7 August 2020 | 6 min read
The Rise of the Virtual Volunteer
Our world has changed drastically in just a few short months. We went from fumbling through video conferences once a year to using Zoom daily. Gone are the days of having all volunteers and staff members on property. Big companies like Facebook, Square, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon were some of the first to send their employees home to work, and now, they’re not in a rush to bring them back into the office. With more organizations moving employees to remote work roles, the way we view project management is changing. Technology like video conferencing, cloud-based file sharing, and online databases have revolutionized the distributed workforce. Managers are leading teams not only spread across a city but, in some cases, the world. The pandemic may have brought difficult challenges, but it has also introduced innovative ideas and new ways to get the job done. Remote work has exploded on the scene, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. It’s time for volunteer managers to take advantage. Here are four ways to stay ahead of the virtual volunteer trend.
KEEP THEM CONNECTED
People may come for your vision, but they will stay for the relationships. We preach this idea religiously here at Volunteer U. And here’s why.
My friend Jim had a son who was dying. In his final months, Jim’s son was admitted into Hospice of the Comforter, a palliative care program in Orlando, Fl.
When his son passed away, Jim began volunteering weekly at Hospice. And 30 years after his son passed, Jim was still volunteering. I remember one time we were sitting having coffee, and he got a phone call. Jim jumped up and said he had to go right away. I asked if something had happened, and he just smiled, “No. They need me to hang some pictures in the Hospice lobby.” And off he went.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask Jim why he volunteered. I wondered why he would drop everything when he got a call from them for something as simple as hanging a picture. I asked what had made him serve the organization faithfully for so many years.
Again he smiled. He then told me the story of the doctors who came to his house to care for his son. He spoke of the nurses who spent hours making sure his son was comfortable and not in pain. He listed names of doctors, nurses, administrators, social workers, and even maintenance team members he had met during one of the most challenging times in his life.
As he spoke, it struck me. Yes, Jim loved the mission of the organization. But it wasn’t the mission that kept him volunteering for over 30 years. It was the people he met in that short time who made a lasting imprint on his heart.
People may volunteer for your mission, but they will stay because of the relationships.
Research proves that long-term volunteers (with a company for 10 or even 20 years) often stay because they feel respected. The social component of volunteering can not be overlooked. As people begin to volunteer virtually, your ability to connect with new members will label your program. The difference between a vibrant virtual volunteer program and the ones that struggle to keep team members engaged is simply community. The virtual programs that distinguish themselves as relationship-driven will be successful in creating teams with longevity.
You may see a lot of drop-offs at first. There will be team members who pass the onboarding phase, work for a few weeks or months, and then get bored and disappear. So it is vital to forge connections as soon as a new member joins your team. Virtual volunteers need to develop relationships with both staff members and other volunteers quickly. The success of your online volunteer program depends on it. The good news is there is already plenty of advice on how to virtually onboard new team members, and keep your current team connected using virtual team-building tactics.
KEEP IT PERSONAL
There’s a tendency to want to look our best online by presenting only the pretty or perfect parts of our organization. But perfection may come across as inauthentic. If you’re going to develop meaningful relationships with your online team, give up on any perfectionism tendencies. Skip the urge to be polished. Instead, focus on being authentic with your team. In a time where people are struggling to differentiate the real from the fake online, it is necessary to be a safe, consistent place for people to come and serve.
Authenticity isn’t about being overly transparent. It’s about letting go of the fear that comes from caring what other people think. Authenticity is a practice. So don’t worry about making team presentations, meetings, or videos perfect. Fight the urge to make yourself look good. Instead, focus on the team and how to make them feel engaged and needed.
KEEP IT REALISTIC
Timelines are vastly more elastic in the remote working environment. What might take someone 1 hour to complete in an office setting may only take 20 minutes from home (or vice versa). Volunteer leaders need to be realistic in setting goals for their team. Especially for those who have never worked from a remote location before. Remember, there will be technical issues, distractions, and other responsibilities that pop up. Make sure tasks and goals are expressed in real terms, so your team doesn’t get overwhelmed. It’s fine to set a hard deadline on a project, but ensure that your team has the tools and time to get the job done correctly.
Keep in mind, when someone’s kitchen doubles as their office, the line between work and home blurs. On average, people who work from home find their workday extended by 48.5 minutes. It is much more challenging to stop responding to emails when you’re at home if you don’t have boundaries. Make sure team members are healthily completing projects. Explicitly express what you expect on a particular task. And always offer your volunteers the option to pass on an opportunity. This will relieve pressure and make sure the right jobs are going to the right people.
KEEP IT ORGANIZED
Spreadsheets are about to become your new best friend. When juggling multiple team members, in various locations, things are bound to get a little chaotic. Before you kick-off your virtual volunteer program, make sure you have a reliable system to track, manage, and support your team. For the success of your program, everyone needs to be on the same page and know what to expect. Make sure you have a plan to plug people into online roles quickly. Put together a virtual team member manual and include frequently asked questions. Explain the support system and how to get in touch with the right person should they experience issues. This is also the perfect time to set boundaries about what is permissible and accepted within your organization’s culture. Volunteers should know that you won’t be responding to texts or emails outside of dedicated hours. Put parameters in place at the beginning, so your team feels safe and understands the expectations.
Looking for tools to help organize your online team? Some great resources for virtual teams are Planning Center, Microsoft Teams, Trello, Slack, Google Docs, WhatsApp, and Asana. For a list of our all-time (free) favorite resources for volunteer managers, visit the Volunteer U Library.