Two Musts When Managing Virtual Volunteers
It stands to reason that just as giving has jumped on the online bandwagon, so too should volunteerism. And like e-philanthropy, virtual volunteerism offers opportunities and poses challenges to organizations employing it.
Tiffani Hill, network volunteer coordinator for Best Friends Animal Society, an animal-welfare group that runs an animal sanctuary in Southern Utah, manages the organization’s virtual volunteer program, made up of a team of volunteers from across the country and Canada who post content to the organization’s Web site and monitor online forums, and serve as its local ambassadors.
Hill says managing the virtual program is both exciting and scary. “I don’t meet my volunteers face to face that I work with on the network, so it’s been kind of interesting. Recruiting, screening, placing and supervising people that I never see has been a unique experience,” she says, adding that the primary way she communicates with virtual volunteers is via e-mail.
Best Friends recruits virtual volunteers by listing positions as internship opportunities at colleges and universities, posting them on sites such as VolunteerMatch and Idealist.org, and through word of mouth.
Having a virtual volunteer program helps Best Friends spread its message in a direct way beyond its sanctuary in Utah and saves the organization money. “They get us into areas we wouldn’t be able to get to because we couldn’t afford to send staff to everything that’s going on out there that relates to animals,” Hill says.
But she cautions that nonprofits using virtual volunteers keep these two things in mind:
1) Maintain the “human touch” as much as possible when interacting with these volunteers. Some ways Hill maintains this is that rather than sending virtual volunteers thank-you e-mails, she sends handwritten thank-you notes and welcome letters.
2) Have an integrated database that stores all volunteer information, rather than keeping the different types of volunteers — online vs. offline — in different silos. “One way you can retain volunteers is by providing them with a variety of opportunities with your organization,” Hill says. If you bring volunteers in on the virtual program but fail to inform them about other opportunities, your organization may lose them when they get bored with their current position.” Volunteer retention isn’t what it used to be, when volunteers stayed with an organization for five or ten years. “It’s considered good retention if a volunteer sticks around for six month at this point in time,” Hill adds. “It gives us job security as volunteer managers knowing that there’s going to be constant turnaround of volunteers. But on the other hand, it provides less consistency for the program, so you have to kind of try to balance that out.”
That being said, it’s important that those volunteers that do sign on to help your organization have a satisfying experience. “If they have a satisfying experience, they’ll tell their friends that they had a great experience, and then maybe their friends will come and volunteer,”she says.
Hill adds that she’s noticed that those that respond to the virtual volunteer opportunities aren’t the die-hard animal rescuers that typically volunteer with the organization, but that they came to the organization more intrigued with the idea of a virtual volunteer opportunity. “That’s been kind of a learning experience for me, what my target recruiting audience is,” she says.
Tiffani Hill can be reached via www.bestfriends.org