Use Virtual Volunteers to Grow Organizational Impact

raised hands January 17, 2017 By: Allison Reznick

Thanks in large part to technology, it's now possible to manage volunteers remotely. Here are strategies for managing your virtual volunteers and keeping them connected.

Contributions from virtual volunteers affect the breadth and depth of an association's programs and services. Virtual volunteers exist at most organizations, but associations may not necessarily label them with this term.

Your association's volunteer management operations should incorporate processes for managing volunteers who contribute remotely. But what are the best practices for managing virtual volunteers? How should you utilize their skill sets? And what are some strategies to keep virtual volunteers involved and connected?

Before committee members can participate virtually, the organization needs to take steps to set them up for success. Parameters, culture, and technology all need to be evaluated and in place before an assignment begins.

Engagement Strategies

For ad hoc projects, involving virtual volunteers could have a significant impact on the volume of product or quality of service. In other words, an association can use volunteers to produce more things. Here are a few examples:

  • Website redesign. User experience testing is a natural way to engage virtual volunteers. Virtual volunteers can provide feedback on site functionality, user friendliness, and clarity from the point of view of your members and other users.

  • Peer review. Many organizations use peer review to evaluate annual meeting submissions. With the right technology tools, virtual volunteers can review, score, and comment remotely on submitted content proposals.

  • Translation services. Associations that serve a global membership may need registration materials or applications available in a variety of languages. Seeking assistance from bilingual volunteers can help the organization avoid the costs of translation services.

It's possible to enlist virtual volunteers for longer-term commitments, such as committee participation, but this option requires greater oversight. Before committee members can participate virtually, the organization needs to take steps to set them up for success. Parameters, culture, and technology all need to be evaluated and in place before an assignment begins. Here are a few recommendations to keep in mind:

  • Everyone needs to be on the same page. Document management requires a little more effort when virtual volunteers will participate in meetings. If some committee members participate in person and others remotely, everyone needs to be reading from the same page of the same document. Utilize a screen-share system and request that all parties test the technology before the meeting.

  • Use videoconferencing. When possible, provide opportunities to use video conferencing, such as Skype, for "face time" in meetings and other interactions. This technology can be used during a one-on-one conversation, committee orientation, or key committee meetings.

  • Ensure that remote participants are fully included. Throughout a meeting, it is crucial for the facilitator to call on those participating virtually. Using their names, the facilitator should ask each participant if he or she has comments, questions, or new business items. Each person needs to be directly engaged for this format to work.

Mike Stokes, general counsel at the American Optometric Association, uses several technology platforms to collaborate with his remote committee members, including Zoom for conference calls and Sharepoint or Basecamp for referencing documents. "These cloud-based systems are invaluable for engaging our volunteers because they make the material accessible from anywhere," he says. "It is a huge benefit because [our] volunteers travel extensively."

Management Tips

With virtual volunteers in particular, regular exchange between the staff liaison and volunteer help to ensure engagement. The liaison should encourage questions and be accessible. Don't just rely on technology. Schedule a conference call at appropriate times to check in or discuss topics that are best suited for an information exchange.

Ensure that volunteers receive training in the tools they will use, not only to confirm that the technology requirements are met on their operating system, but also to educate the volunteer in the nuances of the system so they can particulate fully. Stokes agrees that training is necessary but stresses that ease of use is critical. "The simpler and more intuitive the tool is, the better," he says. "What you want to avoid is introducing a new tool that no one will use because of a frustrating user experience."

Also, don't forget that in-person connections still result in greater bonding. For a long-term committee commitment, be sure to schedule a social gathering periodically. This can be an informal coffee meeting or a larger networking event with the entire committee. With his committees, Stokes says, "the rapport is there because volunteers see each other face to face at least twice a year."

Finally, be sure to address cultural issues that could be a barrier to success. Organizational leadership must set the example for embracing virtual volunteers. Everyone must have a voice at the table, whether physically or virtually present. Provide internal support by advocating for the necessary tools and technology.

Technology has made opportunities to tap into a growing virtual volunteer base almost limitless. Integrate these efforts into your organization's culture and volunteer management practices, so remote participation is the norm, rather than the exception.

Allison Reznick

Allison Reznick, PMP, is a principal at Advanced Interactions, LLC, in Rockville, Maryland.