Virtual volunteers help community organizations adapt to new realities

GUELPH  – With COVID-19 pandemic restrictions forcing community organizations to find new ways to continue their service and charitable work, the idea of virtual volunteering is gaining traction throughout the sector.

“While virtual volunteering is not new, the impact of COVID on the community benefit sector has forced organizations and leaders of volunteers to flex their adaptability, creativity and imagination to assess and re-imagine roles to support the mission of non-profits and charities,” said Emily Vincent of the Guelph-based People and Information Network (PIN).

Volunteer training and managing volunteers in virtual roles was the focus of a PIN online workshop on “Virtual Volunteering – Optics and Opportunities”, hosted by the Minto Cultural Roundtable and led by Vincent on April 7.

While the concept is new to many organizations used to gathering their volunteer workforce in person, it doesn’t need to be a mystery, said Vincent.

“With creativity and imagination it could provide immense value to you as a leader of volunteers and to your organization,” she pointed out.

Vincent described a virtual volunteer as one that performs or completes a task remotely.

“Whether that’s by phone, or over the internet using a computer, laptop, tablet, smart phone, it’s all virtual volunteering,” she explained.

The practice of volunteering off-site is described in numerous ways, said Vincent, including “online volunteering, digital or e-volunteering, micro-volunteering, tele-mentoring, crowd sourcing … there’s just a whole array of terms that are popping up related to this.”

Off-site volunteers can be engaged in a wide range of projects, Vincent noted.

“Virtual volunteering could be quick tasks on the go, short projects or long-term research or anything in-between; (it) really has potential in our increasingly virtual world,” she said.

“COVID has required us to do business differently, to engage differently, to lead differently. It also provides us with the opportunity to recover and rebuild for the future.”

However, she noted, “lots of concerns and barriers come to mind as we think of new areas of work that we don’t really have good understanding of, or experience with.”

While finding people with time to volunteer is always a challenge for any organization, working remotely can actually make things easier in this area, Vincent pointed out, noting there is no travel time required and “often the schedule becomes more flexible because somebody can do the work at a time that’s best for them.

“For some, contributing virtually strengthens their capacity and commitment to serve as a volunteer,” she explained.

Supervision of virtual volunteers presents a different challenge than when it is possible to work directly with them, Vincent noted.

However, “well-built role descriptions, including expectations for both volunteers and organizations, solid orientation … checkpoints and well-communicated deliverables and deadlines” can overcome many of the barriers involved, she said.

“While we may not be seeing the volunteers completing their tasks in their roles, there’s a level of trust, coaching and support to provide the framework to succeed,” Vincent stated.

Some organizations may consider their operations “hands on” with no obvious roles for virtual volunteers.

However, Vincent points out, “Hidden among those hands-on roles are likely a variety of projects and supports that will contribute to your team.”

Tracking statistics, recruitment and communications are all examples of tasks containing elements that could be done remotely, she noted.

Marketing, graphic design, photography, proposal and grant writing, and proofreading of documents are all areas where virtual volunteers can help.

“Really we’re only limited by our imagination in this area,” said Vincent.

“We encourage you to consider beginning with at least one role, whether it’s a brand-new role or it’s an already existing role, that you’d like to transition.”

Vincent suggested those managing volunteers “consider recruiting for one virtual role that supports a function of your own role … that gives you a better opportunity to have an insight into the pros and cons and pitfalls that you may encounter with a new role, but it also gives you a better opportunity to be directly involved in creating change to support that role.”

Focusing on a single pilot project to work virtual volunteers into an organization can also be effective, Vincent suggested.

“That way it is a little more enticing for the rest of the staff who would be involved in the organization and possibly supporting the volunteer role.”

Technology is an issue for virtual volunteers, just as it is for the army of homeworkers the pandemic has created. Many, especially in rural areas, experience issues with connectivity.

“So this reality could be mitigated by the use of phone connections to assist with projects that could be done remotely by other means … phone trees, outdoor handout projects, library research and material deliveries,” said Vincent.

“With creativity and problem-solving, there can be a really great return on the investment of remote volunteers.”

While volunteer recruiting is always a challenge, Vincent says methods aren’t necessarily different from usual practice.

“In reality, the same core volunteer engagement elements are vital to success and you’re building on the great volunteer program that you already have in place, so it’s not as if it’s a totally new concept;  it’s things you’ve been doing all along, just shifting your perspective a little bit,” she explained.

Assessing the needs of your organization and the current makeup of your volunteer contingent can be a first step.

“Within your current volunteer commitment are there people … that are really interested in switching to a more virtual way of helping you?” Vincent asked.

When new recruits are needed, it can help to know how best to reach a particular demographic.

For example, if an organization has a need for “a digital savvy social media ambassador to build engagement with youth or seniors,” Vincent said, “That’s two totally different groups.”

She continued, “Youth can be found on Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram. Seniors can be found on Facebook.”

From there, she said, “it’s a matter of accessing different platforms to engage volunteers.”

Vincent cautioned organizations must ensure they have adequate support in place for virtual volunteers.

“It’s really important, because if you don’t have that support for the volunteer, especially in a new role and a new way of providing support to the organization, it’s really a situation that could quickly go the wrong way and just not be successful for the people involved.”

Connecting and communicating with virtual volunteers also requires planning and different ways of thinking, said Vincent.

“Virtual volunteers want connections. They may want the flexibility of being able to volunteer at a time that’s going to work for them and not having to travel to get to the role, but they really do want to have a connection to the organization and to the people involved. So, although it’s not possible to have people come on site, it’s important to think of ways that you can connect regularly with the volunteers,” she explained.

“People have different preferences in terms of how they communicate, so it might be a combination of things, not only a virtual check-in, but perhaps a telephone conversation or some emails; but use a number of ways to connect with volunteers and keep it varied. And also ask the volunteers themselves how best they prefer to connect.”

Shared calendars with project due dates and team meetings, video chats and shared hard drives are all ways to keep in touch and share information with volunteers working remotely.

Vincent recommended supplying virtual volunteers with an organizational email address, “so they don’t have to use their own personal email to communicate on behalf of the organization.”

Also, she suggested, “Take a few minutes to develop a work plan with a virtual volunteer or a volunteer team that outlines the goals, the actions and how success is measured.

“Ask them to tell you how they work? What’s working well? What needs to change? And what supports can you offer?”

Vincent noted it is important to build in “healthy boundaries” for volunteers.

“Just to ensure that there’s good boundaries around hours that they are spending volunteering on your behalf and that they are safe boundaries as well,” she said.

Even with, or perhaps especially with, a virtual volunteer role, recognition is important, said Vincent.

“When we’re on site and have that opportunity to have that check-in with a smile at the end of a shift  – that’s all really missing with a virtual role … So you want to be able to find ways to ensure the volunteer knows that you appreciate the work that their doing.”

Nominating volunteers for awards, including their names in reports they have assisted with, featuring them on the organization’s website and providing training opportunities are among “countless ways to recognize volunteers,” Vincent noted.

“Always remember that the successful relationship you build with the volunteer continues on long after their involvement with your organization. When it’s been positive, they will always share those stories out in the community … that helps to draw people to your organization.”