Best Practices to follow for Virtual Volunteers

Posted Wednesday, June 10th, 2020 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

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Nearly everyone has had to shift the way they live and work in response to the global pandemic. More people are working remotely now, and it’s important for volunteer organizations to be prepared to engage and screen virtual volunteers – and set them up for success in new ways. In a recent webinar, which is now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, shared best practices for working with virtual volunteers.

Defining Virtual Volunteering

The idea of virtual volunteering isn’t new. Organizations have engaged virtual volunteers for years, working from home with in-person check-ins, and other remote options. However, according to The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, by Jayne Cravens and Susan Ellis, ‘virtual volunteering’ is defined as activities completed in whole or in part, using the internet or internet-connected devices. It’s also worth noting that the terms ‘virtual volunteering’ and ‘remote volunteering’ are frequently used interchangeably, and it’s important to clarify for your volunteers what you mean. Engaging volunteers virtually can increase both capacity and impact. There are many ways virtual volunteer engagement can help your organization during this time of COVID-19 as well as beyond the scope of the pandemic. COVID-19 Pandemic – Many organizations have moved almost entirely to virtual volunteering, as they follow local stay-at-home orders – it can also be an opportunity for your organization to keep people connected to your mission while dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. Cost Savings – Engaging volunteers virtually can be a way to help steward financial resources more efficiently, depending on the nature of your organization. Increased Accessibility – Virtual volunteering also provides opportunities to more volunteers, such as those who are passionate about your mission, but have limitations preventing them from coming to volunteer in person. Diversified Workforce – Increased accessibility promotes a more diverse volunteer workforce.

Five Common Myths About Virtual Volunteering

Myth 1: Virtual volunteers don’t have time to volunteer. Any volunteer, no matter how much they volunteer, can contribute to your mission even if they’re working a full-time job from home right now. Myth 2: Virtual volunteers don’t ever volunteer in person. There are virtual volunteers who want to have a blended opportunity. Sometimes working remotely, and sometimes coming in, depending on timing and context. Myth 3: Virtual volunteers engage primarily in technology-related tasks. Virtual volunteers fill many rolls and perform a diverse array of tasks. Myth 4: Virtual volunteers are mostly young and affluent. Any volunteer van be a virtual volunteer, and the changes people have made in response to the pandemic underscore that. Myth 5: Virtual volunteers are not seeking a personal connection. This is not necessarily the case. Organizations need to be intentional and strategic in order to build virtual relationships the same way we would if our volunteers were sitting across the table from us.

Developing Virtual Volunteer Roles

Use the following tips to establish and grow virtual volunteering opportunities at your organization: Assess Current Virtual Engagement It’s important to understand what work your volunteers are already completing remotely so you can build from there. Are your volunteers visiting clients in their homes? Do volunteers check in by phone or email? Do you have pro bono attorneys, etc.? Each of these is an example of a virtual volunteer. Be sure to assess how effective those roles are and how you can leverage these opportunities to expand.

Identify and Develop Opportunities

Consider these four important steps to developing virtual volunteering opportunities for your organization.    

  1. Identify Need
What can virtual volunteers do to address a need and what roles do volunteers typically fill in your organization? You might consider conducting a needs assessment, and there are many ways you can do so, both formally and informally.
  • Conduct a staff survey to discover needs and find out what tasks could be transferred to a virtual volunteer. Look at the wish list or make a new one.
  • Department meetings can inform your decision-making, and help you understand how virtual volunteers can be of service.
  • Perform a process analysis by looking at a single process within your organization, breaking it down into steps, and identifying virtual volunteer opportunities.
  • Consider the “$20,000 Question” – if you found out that you got an anonymous $20,000 donation, but it was stipulated that you could only use that money to hire a part-time or temporary contract worker – who would you hire and why? Much of the time, a virtual volunteer can be engaged to do that work.
  • Connect with your partners, particularly during COVID-19, to find out how they’re connecting with virtual volunteers.
  1. Assess Viability
Can needs be addressed remotely? Your organization must determine whether a role is strategic, and whether or not it’s viable as a virtual opportunity.

Strategic Roles

  • What tasks would be involved in this role?
  • Is the work meaningful to a volunteer?
  • Does it connect to your mission and priorities?

Virtual Viability

  • Can the work be successfully completed offsite?
  • When does the work have to be done?
  • What resources are needed (technology, equipment, transportation reimbursement, etc.)?
  • Do volunteers and staff need to be trained for the role to succeed?
  • Does your organization have the capacity to support a volunteer in this role?
Learn more and get help with the process using the helpful Volunteer Role Assessment handout.    
  1. Determine Format

What does the role look like?

Ongoing – Many virtual volunteer opportunities are indefinite with no end date, such as data entry. Short-Term – Some virtual roles are project-based and have a definite end date or goal. Episodic – You can have one-time event volunteers, even in remote situations. These can include events such as hackathons or tasks such as social media tagging. On-Call – Similar to being on retainer, some virtual volunteers only help when called upon, such as copy editors. Micro-Volunteering – There are a number of very short-term volunteering opportunities that can be accomplished remotely including simple tasks like digitizing a document or sending an advocacy message about a cause.    

  1. Develop Position Description
Formalize the role and its responsibilities. Every role needs a position description, no matter how small, including virtual roles. These descriptions should include details about the role such as whether the volunteer needs internet access, what software they need to be proficient in, if they need a webcam, etc. You may not need to start from scratch and likely already have had to adapt roles within your organization for virtual work. You can look to those as an example for your new virtual volunteer roles. Your organization should promote your virtual role in the description and advertise the support you provide to reassure volunteers that remote work is viable.

Ensure Buy-In

For virtual volunteering to succeed, you will need buy-in from everyone involved – not just the volunteers themselves, but members of your organization as well. Here are a few tips:
  • Share stories of success
  • Review the assessment you developed together
  • Co-develop the position description with your team
  • Align on screening criteria
  • Give your team members a role in the selection process if appropriate

Finding and Screening Virtual Volunteers

The shift to virtual volunteering can present some challenges for organizations who need to source new volunteers for virtual roles. Here we look at some strategies to overcome these potential obstacles.

How to Find Virtual Volunteers

Current Volunteers – Of course you can pivot current volunteers to virtual roles, but you can also connect with them and ask them if they know others who would be interested in working in similar roles. Volunteer Search Engines and Portals – You should post your virtual opportunities online so that interested volunteers can find them. Consider posting on portals like VolunteerMatch, State sites, or other volunteer centers. Social Media LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms can be viable options if you believe that’s where the volunteers, you’re looking for can be found. Partnerships and Groups – Look to existing relationships and groups of people sympathetic to your mission to source new virtual volunteers. Peer to Peer – Nothing is more powerful than having someone you know and trust ask you to volunteer.

How to Screen Virtual Volunteers

It’s important to have a screening policy in place for your virtual volunteers that aligns with the level of risk associated with the position. That risk could be associated with your constituents, your data, your property, and other factors. Watch ‘How Does Sterling Volunteers Work’ video Consider using an application, especially if the role is ongoing, and consider conducting an interview. Remote interviews can be effective, both via webcam and by phone. Background checks, identity verification, and reference checks can also be important for high-risk and highly skilled positions.

Equipping Virtual Volunteers for Success

Once you’ve defined the role and filled it, the final step you need to take to ensure success is equipping your virtual volunteers with the skills, tools, and knowledge they need to complete their tasks.

Orient and Train

In the world of virtual volunteering, it’s crucial to offer orientation and training online. Orientation – This is the best starting point for those with no online training currently in place. Develop an introduction to your organization and welcome all new volunteers with your online orientation, whether it’s a webpage, a video, or something else. Training Volunteers and Staff – Trainings take more work, but they’re worth it. Consider including interactivity and assessments to ensure your trainings are being absorbed.

Check in and Communicate

Volunteer check-in calls, especially amid COVID-19, can be important for both local and national organizations, and represent learning opportunities. Provide Easy Reporting Structures – Do your virtual volunteers have an easy way to report to you about the work they’re doing, (e.g. your volunteer software or Google Docs)? Make it easy and convenient for them to provide updates. Participate in Department Meetings – Have you considered having your skilled volunteers participate in more department meetings now that they’re virtual? Communication is more important than ever, and hearing about projects directly from your team can be important to a remote volunteer.

Build Relationships and Teams

It’s important to not let virtual volunteers become just a name and an email address. They’re important members of your team and they’re looking for connections as much as anyone. Provide each volunteer with a specific contact person and be thorough in your communications – make information available to them. Provide chances for volunteers and staff to meet and build teams. Consider virtual brown bags as an opportunity for teams to grow naturally, and designate team leads to ensure success.

Leveraging Technology

Use real-time communications such as instant messaging and meeting apps to stay in touch with your volunteers, and don’t forget voice calls – phone calls can show that you care in the age of email and texts. Utilize shared workspaces such as Dropbox and Google Docs to enable collaboration at a distance and make use of scheduling tools. Remember, technology isn’t intuitive for everyone. Training is key to ensure that volunteers have access to the tools and information they need and having clear policies in place can help ensure virtual volunteering success.

Accountability in a Virtual World

Be sure to develop a code of conduct that contains basic guidelines, encouraged behaviors, team practices, and accountability in a virtual setting. This can include a set of norms and expectations such as, “I’m going to come to meetings prepared,” “I’m going to test out the technology ahead of time,” and “I’m going to support the facilitator.”

Work Plans

Develop a work plan for your virtual team that includes well-defined goals, the actions you expect to be taken, and how you plan to measure success.


You’ll want to provide regular reports to your volunteers and expect the same from them. You should also request feedback from your volunteers about how virtual volunteering is working for them and remember the small details – like being considerate of time zones. Most importantly, you should always share and acknowledge the impact of a volunteer’s work.

Watch the Webinar On-demand

To learn more, watch the ”Real” Best Practices for “Virtual” Volunteers webinar. Connect with us FacebookTwitterLinkedIn.