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)?

Upcoming events: Volunteers and technology; what the next gen wants from nonprofits

I’ll be speaking in three different places next month – hope to see you at one or more!


Complete details here >

Tuesday, July 5 | 5:30pm | 306 Abbott St (upstairs) | FREE
Join me and Elijah van der Giessen (of Net Tuesday and David Suzuki Foundation) as we share strategies about the use of technology for effective volunteer engagement.


Complete details here >

This two-part series will introduce you to data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits, help you identify how your organization is currently performing, and encourage next steps you can take to achieve your goals. Sample topics include volunteer opportunities, new donors, staff retention, and social media.

No more guessing: Data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits

Wed, July 13 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Future engagement: Assessing your current practices and taking the next step to effective next generation engagement

Wed, July 27 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Recap > AFP Vancouver: Leveraging Social Media to Facilitate Fundraising Efforts

AFP Vancouver’s monthly breakfast meeting brought together four panelists (contact information below) experienced in social media, mobile giving, and other digital communications strategies.

While the questions asked of the panel might suggest otherwise, a general theme of the responses from the panel was “social media is just one part of a more complete fundraising and engagement strategy”. Here is a summary of the responses of the panelists on tips for using social media and mobile giving as a fundraising tool. (Notes in brackets are my own additions).

Why use social media as a fundraising tool?

  • Integrated into offline efforts and personal connections; it’s a piece of a whole
  • It’s only a tool; there needs to be a strategy behind it
  • Provides opportunities to listen to and engage with a community of supporters
  • Help supporters share your message with their networks
  • Get your org into the hands of as many as possible
  • Get more earned media
  • Get more volunteers
  • Use it for calls to action

What are tangible actions on Facebook to raise money?

Before you start…

  • “Dig your well before you need it” – if you are starting now and want to raise money now, you’re too late.
  • Need an engagement plan first.
  • Website should be the centre of any online campaign; all online outlets should be connected to each other.
  • Messages should be consistent across online platforms.
  • Once people click through to the website, they should NOT be directed to your home page. It should be easy for them – clear donation page, easy payment options, email follow up written well. Ensure a good user experience.

How to amp up your Facebook success

  • It’s possible to create a custom landing page for Facebook Pages. Landing pages results in higher page “likes”. (FBML was referred to, but this is now out of date – landing pages are now built using frames. Check out this post by Beth Kanter for more information on Facebook landing pages).
  • Multiple touch points (i.e. supporters follow you by email newsletter, texts, Facebook) leads to increase giving. Need to know donors’ communication preferences.
  • Online = smaller gifts because these donors are often on a lower rung on the ladder of engagement.

Specific tips

  • Need to share a variety of content and not too much. Max 3/day. (Check out Dan Zarrella for great stats on how to get the most from your social media efforts. He found that once every two days is best.)
  • Create urgency. Make specific asks.
  • If you show up only to make asks, you may get huge (and public) backlash.
  • Reply to comments. Use people’s names. Click through to their profiles to get to know them better (if their profiles are public).
  • Share successes and how money is being used.
  • Need to have a visibility action plan – be checking account at least 5 days/week, 5 min- 1 hr/day. Timing depends on when your supporters are online.

Other thoughts

What are tangible actions on Twitter to raise money?

  • Twitter is a community. Many people interact/influence exclusively on Twitter.

Specific tips

  • Tell. Ask. Share. Engage. Monitor.
  • Rebroadcast messages in different ways. Talk at different times of the day, depending on when your demographic might be online.
  • Have fun. Be authentic.
  • Keep messages to <120 or even <100 characters so that people can easily retweet you without having to shrink your message.
  • Use hashtags (eg #elxn41 was used for the recent federal election). Start a conversation, make sure your supporters know to use it, then follow the hashtag to monitor the conversation.
  • Do keyword research to monitor conversations. Use word that your audience would use, and not necessarily the jargon you use.
  • Use Hootsuite as a tool to monitor all your social media accounts (ie also Facebook too). You can post to multiple accounts and schedule tweets. “Cook once and eat 3 times.”

General uses

  • Use it to connect with influencers. (They don’t need to be following you). Journalists are all over Twitter. Find ones that have a concern for the issue/topic you are wanting to raise.
  • Use it to make your superfans super happy by highlighting them/their work or sharing prizes.
  • Drive traffic to mobile giving campaigns – this has been very effective in disaster response fundraising.Twitter and mobile giving go well together because people are often using Twitter on their phones already.
  • Great for listening for breaking news that might be relevant to your work and that you might be able to piggyback onto.

And mobile giving?

How it works

  1. There is no text messaging fee to the user for donation texts. These are absorbed by wireless carriers.
  2. Carriers charge for the donation (currently now only $5 or $10). Carriers pass on $ to Mobile Giving Foundation Canada (MGFC, a registered charity), which passes on money to the charity.
  3. Only charities are currently licensed to do this. Must fill out application with MGFC.
  4. Charity works with one of the recommended service providers to arrange the text choice (eg text HAITI to 1234567) and do the techie stuff. (Note: This is where the cost to the charity comes from – paying the service provider. This is NOT the wireless carrier, but a company that arranges mobile giving).
  5. When people make a text, the get a reply asking them to confirm their donation by replying “Yes”, after which a “Thank You” text is received. At this point charities can also arrange with the service provider to conclude with a “Reply to sign up to receive further texts from Charity XYZ”. Any further texts to/from the charity will result in standard text message rates being applied to the individual.
  6. Individuals can get tax receipts online via a code they request by text. Receipts are given by MGF, not the charity. Donor information (ie phone number, account name) is not currently shared with the charity (unless the “reply to sign up for more” is completed above).

Why mobile giving is important

  • It reaches a new demographic. They often have never given before. Low barrier. A credit card or cheque isn’t necessary.

Challenges with mobile giving

  • Limited amounts to give (only $5 or $10 currently). Information isn’t shared with charities. Costs charged by service providers are prohibitive for smaller campaigns. MGFC is looking to address some of these.
  • Because of these issues, mobile might remain limited to mostly disaster response giving. Another technology might leapfrog into prominence by the time these issues are sorted out.
  • (One current possibility in print is a combination of QR codes with websites designed for phones.)

Final Thoughts

If all this seems overwhelming, I suggest listening first. I recently set up and gave personal training on a “digital listening” plan with a client to get them started with social media. By following some of your personal favourite nonprofit organizations through Facebook, Twitter, their blogs and e-newsletter, you can quickly get a sense of how others use it, and what seems to be working.

Panelists’ information Communications (Dave Teixeira)

Raised Eyebrow (Lauren Bacon)

Beachcomber Communications (Angela Crocker)

Mobile Giving Foundation (Katherine Winchester)

Your click does not deserve a pat on the back

Did you change your Facebook profile pic to a cartoon to help raise awareness about child abuse?

Did you recently vote for your favourite charity so that they could win funding through an online contest?

You suck.

Unless you actually sacrifice something for the causes that you pat your back on for clicking for, you did no favours and deserve no credit.

If this is actually a cause that is of importance to you, you need to spend time, talent or money. Volunteer. Attend a fundraising event. Write a letter to your MP or news editor. Donate. Even better, donate monthly.

Raising awareness is important, but not when the actual cause gets lost.

I challenge those who changed their profile picture to cartoons to donate or volunteer with orgs who fight child abuse (the original purpose of the profile pics). Here are 3 to start:

Update: I added the phrase “If this is actually a cause that is of importance to you” in order to be clear that this post is directed at those that actually are patting themselves on the back. I stand by my position, but added this for clarification

Update 2: This is me shaking my head at “you suck” as an eloquent choice of words to express myself. As hard as it may be to believe, I am, incredibly, not in high school anymore.

This Saturday 12/04: Wiring the Social Economy ‘unconference’

Wiring the Social Economy

Register for this bridge-building conference and you’ll get to see my lovely mug checking you in and taking session notes throughout the day. I was at the final organizing meeting tonight and I’m pumped!! The list of attendees is looking diverse and fantastic.

Wiring the Social Economy
Saturday, December 4, 2010
W2 Storyeum, 151 W Cordova, Vancouver
$20 sliding scale registration online or at the door

Wiring the Social Economy is a day for discovery and connection. For tapping into the energy of social entrepreneurs and sharing the wisdom of experienced change agents. For getting out of our silos and our comfort zones. Are you up for it?

There are two main goals of the conference that support community economic development. The first is to help the social media and technology community understand the challenges, needs and constraints of social change agents along with the issues they face. The second major goal of the day is to help the social enterprise and community economic development communities understand the possibilities and potentials of using technology in their work.

Each of these groups has organizations, events, and conferences to offer support within their communities. The goal of Wiring the Social Economy is to cross-pollinate ideas on challenges, solutions, and best practices between these communities of practice.

Can’t attend? Watch the website and wiki for live streaming and session notes.

The pomposity of web video (and its creators)

Credit: pursuethepassion

Pompous*: (adjective)

  • affectedly and irritatingly grand, solemn or self-important
  • characterized by pomp or splendor (archaic use)

*according to my Macbook Dashboard dictionary

Attending Net Tuesday Vancouver’s event last week on the use of video on the web left me with two impressions.

  1. Web video can be a highly valuable and splendid way for nonprofits to engage with their audience and spread their messages.
  2. People that create video for the web can be irritatingly self-important (see “HOWEVER” below)

The experienced panel offered great practical tips, the highlights being:

  • if you’re not a pro, free tools such as iMovie and Windows Movie Maker are fine (Final Cut Pro was the choice for the pros)
  • assuming you have a good story, video/editing quality doesn’t have to be great for a video to go viral, but sound quality is much more important
  • things going viral is hit or miss; quantity of output is as important as what you think quality is
  • other tools include Jamendo (free music), Mobygratis (free Moby music), freesound (free music), other Creative Commons audio sites, Tech Soup Canada (free or discounted software for nonprofits), (a free, web-based alternative to Photoshop for non-pros), qik (webstreaming tool), Craigslist (finding people willing to work on your project as a volunteer or for an honourarium)
  • Pull Focus Film School is a great Vancouver-based resource, as it  “partners aspiring film makers with non-profit organizations that are in need of film content”

For a great summary of Net Tuesday Toronto’s recent event on video, with even more specific tips, click here.


One story told by a panelist was of a video that was peddled to and turned down by two related advocacy groups because the video didn’t fit their values. Which means that the video makers either:

  1. made assumptions of what was needed and made a video without consultation and didn’t choose the right audience; OR
  2. consulted the client and yet somehow still subverted some of the values core to the client.

Don’t get me wrong. I thought the video quality itself was great. Well edited, good story line, emotional tension. I laughed, I cringed. The people behind the video production are obviously technically and creatively talented…

…but completely off the mark when it came to the core principles of the group the video was “made for”. And yet, the reaction was that of disbelief. They wanted cred for something they were trying to give away for free. The phrase “biting the hand that feeds you” was used. You’ve got to be kidding me. This is just a new age bourgeois version of pat-on-your-back charity.

The thing is, you’re not of service if you’re not wanted.

What’s in your message to donors? Technology to assess communications

I was really excited to attend Net Tuesday last week, and I wasn’t disappointed. Ben Johnson (currently with Union Gospel Mission) was one of two presenters giving a talk on data for social change. While he had tonnes of great points re: data analysis, what excited me most was the visualization of text data using (I used Wordle last year to demonstrate what my blog was about, and it was right on target!)

Question 1: What message are you sending out?

What message does your board chair’s message in the annual report send?
What message does your vision and vision statements send?
What message does your newsletter send?

While we obviously write these items with very specific intents, sometimes our language, when we dig down deep, doesn’t actually reflect our intentions.

Copy and paste your text (or an rss feed) into Wordle, and voila! (See below for an example). You may be surprised. At UGM, Ben found that some of the language actually focused on programs, when really what they wanted to focus on was people.

Question 2: What messages do your donors respond to?

On UGM’s online donor form, an open box question asks “What inspired you to give today?”. Ben then took all the responses and threw them into World, and voila!

Many at UGM (a faith-based social services organization) might assume that faith and God would be reasons behind giving. These words were present, but even more so were words that indicated a connection to family (brother, father, sister, etc.) and times of year (eg Christmas).

If you analyze what is inspiring donors to give, you can update (and assess!) your communications accordingly to match donors’ interests.

Example: UBC Vision and Mission

UBC is my alma mater, and I have always loved and identified with their vision and mission. I would have done SFU’s but alas, we DON’T HAVE THEM (ridiculous and uninspiring, I know).

UBC vision and mission by Wordle
Image Credit:

I can see easily now why I connect with UBC’s vision and mission. Beyond the obvious university words like “research” and “students”, the next most prominent words are “society”, “sustainable”, “global” and “citizens”. I’m surprised that “learning” isn’t more prominent though.

Try it! You might like it! What results did you get?