Virtual Volunteer Keys to Successful Engagement and Sustainability

Posted Tuesday, May 31st, 2022 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

More and more organizations rely on a hybrid workforce – with staff and volunteers working onsite and online. More recently, engaging volunteers virtually has become the norm for many organizations. In fact, virtual volunteers are now more involved in key programming and operational tasks than ever. Let’s identify the keys to successful engagement and sustainability for virtual volunteers.

During a recent webinar, now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, shared key strategies for sustaining virtual volunteers, including helpful tools to assess virtual volunteer roles, support accountability, and develop effective virtual training plans. Feel free to download the eToolkit Engaging Virtual Volunteers: Recruit, Ready, and Retain a Powerful Pool of Talent resource for tips and tools that can help you adapt best practices in engagement to the virtual arena and expand your virtual training opportunities.

First, what exactly is “virtual volunteering?” According to The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook by Susan Alice and Jane Cravens, virtual volunteering can be defined as activities completed in whole (or in part) using the internet and internet-connected devices. While virtual volunteering is not new, and many organizations have engaged virtual volunteers for years, organizations are still tackling the issue of sustaining virtual volunteers. Here we’ll explore some of the most successful strategies highlighted below.

Why Engage Virtual Volunteers?

Engaging volunteers virtually has been particularly important throughout the pandemic. There are many reasons why it might be a good time to engage virtual volunteers for your organization. Below are a few key reasons:

  • Steward Financial Resources – Engaging virtual volunteers helps us steward our financial resources more efficiently.
  • Increase Accessibility – Providing greater physical access and accommodation to your volunteers makes volunteering accessible, while growing the potential pool of volunteers who care about your mission.
  • Diversify the Workforce – Diversifying the workforce with people of different abilities, from different geographies, and with varied availability, is another important consideration.
  • Increase Capacity and Impact – When we engage people more meaningfully, we can better extend our mission outreach and delivery.

With Covid-19 still a limiting factor in volunteerism, consider building on the foundation of developing new virtual volunteer roles. If you haven’t implemented virtual volunteering before, now could be the right time for your organization to initiate virtual volunteer engagement.

Identify Virtual Volunteer Opportunities

Start by auditing your current practice and assess your virtual engagements. Here are some questions to help you identify opportunities during an audit:

  • What volunteer work is already being completed remotely? How effective are those roles?
  • How can you leverage existing opportunities to expand? What is already happening at your organization? For instance:

– Do you have volunteers visiting clients at home? Do they check in by phone, email, or teleconference? Those might be virtual volunteers.

– Do you work with pro bono attorneys, real estate professionals, or other professional service? Those might be virtual volunteers.

Next, conduct a needs assessment while thinking about service delivery. Also take stock of the things you’ve had on your to-do list that you haven’t been able to address yet. Your needs assessment could take shape as a survey, a meeting, and process analysis, among many other approaches.

You’ll certainly want to assess the viability of any virtual volunteer role you are considering offering. Ask not only if it’s strategic for your organization and helpful to your staff, but also if it’s an attractive role for a virtual volunteer. Also consider whether your organization has the capacity to support it.

Finally, be sure to define the role and particularly its position format:

  • Ongoing position, e.g., data entry, blog writing, volunteer training
  • Short-term position, e.g., event team leads, summer camps, fundraisers
  • Episodic positions, e.g., day-, weekend-, or week-long commitments or events
  • On-call positions, e.g., pro bono attorneys, copy editors for grants
  • Micro-volunteering, e.g., sending emails to legislators and other very short-term asks

Recruit and Screen Qualified Volunteers

So where do organizations find volunteers to effectively fill roles? It’s important not to overlook the power of peer-to-peer recruiting within your existing volunteer corps, including board members. Put the call out to your existing volunteers and equip them with information about the types of additional volunteers you’re seeking so they can share it with their own networks. These are often an organization’s best, most passionate talent scouts.

You can, of course, find virtual volunteers by posting on portals such as VolunteerMatch, state sites, social media, and LinkedIn. You can also find volunteers by reaching out to partner organizations and asking them to share your message.

Once you find qualified volunteers, make sure your screening policy incorporates virtual volunteers. Background screening is vital to any organization’s safety, and a comprehensive screening policy is crucial whether volunteers are going to be serving in person or virtually. An important question that should guide your screening tactics is “What is the level of risk to people, staff, volunteers, clients, property, financials, and association with vulnerable populations, required for this volunteer role?”

Review your volunteer screening program and process requirements, including:/

Provide Support and Hold Volunteers Accountable

As your organization builds a foundation of trust through its screening process, consider how you’ll launch your volunteers and shift to a relationship of support and mutual accountability. In order to accomplish this, you’ll first need to set (and clearly communicate) your organization’s expectations.

Beginning with position descriptions helps to solidify these expectations during orientation and onboarding. Even if virtual volunteers are engaging only briefly as an episodic or on-call volunteer, they deserve an orientation that introduces the mission and history of your organization, places their work in the context of the overall organization, and articulates guidelines and expected behaviors.

Additionally, supporting virtual volunteers means equipping them for success through orientation and training, check-ins, communication, teams, and relationship-building. Not all virtual volunteers require training, but many will, and those who serve virtually should also be given the opportunity to train virtually.

Remember that delivering training online is not as simple as just recording in-person training sessions and posting them online. Effective training requires planning to fully leverage technology, encourage participation, and ensure that volunteers who complete training are fully ready to serve. When engaging volunteers virtually, communications need to be regularly scheduled and intentional.

Recognize Virtual Volunteer Contribution

Showing appreciation for the contributions of virtual volunteers is an important part of healthy engagement practices and sustaining a connection between virtual volunteers and your mission. According to research by Sterling Volunteers and VolunteerMatch, here is what volunteers say keeps them engaged:

  • 80% Understanding the impact of my volunteer service
  • 63% Relationships with other volunteers, staff, or the community
  • 42% Continued opportunities to build skills and gain experiences
  • 41% Gratitude or recognition by staff and the organization
  • 18% Opportunity to volunteer with family and friends

Ultimately, most volunteers feel most appreciated when they understand the impact of their volunteer efforts and how that fits into their organization and their community overall. Recognition messages should include the specific outcomes of their work.

To develop a recognition strategy that works for your volunteer corps – both in person and virtual – consider surveying your volunteers to find out their preferences. Often, organizations are surprised to learn that volunteers actually prefer some of the most cost-effective recognition methods.

Integrate Volunteers Into a Hybrid Workforce

With the increase in virtual volunteer engagement comes an increase in hybrid volunteer corps – one where some volunteers engage in person and others remotely. Blended workforces offer advantages but can pose challenges to creating a strong sense of unity.

Be sure to nurture a team spirit by providing a designated contact person for each volunteer and sharing the same information with remote volunteers as with onsite volunteers. Also, providing opportunities to meet, get to know one another, and bond, while also providing one-on-one time to connect with remote volunteers on a personal level, is a great way to create unity.

Key Takeaways

To recap, be sure to identify volunteer opportunities that are feasible for virtual engagement, and take the necessary time to recruit and screen qualified candidates. Consider how your organization will support its virtual volunteers and hold them accountable. Remember to recognize volunteers virtually and highlight their impact. Lastly, fully integrate virtual volunteers into your hybrid workforce to help increase their engagement.

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Virtual Volunteers: Keys to Success and Sustainability” webinar and download the eToolkit Engaging Virtual Volunteers: Recruit, Ready, and Retain a Powerful Pool of Talent here.

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