauma. I mean, let’s not lie. It’s been a traumatic experience for us. It’s a global shared trauma that we’ve all been through. And I think, you know, you talked about this a little bit. You just mentioned a little bit about how volunteering can be part of a way to bounce back. You know, it can help us become more resilient. It can help us remap our brains.

You know, if we’ve been on high alert for a long time and we start, you know, our, our primal brains are going off “danger, danger, danger,” and we’re able to sort of get in environments where we can kind of remap some of those alert signals into something more productive. You know, connecting with humans, we all, we all know volunteerism is healthy for us as well. I’m gonna take a quick break and when we get back, I wanna talk a little bit more about wellness, cuz I know that’s a second passion of yours and I’d love to hear your thoughts on things. 

So we’ll be right back after this break with more on smart nonprofit tech and insights with Beth Kanter. We’ll take a look into how we might better promote wellness and prevent burnout within our organization. So don’t go anywhere. We’ll be right back.

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Okay. We’re back with our discussion with Beth Kanter about smart not-profit tech and how you can help your organization become more resilient. Now we’re gonna switch gears a little bit and talk about her second passion, which is promoting wellness and workplace resilience.

So Beth, before the break, we talked about this report from NCVO that talked about the digital divide and digital connection. In some ways in the volunteer world and a declining rate in volunteerism, or at least in formal volunteerism, I think we need to mention that caveat. 

I think there has been plenty of people helping people, but one of the other things they found was that there are elevated levels of burnout in volunteers, and it’s become a key tension in volunteerism. There’s, you know, an elevated level of anxiety and fatigue among pandemic volunteers, as well as a strong sense of guilt for not doing more, which just breaks my heart. 

When we talk about workplace resilience, we’re often focusing on paid employees, but you know, you’ve talked a lot and done a lot of research and written on workplace resilience. What things can we apply to volunteers?  

Beth: You know, I think there’s a lot that’s adaptable and can be applied. And the first thing is that we have to think of burnout as an organizational issue. It’s not the fault of the individual, and this is something tat the World Health Organization was working on right before the pandemic. Back in 2009, it declared that burnout is an organizational responsibility and it results from having unmanageable workloads, a toxic work culture and enforcing staff not to have work-life balance. 

So organizations need to look at ways to mitigate the workload. When we talk about toxic work culture, that’s how we treat one another. And they also need to encourage work-life balance. So I think that this is, you know, when we encourage work-life balance, we wanna not only encourage that of staff, but also encourage volunteers and maybe even having conversations with them around, like what brings you joy to volunteer here?

Drawing on the same volunteers over and over and over again, and making sure that you have enough in your pool so that the burn doesn’t become placed on a couple, a smaller group of people. And again, I go back to thinking about smart tech and how that can take away some of the grunt work and really shift and make that volunteer job task more fulfilling. 

I also think, you know, there’s another piece of volunteering that I think is really exciting. And that’s the professional volunteer who is donating their professional skills to the organization. And I love all of the organizations that are out there. And there’s many that do that kind of matching where they’ll take professionals in the workplace who are looking for a way to donate their professional expertise to nonprofits as a way to find purpose.

And I had this experience with this organization called Wake, which is the Women’s Alliance of Knowledge Exchange. And basically what they do is tech volunteers who are women from technology companies in Silicon valley. And they take them on a delegation to a country and they’ve been doing things virtually or in the U.S. during the pandemic.

And they get assigned to working and providing their expertise to women’s rights organizations or women entrepreneurs. And I know I’ve watched, and I’ve been part of this program and I’ve watched the volunteers and how much joy this brings them to be able to do that kind of work. 

And I just think every corporation should have this as part of their social impact program or part of their employee benefits to have some sort of volunteer experience. This particular one where they bring the group and they don’t only just work. they have meals together in the country. They learn about women’s rights. They get to do some tourism stuff like shopping, but only like the women-own businesses. And it’s a really wonderful experience. So how can we make this kind of process of giving back? How can we bring joy to it? You know, versus it being a chore. and let’s just do this crap work.  

Tobi: Yeah. I’ll say to people like, hey gang, you know what? People don’t volunteer because they wanna work for free. They volunteer because they wanna change the world. You know? And sometimes on the nonprofit side, they’re still thinking of volunteers as widgets and replaceable. And if volunteerism is more fun than the alternative in the community of staying home and being on lockdown and if it’s fun, not as stressful as other things in life, I think organizations can become a magnet for volunteers. 

Beth: I remember my early days, uh, this is like, well, 30, 40 years ago with the, one of the officers I worked with and they used to have the Women’s Guild, who were the volunteers. They would have lunch together, but they would come in the morning and they would be dispersed all over to different offices and they’d come in and they would, in those days we were sending out paper appeals and they would literally stuff envelopes. I mean, it was great, you know, it helped out in the office, but really, is stuffing envelopes, is that really changing the world?   

Tobi: Yeah. Unless they’re having fun social times sometimes.  

Beth: Yeah. There’s that, but I’m just really thinking through where can you dovetail what the organization needs to have greater impact with what the human volunteer needs to feel like they have purpose. How can you marry those two?  

Tobi: Yeah. And I hear a lot of pushback from leaders of volunteers saying, you know, even when I’m talking about, Hey, let’s figure out how to do this is the most basic automation. Let’s figure out how to do a welcome and onboarding welcome campaign using your email service provider. 

Just to build relationships through email and because you can’t be there with every single volunteer all the time, and you can create lots of fun emails that talk about your culture that are fun, that engage people, but I’ll get a lot of pushback and say, no, no, that feels really it’s impersonal. It feels like we’re not really building relationships that way. 

Do you think there’s a balance between using technology and communicating with folks and building relationships. Is there a place or is it, is technology, smart tech in particular, more about taking over the mundane things and allowing people to be in that space of having time to make those relationships? 

Beth: Well, it’s both ends. So there is taking over some of the, removing the grunt tasks and staff repurposing their time. But what you were talking about with the onboarding. Smart tech has the ability to highly customize instead of sending out a blanket email, which is impersonal and to do it at scale and much faster than a human could do it, but to actually have it seem like a very personalized email, not just their first name, but even like summarize some information that’s in the database and incorporate that into a couple of sentences. 

The last time you were here, you walked the dogs and you walked the dog name Tigger, and he really appreciated it or whatever. Yeah. And you could do that for thousands of messages. You can customize it. That’s what smart tech can do. I’m not saying it can send out the same message to a thousand people. It can send personalized versions of that message a thousand times, you know? A thousand different personalized versions of that message to those people in way less time than a it would take a human to do it.   

Tobi: So it’s sort of like exponential segmentation.  

Beth: Yeah. But it doesn’t replace the human phone call follow-up. 

Tobi: Absolutely not. 

Beth: No, not at all, but it gives the human time to do that.  

Tobi: Yeah, I think there’s really interesting ways to think about how smart tech can be used. Let’s just ask one last question. I have my final question for you. Some people believe that technology causes stress and a lack of work-life balance. So they will just basically blame tech for that. Is there a place for both technology and resilience, particularly when we’re engaging communities? 

Beth: Yeah. I mean, technology is a double-edged sword. As I mentioned before, it could be, you know, an agent of distraction or it could be an agent of calm. There’s just as many apps out there that you can use technology to help calm yourself. A lot of the mindfulness apps that are out there, Fitbit. I’m wearing a Fitbit. Um, it’s on an app. So yeah, I think the problem is that the technology companies have designed the apps so that we become addicted to them and we use them more and more. 

We have to practice technology wellness and that’s, you know, taking breaks from the screen, not scheduling all those back-to-back meetings. There’s also, you know, there’s this thing called email apnea. And there was a study done by Linda Stone a good while ago, but she found that when people were answering their email, they were holding their breath and it was increasing their heart rate. 

So it was like apnea and that’s not good for us. So as we become aware of what technology is doing and what the impact is on our body, and if we’re addicted to it, learn to put some boundaries around that. Like, you know, not reading your email first thing in the morning when you wake up. Not having technology be the last thing you do at night. 

Tobi: Yeah. You know,  I wish I could talk my husband out of that habit. Yeah. it’s interesting. I use a mindfulness app. I use the mindfulness app. I’ll link to it in the show notes: Head Headspace. I use it every morning and I’m actually doing a course on rewiring your brain. I’m using technology to reduce the impact of technology so it’s pretty fun. 

It’s a nice way to learn. I think we’re at a space in human evolution where we know more and more about how the brain functions. You know, we have technology to understand how the brain functions and we know we can control more of our brains and we can remap more of our brains than ever before. 

So it’s a really fascinating time to have that understanding of neuroscience, coupled with exploration and expansion in technology. It’s just a really fascinating time in human history.

Well, Beth, this has been a fantastic conversation. I hope that for our listeners, it’s given them some ideas about things they might wanna try and understanding. Make sure you pick up the book. There’s some really great frameworks in there for adopting tech in a purposeful way. The ready-set-go framework you developed. That’s really, I think a very smart and not, I don’t wanna call it simple because I don’t think adopting and going through tech transformation is simple, but it is a way of simplifying the complexity a little bit and taking your baby steps towards new tools. 

So thank you so much for joining me today. One last question, as we wrap up, what are you most excited about in the year ahead?  

Beth: Oh, what a great question. I love that question. I, you know, in my pre-pandemic life, I was on a plane every other week. I did a lot of long-haul flights because I got to train and facilitate groups all over the world literally, or do speaking. And there’s one side of me that misses that an awful lot. The other kind of, I don’t miss the travel or the jet lag but I’m kind of looking forward to getting back to being with people more. It’s mediated through a screen, you know, even though there at the same time, having a little bit of trepidation around, you know, I think we all have PSTD about fear of contagion. 

Yep. I won’t speak for everybody. I’ll speak for myself. I’ll say I admit that. Yep. But I look forward to like seeing what our future new normal is around digital transformation and workplace wellbeing and you know, where the sector goes from here. So, yeah. 

Tobi: Yeah. We got a little push, a little unintended, probably not entirely welcomed push during the pandemic for folks to start to try things. And some things worked out, some things didn’t, you know, sometimes folks have to get outta their comfort zone a little bit. And maybe that’s a silver lining of all of this. So, yeah.  

Beth: Yeah. 

Tobi: So Beth,  before we log off, how can people learn more about you? And of course, we will post all kinds of links in the show notes, but how can people learn more about your work and get in touch with you?  

Beth: Okay. The best way is through my website, which is www.bethkanter.org. And that’s K A N T E R. You’ll find links to all my social media. If you go to the section, “How can I help you?” you’ll find my resource library. You’ll see I have a lot of handouts about all of these topics. And I curate a lot of links and reading. So those are also available in my resource library. And there’s a contact form. Uh, I’m out on Twitter @BethKanter. I’m also on LinkedIn. I don’t do much on Facebook and I always respond to people who reach out on social as much as I can. 

Tobi: Fantastic.  Well, thanks so much for joining me today. This has been a fantastic conversation about smart nonprofit tech. I really appreciate everything you’ve done. I appreciate all you’ve done in terms of your writing and ideas and thought leadership around moving us towards a better future. Thanks for joining me. 

Beth: Well, thank you. Thank you. Take care. 

Tobi: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review so we can reach people like you who wanna improve the impact of their good cause. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at TobiJohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.