Virtual Volunteering: Planning and Benefits

Virtual Volunteering: Planning and Benefits

A youth treatment agency's success

By: Randy Tyler

March 14, 2003

Whether from a cyber café in Bangladesh, San Diego, Toronto, Texas or Hong Kong, online volunteers have made a significant contribution towards the enhancement of Macdonald Youth Services' ( MYS) programs and services.

MYS, a leading treatment and support agency based in Winnipeg, Canada, has been building better tomorrows for children, youth and families since 1929. Mindful of this rich 73-year legacy, I began developing our online volunteer program in 1998. Before this, I had developed and maintained a Web site for a national nonprofit organization based in Vermont. I used the Internet to transfer files and communicate via e-mail with an administration I had never met. Why, I thought, couldn't I do the same with volunteers?

It was becoming ever more challenging to recruit on-site volunteers -- especially highly-skilled volunteers, such as graphic designers. This role, among others, could be easily performed via the Internet.

Around September 1998, I began implementing a virtual volunteer program. I was able to screen a potential volunteer face-to-face before assigning the volunteer to tutor a child placed in our treatment foster program. From this cautious beginning, I soon moved to implement policies, procedures, and processes to manage virtual volunteers from around the world.

Now, after almost five years, I (along with talented virtual volunteers) have been able to create a very efficient Web-based approach that enables most of the volunteer management process to be completed via interactive CGI-driven forms, some involving password-protected directories. I also use an FTP site so that large files can be easily made available to volunteers (and vice versa).

Why Online Volunteerism?

Over the last few years, our agency has experienced tremendous growth (we currently have approximately 220 full-time employees and about 300 part-time employees). Locating office space has become more difficult with this growth. But by recruiting virtual volunteers, we have opened up numerous virtual offices. Moreover, these volunteers are not limited by our Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. schedule or any other difficulties associated with physically accessing our agency. Nor are we limited to the software (or hardware) that we possess as a charity. For example, the last two years our annual report has been designed by a virtual volunteer in Vancouver, Canada, using a high-end layout program called QuarkXpress. At $1500, we (among most charities, I would wager) do not own this layout program. But the virtual volunteer was able to easily convert the Quark file to an Acrobat PDF file and e-mail it to us for revision before uploading it to our FTP site, from which the commercial printer downloaded it to print directly to plate.

Virtual volunteers are committed. At our agency, we have online volunteers who have been with us for four years and hundreds of service hours. I've observed that our online volunteers do not have to be engaged that long before they begin identifying with our agency. Moreover, although the relationships have been off-site and faceless, I have found that solid, trusting relationships can still be established. This has enabled us to place virtual volunteers in such trusted roles as maintaining our online job board.

A notable advantage to virtual volunteerism is the huge resource pool that I can efficiently and effectively access. Even living in a relatively large city (Winnipeg has a population of around 700,000 people), I find it very difficult to recruit certain types of volunteers, such as computer programmers or voice narrators. By embracing virtual volunteerism, an inclusive concept that aims to eliminate barriers and borders, I have access to most of the globe. Because the medium for recruiting is the Internet, I have also connected with volunteers who normally wouldn't have an interest in our agency's mission, but respond to the opportunity we offer for other reasons.

A last advantage I will mention is the creativity that this new concept allows. Technology in the hands of highly skilled virtual volunteers has allowed us to achieve results that wouldn't have been possible with our on-site volunteer program alone. Voice narration, video editing, screen recording, computer programming, Flash design, and online tutoring are just some of the varied roles that virtual volunteers have successfully performed for our agency.

Engaging Virtual Volunteers

If an organization has a well-developed on-site volunteer program (including policies, procedures, and processes in place), using virtual volunteers does not have to be that big of a leap. On the other hand, an organization without a well-established on-site program will need to develop a volunteer management process that aims to manage risk for all concerned while concurrently considering the needs of all involved.

If a volunteer management process begins by identifying what needs to be done, and then clearly articulates this need in a position description, the chances of recruiting, selecting, and retaining quality volunteers (whether virtual or on-site) will significantly increase.

Consideration should be given to the methods used to communicate with online volunteers as different skills and observations are required. Even observing how promptly the virtual volunteer replies (along with other indicators) may assist in better structuring an assignment. But the beauty of this medium is the options available. I am not limited to just e-mail communication. For example, for clarification or efficiency, I sometimes e-mail a compressed voice or video attachment to virtual volunteers.

Designing a Virtual Volunteer Program

There are a range of virtual volunteer program models, from e-mail-based programs to programs that use Web sites with interactive forms and documents.

The requirements for the simplest program are minimal: a computer, a dial-up connection, an e-mail account, an office suite (such as the free OpenOffice suite), and basic computer knowledge and skills. An organization can then use tech-savvy virtual volunteers to make more technology available to it.

A more complex program, such as MYS’s online volunteer program, may use more advanced hardware, software, interactive Web site technologies, and skills developed over years.

To move to this level, an organization should consider additional hardware such as scanners, CD burners, Web cameras, audio speakers, headsets, larger hard drives, increased RAM, enhanced video cards, faster processors, as well as enhanced software (such as Adobe Acrobat, Camtasia Studio, Cool Edit Pro, Direct FTP, Auto Play Media Studio, Adobe Premiere and Eudora). A broadband connection (such as DSL, cable, or satellite) and an FTP site (for storing and exchanging large files with volunteers) are other key elements that may be necessary. And to efficiently manage a number of online volunteers, an interactive Web site should be designed that will allow most of the volunteer management process to be executed online. Thus, Web-based forms can be designed where staff can request volunteers, volunteers can complete an application or view a list of volunteer opportunities, references can submit a form, and volunteers can attend an orientation and submit their monthly time and task contribution. The opportunities to be creative in designing such productivity tools are endless.

Sustaining Volunteerism through Online Programs

I believe that with education (and possibly due to necessity), nonprofits will see online volunteerism as a creative way to sustain volunteerism and thus assist in fulfilling their mission in today's competitive environment. Online volunteerism increases organizations' resources as it eliminates (or reduces) time, distance, transportation and/or scheduling barriers for many volunteers. With the current 665 million worldwide Internet users expected to reach over one billion by the end of 2005, there's an ever-growing pool of users who may embrace this new way of volunteering.

Looking ahead, I envision further exploration of videoconferencing, online fund development. and virtual volunteerism. With more donated software titles available (including some high-end multimedia applications), we are ready to venture into new creative areas with virtual volunteers in order to further assist our organization and the children we serve.

I never cease to be amazed at the high level of work that volunteers produce for our organization -- an organization that they will never see staffed by people they will never meet. But the Internet has forever changed the face of volunteering by enabling an unprecedented opportunity for volunteers from around the globe and nonprofits to come together to do good.

You may contact the author at: or 1-204-949-4292

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