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Online volunteering: A new way to increase your reach and impact

Including a 'Virtual' element to your existing volunteering programs could expand the benefits of your association's work through enlisting additional talent and resources. It may allow more volunteers to participate and in some cases, volunteer in new areas.
Virtual or online volunteering means providing community service electronically via the Internet and a home or work computer.
It will and should never replace face to face on site volunteering but for those people with time or distance constraints, lack of mobility or simply a preference not to leave the home or worksite, virtual volunteering can be a way for them to get involved. One North American disabled virtual volunteer noted that when volunteering online, "People see me, not the (wheel)chair."
Virtual volunteers use less resources - they don't need work space or a parking spot in your office or work-site. They also don't use your stationery, telephone and computer systems
All virtual volunteers need to start work is reliable access to the internet and an e-mail address.

What do virtual volunteers do?
Most commonly and perhaps unsurprisingly, a large percentage of virtual volunteering are computer related. Frequently virtual volunteers have more sophisticated computer equipment and software or programming skills than the organisation they are assisting.
Online volunteers may have your organisation cannot afford to purchase, and may be willing to use these resources on your behalf.
Tasks include creating and or maintaining Web sites for an organisation, performing online research, providing technical assistance to staff and clients, and helping with online marketing and communications.
Other on-line work can involve writing grant and sponsorship proposals, refining strategic and operational plans and developing budgets and mentoring 'clients' in a range of activities.
Sometimes agencies will combine onsite and online volunteering as part of their volunteering mix. Some assignments may require volunteers to complete a combination of on-line research, engage in both e-mail and face -to -face client interaction and attend on site staff meetings.

Virtual volunteering as a way to manage volunteers
Virtual volunteering can sometimes refer to the ways volunteer managers interact with their volunteer teams. Computer technology allows volunteer managers to stay in touch with their volunteers more often, quicker and cheaper than through previous means.
Some organisations have set up systems where they send relevant materials, solicit feedback, provide program updates, and send meeting reminders via e-mail to volunteers. In return volunteers use e-mail to submit time sheets and progress reports.
Other associations have set up secure 'chat groups' for their volunteers, so that they can network with each other via the Internet. In this way ideas and evaluations can be written down and with participants' permission, be used to form the basis of grant proposals and reports.
Organising a virtual volunteering program
The factors that contribute to the success of face- to -face volunteering programs are those that are operating in successful on-line volunteering programs.
The same processes and personnel need to be applied and involved in your virtual volunteering program as your traditional volunteering programs. They are not separate programs but two sides of the same coin.
In fact it would be unwise to launch into establishing a virtual volunteering project, if your organisation has little or no experience in successfully involving volunteers in traditional, face-to-face settings, either assisting staff and / or working directly with clients.
Just because the program involves the use of technology, it should not be managed by your IT department. Your virtual volunteering program needs to mirror the processes that are already working for your face- to-face volunteer programs.

These include:

  • Staff and board support for a volunteering program
  • The appointment of a volunteer co-ordinator to manage the program
  • A recruitment strategy
  • The development of appropriate job descriptions to create assignments and match volunteers to those assignments
  • Effective screening
  • Good orientation process and materials
  • Regular feedback to inform volunteers how their work made a difference
  • An evaluation of the total program

For more information on these volunteering programming components seeVolunteers:Getting your organisation ready to receive them, Designing Job Descriptions for Volunteers, Screening volunteersand Volunteers:The orientation process

Special needs of virtual volunteering programs

There are of course some special requirements and processes that need to be put in place before your organisation starts posting on-line volunteering positions.

  1. The staff needs to feel comfortable with using the Internet in the course of their regular volunteer-related activities. This should begin with the collection and use of e-mail addresses of volunteers and supporters. Add a space on your volunteer application and membership forms for people to write in their e-mail addresses
  2. Make sure that everyone working with online volunteers is comfortable using e-mail. If your staff, particularly your volunteer co-ordinator, finds reading and responding to e-mail "a pain", then managing an online program is not going to work for your organisation at this time.
  3. Encourage all staff who might work with online volunteers to read and respond to volunteer e-mails within 48 hours of receipt. Online volunteers expect a quick response. When they don't get one, they lose enthusiasm for the task and your organisation.
  4. Protect the privacy and security of volunteers and clients. Be just as scrupulous screening on-line volunteers as those dealing with clients face-to-face. Reinforce the need for confidentiality at every opportunity. Ask every volunteer to sign a confidentiality agreement and send it, by fax or postal mail
  5. E-mail is a perfect vehicle for situations where anonymity is critical. You can use any of the following methods to maintain anonymity.
    -Encourage people to use e-mail addresses that do not reveal personal information. However, make sure someone at your agency has a record of what e-mail address goes with what volunteer or client.
    -set up a private on-line chatroom where people can interact. Have participants use aliases but make sure that you keep a record of whose alias belongs to whom.
    -Set up a listserve that hides actual e-mail addresses and everyone uses an alias. Again keep a record of who belongs to what name.
    -Inform participants that they should not mention any personal information in their online interactions that could allow someone to trace their identity, such as their real names, e-mail addresses, web sites, postal addresses, schools they attend or companies they work for.
  6. Ensure that all participants in the program has up to date anti-virus software installed on any computer they use for the project. It is very disappointing to feel that you have had a very positive interaction between clients and volunteers, only to find that your files start disappearing because of some virus or worm that has been passed on.
  7. Set up ground-rules for interaction that include prohibiting the passing on of any junk e-mail or unsolicited materials by anyone involved in the project.
  8. Give feedback regularly. Just because you can't see them, it doesn't mean that your volunteers don't have feelings. In fact, their isolation can be a real problem. Communicate regularly and frequently.

The ourcommunity.com.au's on-line volunteer posting service

Any Australian community or non-profit organisation is able to take advantage of ourcommunity.com.au's free and comprehensive volunteer posting service.

The process to recruit volunteers online is simple, but does require validation of your organisation and a contractual agreement to make sure we meet all legal obligations set by state and federal authorities. This we believe protects you, as well as providing confidence to the Australian public that ourcommunity.com.au is a credible volunteer posting facility.

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Telephone (03) 9320 6800   Email service@ourcommunity.com.au