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Q and A: Volunteer Scheduling, Time Tracking and Accountability

Today we’re tackling some questions on tools and tactics for volunteer management that were asked in the most recent Wild Apricot blog reader survey. The reader questions fall into three areas: scheduling volunteers, tracking volunteer hours, and how to hold volunteers accountable for the work they’ve committed to do.

Scheduling and Tracking Volunteer Hours

There’s a fair bit of overlap between tools for scheduling and time-tracking volunteers, so it’s important to consider what features you really need, what technical support is available to you, and what information your organization will typically need to get out the other end. For example, do you need to track your volunteers’ work hours for accounting purposes or so that you’ll be able to acknowledge the contributions of your most dedicated workers when it comes to Volunteer Appreciation Night?  Either way, here are a few tools to have a look at:

Project management software

Project management software that’s actually intended for small-business use can often suit the needs of a small nonprofit organization just as well. A full-featured tool like Basecamp may be more horsepower (and cost) than smaller organizations need or can manage, but LiquidPlanner offers a 50% discount for nonprofits and 5pm offers a 30% discount to nonprofits, so those are two project management tools you might want to look into. Both will let you take a free trial, 30 days and 14 days respectively, to see if the tool’s going to be a good match.

Volunteer management software

If what you really need is a dedicated database tool for managing your volunteers, there’s an exhaustive list of volunteer management software here. I’m not sure how frequently that list is updated, and you’ll need to check out each tool to see what might be the best fit for your nonprofit, but here are a few that have had good reviews elsewhere:

Son of Service

SOS will keep track of your volunteers, their contact information, availability, work history, comments, reminders, and relationships. It will help you quickly find the right volunteer for the job and e-mail him, and it will make reports about how you are using volunteers. 

SOS is a free, multi-user volunteer management database for non-profits, charities, schools, churches, and clubs. Moderate tech skills will be needed to install and configure the software, as well as a web server with PHP installed and MySQL database.

VolCentre 

VolCentre can keep records of any number of volunteers, agencies, jobs and referrals and has extensive querying, reporting and statistical functions. It is also able to link with a web site to which it can transmit details of available positions and then process any registrations received via the web site. Email can also be used directly from VolCentre to contact volunteers with outstanding referrals.

VolCentre is a “simple to use program which anyone with experience using Windows based applications will pick up quickly” and comes with a comprehensive PDF manual, but you need to download the software to see the manual and get an idea of whether the software will suit your organization’s needs.

Volunteer Management System

Volunteer Management System (VMS) auto-matches volunteers to positions according to skill and availability with scheduling accomplished with a mouse click. Scheduling changes are auto tracked so the volunteer manager can re-email schedules (from within VMS) to affected volunteers and position supervisors. VMS handles groups of volunteers as easily as it handles individual volunteers.

VMS is a free, open-source volunteer database with a bit of a difference – it has been “created for the Volunteer Manager, not for the non-profit agency or organization you work for. You as the volunteer manager can therefore manage the needs of an unlimited number of agencies or organizations.”  VMS requires a supported version of MS Access, which may be a roadblock for some, but there’s context-based help at the touch of your F1 key and the developer, Wright Information Technology Solutions provides a wealth of how to videos.

Web-Based Volunteer Management Tools

If your nonprofit doesn’t have an IT staffer on call, a web-based tool might be a more practical solution to scheduling and tracking your volunteers. Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started:

VolunteerSpot is a web-based volunteer management system that’s free for community groups, teachers, and grassroots volunteers: “We do ask folks who can afford it — such as corporations, sports leagues and funded nonprofits — to pitch in to keep it free for everyone else who can't.”  Premium features (starting at $4.99/month for 30 participants) include volunteer hours tracking, customizable activity fields, multiple “assistant organizers” and advanced reporting. Learn more about VolunteerSpot, or register here to try it out.

ACE Project is one of many available online project management solutions that are desgined primarily for business use, but could just as readily be used by a non-profit to assign tasks to volunteers and to track volunteer hours. ACEProject is free for basic package, with a 20% discount to non-profit organizations.

More Tools for Scheduling Volunteers

Check out 6 Free or Cheap Web Tools to Schedule Volunteers. It’s been a couple of years now since I wrote that Wild Apricot Blog post, so the pricing information given there may not be totally accurate any more, but do follow the links and see if there’s a tool there to suit your volunteer-scheduling needs.

Alternatively,  it may be that your Wild Apricot website (think “event registration” plus “forum”!) can take care of scheduling your volunteers –  maybe with a few “work arounds” to push the existing functionality!  The Wishlist forum has a really interesting discussion on tracking event volunteers, in particular, that may give you some ideas.  Me, for most simple situations I’d probably just set up an “event” for each volunteer opportunity, according to task or time, and let the volunteers register themselves online – then follow up with automatic email reminders as needed, and a forum to work out any logistical details.  What do you think?

Let volunteers record their own hours?

Tracking volunteer time yourself is one thing – a matter of adding up the scheduled time and subtracting any cancellations, normally – but one Wild Apricot reader is looking specifically for “a simple way that volunteers could record the hours they work on a project, and a way to generate reports about those projects.” 

One of the collaborative project management tools (see above) might be a good choice here, but many small nonprofits find it easy just to use a shared Google Docs spreadsheet, accessible to everyone online. Each volunteer can enter his/her own time records, as they rack up the hours on a project, then you as volunteer manager can slice and dice the data as needed to get the stats report you want.

Check out the available free Google Docs templates for nonprofits, or create your own spreadsheet. The interface for Google spreadsheets is much simpler than recent versions of Microsoft Excel and similar software, so it won’t take you long to get up to speed even if you’re not already familiar with using spreadsheets.

Does your nonprofit already have a spreadsheet for scheduling and tracking volunteer time? Simply upload it from your computer to Google Docs, and then set the sharing options to send an access link by email to the participating volunteers.  And if you’d like volunteers to be able to sign themselves up for the hours and tasks they want – as well as fill in their hours afterwards – of course a shared document or spreadsheet at Google Docs would work just fine there, too.

What do you use?

I’d love to hear what tools your nonprofit is using, either for scheduling or for time-tracking your volunteers – and especially what “do it yourself” solutions you’ve found, so limited staff time can be saved by having your volunteers record their own hours.  Share your tips in the comments!

One last reader question on volunteer management...

How can we hold volunteers accountable for the work they’ve committed to do?

I’m not sure that technology holds the answer, as much as psychology here! But let’s give it a shot, anyway, and perhaps you’ll weigh in with a comment if you see a solution I’ve missed? 

Accountability re: Tasks Completed

This one’s tricky, because it can cause a ripple effect and seriously compromise your whole fundraising campaign or outreach efforts, if a volunteer fails to follow through on the jobs they’ve signed up to do! 

The first line of defense, of course, is to match your volunteers with appropriate tasks – then motivate them to follow through, identify and remove any roadblocks to doing so, and show your appreciation in a truly meaningful way:

8 Quick Quizzes for New VolunteersCheck out a few of the many self-administered quizzes and questionnaires available on the Internet, designed to help prospective volunteers find opportunities to suit their personal work style, skills, interests, and goals.

Motivating Your Volunteers: Needs, Barriers, and Psychology 101: We can create opportunities to volunteer that are designed meet the needs of our supporters, or we can remove the barriers that might keep them from volunteering. Ideally, we’ll do both...

Is Your Nonprofit Losing Members? Maybe It’s Not You: When new members come into your nonprofit, filled with enthusiasm and energy, the organization may welcome them warmly – but what is their experience really going to be like, once they get working in the trenches?

How Do You Thank Your Volunteers?: The better you know your volunteers and what moves them to action, the more effectively you can both motivate and reward their efforts... 

Realistically, you’ll probably want a contingency plan in place if you’ve got reason to be concerned about whether your volunteers will complete the job they’ve taken on. With a new volunteer, especially, you’re dealing with an unknown quantity – so, by all means, put some safeguards and back-up plans in place.

For example:

  • Could you team the newbie with one of your old reliables? 
  • Could you arrange to check in by phone with on-site volunteers at the start of an event, just to make sure everything’s going as planned, that everyone’s got what they need to do their jobs and no last-minute emergencies have cropped up?
  • Could you set up a few milestones and check-in points, along the way to task completion, so you’ll get early warning (and be in a good position to reassign the task to someone else, before it’s too late) if it looks like the project is going off track? 

You might also want to make sure that new, untried or not-always-reliable volunteers are given the least critical jobs to do, so the whole house of cards won’t come tumbling down if, for some reason, one person doesn’t complete the job he committed to take on.

Accountability re: Time In

If volunteers are tracking their own hours, you’ve almost got to trust that they’re doing it honestly. And if you’re tracking hours for your volunteers, what are you going to do – ask them to punch in and out on an old-fashioned factory time-clock?  At an event or where volunteer work takes place at a particular place and time, yes, a sign-in/sign-out sheet is often a workable option. 

But do give some consideration to the message it may be sending about your organization’s attitude towards its volunteers. After all, they are volunteers – not paid employees.  And if someone’s “fibbing” about the amount of volunteer hours they’re putting in, unless they’re working for your organization as part of court-ordered community service, don’t we have to ask ourselves why, and how much is really at stake here? (Seriously, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – leave a comment!)

Do you have other suggestions, to help out these readers?  Please share your volunteer management tips, tools, and experiences in the comments section!

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Comments

  • Joost SchoutenJoost Schouten

    Joost Schouten said:

    Hi,

    I would like to add that we at Yanomo offer our software completely free to almost all non-profits (we evaluate case by case and will almost always allow free usage).

    Our core features are calendar based time tracking, project management and todo lists. If invoicing is required we offer this at a 50% discounted rate.

    I would invite you to have a look and see if our product might be useful. We'd love to support all those organisations out there that can use a bit of structure to manage their often limited funds as well as possible.

    Kind regards,

    Joost Schouten

    http://www.yanomo.com

    Friday, 18 March 2011 at 10:35 AM
  • allanleonardallanleonard

    allanleonard said:

    Thanks for this posting but I consider myself technically savvy and find most of these far too geeky. My preference is Huddle.net with its task management feature; it's akin to Google Groups but with a cleaner interface.

    I like your suggestion of using Wild Apricot itself, and its Events and Forum features. However, as a Wild Apricot site administrator, the inability to have new sign ups subscribed to discussion forums by default, nor an administrator's ability to add them to a discussion forum subscription, raises an unnecessary hurdle.

    Saturday, 19 March 2011 at 12:23 AM
  • CharriCharri

    Charri said:

    I do use the events module for volunteer solicitation!  It works great! See my call for volunteers event gadget in the front page. I kinda had to nest it but now I know who is working what event at the upcoming festival!  I can also send out email updates to them.  I still haven't figured out how to record hours.  But I'm thinking about a survey after the event to ask for that!

    I'd love to be able to record it in their profile.  Any thoughts?

    I love wa!

    Saturday, 19 March 2011 at 10:40 AM
  • Jill Friedman FixlerJill Friedman Fixler

    Jill Friedman Fixler said:

    This is fabulous thanks. We also recommend Civicore; www.civicore.org, they do a great job at a reasonable cost on software products for nonprofits.

    Sunday, 20 March 2011 at 2:34 PM
  • Rebecca H.Rebecca H.

    Rebecca H. said:

    Our non-profit has been using VolunteerSpot.com for the last 5 or 6 months, and it's been pretty good. We're considering upgrading to the paid membership, but we have over 500 volunteers during our busiest season, which is expensive. It's a little difficult to use (hard to change tasks once they've been entered and had people sign up for them). But meets our needs for the most part. Also, it sends automatic email reminders 2 days before the volunteer opportunity which is EXTREMELY helpful!

    Monday, 21 March 2011 at 11:33 PM
  • JoshJosh

    Josh said:

    I love the info in the post.  Has anyone considered this system for time tracking before:  www.tsheets.com.  It seems to be great for people tracking - even has GPS tracking if your phone allows it.

    Tuesday, 22 March 2011 at 1:56 AM
  • Rebecca said:

    Some great suggestions here - keep 'em coming!  How does your nonprofit handle the scheduling and time tracking for your volunteers?

    Tuesday, 29 March 2011 at 7:20 AM
  • Carolyn LawrenceCarolyn Lawrence

    Carolyn Lawrence said:

    Josh,

    I do use tsheets, but not for tracking volunteers.  I use it to track my hours spent on different organizational projects.  It has revolutionized the way I spend my time each day, and made me rethink some of the way I work with the "clients" I serve throughout my organization.  It is also wonderful to be able to print out a sheet to show how long different projects really are requiring.  A plus is that now, when a project is being discussed by our Board, I'm better able to give them a projected schedule and time estimate.  

    Thursday, 31 March 2011 at 9:25 AM
  • JoleighJoleigh

    Joleigh said:

    We have a web based volunteer time logging tool which has been working great for the San Jose Rose Garden and the Morcom Rose Garden in Oakland, California.  Wild Apricot mentioned us in a follow up blog post but just wanted to let you all know in case you missed it!

    www.ourvolts.com

    Tuesday, 31 May 2011 at 12:48 PM
  • KerberKerber

    Kerber said:

    I am also using a time tracking software that is also a good alternative to RescueTime. This software is what our company use to keep track on our productive time. This software also helps us to stay focus on work and get motivated.
    http://www.timedoctor.com/blog/2010/07/25/how-is-time-doctor-different-than-rescue-time
    Monday, 10 October 2011 at 5:28 AM
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