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Learn tips and hints to use a variety of electronic and technical equipment to enhance work with volunteers.

~ September 2008 ~

Using the Internet to Support Volunteers

Jayne Cravens

No matter what the focus of your organization, and no matter what service your volunteers undertake, the Internet provides a myriad of ways for you to support your volunteers. Internet tools won't replace your traditional ways of supporting volunteers, but they will augment those activities, offering simple, low-cost ways to help you stay in touch and in tune with your volunteers, particularly those you don't see regularly, you don't supervise directly, or who provide the majority of their service at a site different than yours.

Using various online tools, you can use the Internet to:

  • Provide all materials from your volunteer orientation, as well as policies and procedures, for volunteers to consult with as needed, whenever they wish
  • Provide a way for volunteers to report online, rather than having to come onsite or mail-in a report form
  • Hold online meetings with volunteers unable to come onsite for such
  • Help build a sense of team among volunteers, through the use of interactive tools
  • Honor the efforts of volunteers, through pictures and testimonials
  • Offer updates about the organization and its staff that might be of interest to volunteers and that can help them feel included
  • Offer links to online resources that can help your volunteers in their service activities

In addition to email and web pages, you have a variety of other online tools available to support and involve volunteers, including

  • email-based and web-based discussion groups

These are interactive forums, where a message is read by all members of the group, and any member can respond. These can be private (read only by members) or public (open to anyone). These can also be moderated (where every message must be approved by someone before it is shared with the group) and/or facilitated (where someone proposes discussions, encourages others to respond, tries to keep debates calm, etc.). Everyone does not have to be online at the same time for discussions to take place. YahooGroups (http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/) is a free tool you can use to set up this type of group. More on using this type of tool with volunteers:http://www.coyotecommunications.com/culture/list.html


  • chat rooms and instant messaging

These are live written discussions -- everyone does have to be online at the same time to participate. Otherwise, they follow the same rules as the aforementioned: they can be private or public, moderated or facilitated, etc. Popular instant messaging platforms, via Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL, are all free and cross-platform. More on using this type of tool with volunteers: http://www.coyotecommunications.com/culture/chat.html


  • podcasts and webcasts

Podcasts are audio files, and webcasts are video files with audio. These are not interactive; they are pre-recorded, and are best distributed via the web, where users can choose to download them (or not). These are great ways for various staff and clients to say "thank you" to volunteers, or for volunteers themselves to offer testimonials about activities. More on this:


  • VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol, like Skype or iVisit)

These are online phone calls and phone conferencing. It can be one-to-one, or a group call. Most VoIP programs allow participants to also have a live written chat simultaneously to the conference. The most popular VoIP programs, Skype and iVisit, are free. More on these tools: http://www.coyotecommunications.com/culture/chat.html


  • Video conferencing

These are the same as VoIP, except with the addition of video images. These can be one-to-one, one-to-many (only the presenter is shown on the video), or many-to-many (everyone can be seen). Many VoIP programs, including Skype and iVisit, provide video conferencing tools.


  • WebEx-style conferencing

This is a live presentation where users see a slide show, usually a PowerPoint presentation, and hear the presenter. Audience members can ask questions via a simultaneous bulletin board, and the presenter can respond to comments and questions verbally as they appear. WebEx is but one of many of these type of live presentation programs.


  • Second Life

This is the most sophisticated of all of the aforementioned activities. SecondLife is an online world where each participant has a cartoon-like graphic representation -- an avatar -- that moves through various scenes and interacts with other avatars (shaking hands, running, pushing, sitting down for virtual tea, etc.). It is a live forum, and requires the very latest hardware and software, as well as a very fast Internet connection, in order to participate.

Where should you begin? Start by asking your volunteers what tools they are already using. Volunteers can take the lead in helping you and their fellow volunteers understand and use these tools.

Also, sign up for instant messaging on Yahoo, Microsoft or AOL, and give your IM address to your volunteers, then make yourself available for a few weeks to see how you like it. You can also schedule a time with your volunteers for a live chat; pick a topic, such as a change in the policy manual, thoughts about the last volunteer meeting, etc.

It can take some getting used to, but do give these tools a try -- and try them more than once. Remember that your volunteers themselves can offer leadership in helping you to use these tools -- and new tools as they emerge.


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