volunteerismOut with the Old: Tips You Need to Engage Virtual Volunteers

In recent years there has been a fair amount of discussion about virtual volunteers and how to engage them in the work of nonprofits.  However, little has been written about the changing nature of the workplace and how technological advances may directly affect how we lead volunteers and view volunteerism.

Consider these fascinating statistics —

A Changing Volunteer Workplace

Clearly, we’re in the midst of a revolution in the work environment.  More and more of us work from home or at disparate offices at least part time.  Moreover, many of us communicate and gather information while on the go, relying on our screen-based devices to deliver the right information at the right time in the right format.  Flexibility is key, and it’s what we’ve come to expect.  Add social sharing tools to the mix, and the network of available info and ability to connect expands infinitely.

In the midst of the tech revolution, nonprofits have adapted, offering new ways to engage, neatly categorizing volunteers into “virtual telecommuters” and “on-site supporters.”  It’s become clear that these classifications don’t really capture the whole picture.  In today’s world, MOST volunteers (even those that volunteer in-person) are BOTH virtual AND mobile — accessing online information, communicating, and collaborating whenever and from wherever they like, both while in the office and outside it.

And, it’s not unreasonable to expect that many would like this ease of interchange to translate to their volunteer experience as well.  In fact, the defining factor of success for any volunteer program in the near future may be whether or not it is prepared to support the new way of working.

New Opportunities to Engage Virtual Volunteers

New realities also offer new chances for volunteer engagement.  Imagine how a mobile, technologically-equipped volunteer corps might add value in these scenarios (all do-able with today’s technology):

  • Quick, video meetups to check in on project progress between volunteers who live miles from the home office
  • Online apps that track volunteer time, donations, and program expenses and automatically calculate the current ROI estimate (much more sophisticated than the basic donations thermometer, right?)
  • Smartphone apps to check-in when on duty that automatically remind volunteers to enter needed reporting data
  • Smartphone apps that automatically input time volunteered and provide the opportunity to earn recognition badges (à la Foursquare)
  • On-demand videos and pre-recorded webcasts of volunteer orientations, trainings, and tutorials delivered via any responsive device to assist volunteers precisely when they need help
  • Tailored recruitment opportunity offerings delivered to prospective volunteers who have indicated their specific interests in an online personal profile, rather than requiring volunteers to initiate the search.

New Volunteer Leadership Skills

At the same time, the adoption of new approaches also means new learning.  So, what do these tectonic shifts in the nature of work mean to our own core volunteer leadership competencies?  What is required of a virtual volunteer leader anyway?

Two main needs come to mind:

  1. Access to, and command of, a strategically curated set of technology tools that support program goals; and,
  2. Leadership skills are necessary to facilitate the fluid exchange of info and to reduce the perceived “affinity distance” between team members (a term coined by virtual leadership expert Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski that refers to how teams are connected emotionally and mentally).

In a mobile volunteer environment — whether supporting rural volunteers across the miles or volunteers working a few cubicles over — leaders of volunteers will need new skills and approaches to retain, and even surpass, the productivity of their traditional teams.  But how?

Stay tuned for Part II, where I’ll offer specific suggestions about what might work. In the meantime, feel free to share what’s worked for you.  How have you engaged mobile volunteers?