How technology can make or break your volunteer engagement

I recently spoke at Vancouver Net Tuesday on the topic of technology and volunteer engagement. My talk was titled “6 questions to ask before using technology for volunteer engagement“. While the questions can trigger deeper thinking before implementing technology, much of boils down to this:

Does your use of technology make you stick out or stand out?

When technology is used for volunteer engagement, the results are not always fantastic. Here are 6 ways technology can make or break your volunteer engagement.

Technology that sticks out

Collecting information

Asking volunteers to fill out actual forms. Paper, Word documents, PDFs. Print and mail, print and scan, save and send back. These scream INEFFICIENT! Even if you don’t require printing, the way most people create forms in Word, they end up looking pretty funny when filled in and require fiddling. They also indicate that there’s probably going to be a staff member at the other end doing a lot of menial cutting and pasting or data entry. The only time paper forms are OK is when volunteers face economic barriers and don’t have access to computer or internet. But most public library facilities serve this purpose – usually internet is free, but printing is not and scanning doesn’t exist.

Solution: Online surveys. Whether as part of a more robust database system or free tools like Google Forms (a part of Google Docs), Survey Monkey, Wufoo, or FluidSurveys, collect your data so that the volunteer and the administrator don’t have to hassle with administrivia. Instead, they can work with data that has been entered directly by the individual. AND often you can integrate your forms with other software you use.

Volunteer administration systems

Some organizations buy into intense software to coordinate and schedule volunteers. They may simplify things on the back end for the coordinator, but are often headaches for the volunteer–especially in the application stage. If a person is considering volunteering or just wants to learn more about opportunities with an organization, sending them through a 10 page volunteer administration system and asking them every question the organization could ever think of needing the answer to (from t-shirt size to 5 references to the names of any planned future children) for them only to find out on page 9 that there are only two distinct volunteer roles, neither of which is interesting to the volunteer or neither of which has openings — not OK. This is not an effective way to welcome a supporter into the organization.

Solution: Mix the admin with the personal. Have the initial application form (ahem, online survey) be short. Name, contact information, what triggered their interest in the organization, if any particular role is of interest to them. Done. Then, follow up by email or phone. Within the week. 24 hours even better – catch them while their interest is hot.

Social media

You know those Twitter accounts that only promote fundraising events? Or how about those Facebook pages that haven’t had new content for a year? If a volunteer starts following an organization via social media, bad social media skills can be a turnoff.

Solution: Don’t use social media if your organization is not going to invest in it. Turning to the youngest person in your office and asking them to do it off the corner of their desk is not OK. And if you do invest in it, be sure to involve someone that has a talent for marketing and engagement strategy. Just because a young person has personally used social media doesn’t mean they have the experience to implement a campaign or plan around it.

Technology that stands out

Social media

Just as social media can make an organization stick out, it can also make them stand out. Not for promoting, but for engagement. Social media is used best as a communication tool with people that are already involved with your organization. When getting contact information from volunteers, also find out if they’re on Twitter. Mention them in your Tweets or on your Facebook page by thanking a group of volunteers, or spreading interesting information they’ve shared.

Collaborative on-line documents

As a jury member for this year’s Vancouver Timeraiser, I was surprised how many applicant organizations didn’t have any positions that could be done from home. Really? I’ve worked with teams of people pulling together research on women and politics or articles on millennial engagement with ZERO in-person contact. The ones I use most frequently are Google Docs (and spreadsheets, and forms) and Wikis. You can change the settings so that anyone can edit and see the document, or only those you invite.

Myth: You need a Gmail account to use Google Docs.
Fact: Nope, you just need a Google account. You can create one using any email address.

None at all

I don’t mean you don’t actually use technology – just that volunteers don’t even notice it because everything is so smooth. Kind of like government – we don’t notice it when it’s working well.

Do an audit of your volunteer engagement processes – recruitment, screening, training, scheduling, working, rewarding, coordinating, communicating – to determine how technology is helping or hindering engagement at each step. Better yet, create a high impact volunteer role for a volunteer do an audit.

How do you use technology to effectively engage volunteers? Have you ever been frustrated by an organization’s use of technology (or lack thereof)?