Understanding and Working With Virtual and Mobile Volunteers

How do  technological advances and the changing nature of the workplace impact how we lead volunteers?

In this article, Tobi Johnson looks at virtual and mobile volunteers; explains how these new realities offer new chances for volunteer engagement; and provides tips for managing and supporting offsite and virtual volunteers.

The following article is a compilation of three blog posts written by Tobi Johnson (Tobi Johnson & Associates) which were originally published on Tobi’s Volunteer Management Blog

The Future of Volunteerism is Virtual AND Mobile 

Part I:

In recent years there has been a fair amount of discussion about virtual volunteers and how to engage them in the work of nonprofits.  However, little has been written about the changing nature of the workplace and how technological advances may directly affect how we lead volunteers.

Consider these fascinating statistics -- 

  • According to data presented during a recent ASTD webcast, by the end of the decade one in five workers will never meet their supervisor in person, and 75% of the workforce will be virtual by the end of this year (this includes not only telecommuters, but staff placed at client sites and other workplaces).
  • 37% of nonprofits surveyed have a telecommuting/virtual work policy and, of those who did, the majority (61%) observed that the policy positively impacted their recruitment and retention of paid staff.
  • 57% of American adults use their cell phone to go online, and 35% own a tablet computer.

A Changing Volunteer Workplace

Clearly, we’re in the midst of a revolution in the work environment.  More and more of us work from home or at disparate offices at least part time.  Moreover, many of us communicate and gather information while on the go, relying on our screen-based devices to deliver the right information at the right time in the right format.  Flexibility is key, and it’s what we’ve come to expect.  Add social sharing tools to the mix, and the network of available info and ability to connect expands infinitely.

In the midst of the tech revolution, nonprofits have adapted, offering new ways to engage, neatly categorizing volunteers into “virtual telecommuters” and “on-site supporters.”  It’s become clear that these classifications don’t really capture the whole picture.  In today’s world, MOST volunteers (even those that volunteer in-person) are BOTH virtual AND mobile -- accessing online information, communicating, and collaborating whenever and from wherever they like, both while in the office and outside it.

And, it’s not unreasonable to expect that many would like this ease of interchange to translate to their volunteer experience as well.  In fact, the defining factor of success for any volunteer program in the near future may be whether or not it is prepared to support the new way of working.

New Opportunities for Volunteer Programs

New realities also offer new chances for volunteer engagement.  Imagine how a mobile, technologically-equipped volunteer corps might add value in these scenarios (all do-able with today’s technology):

  • Quick, video meet ups to check in on project progress between volunteers who live miles from the home office
  • Online apps that track volunteer time, donations, and program expenses and automatically calculate the current ROI estimate (much more sophisticated than the basic donations thermometer, right?)
  • Smartphone apps to check in when on duty that automatically remind volunteers to enter needed reporting data
  • Smartphone apps that automatically input time volunteered and provide the opportunity to earn recognition badges (à la Foursquare)
  • On demand videos and pre-recorded webcasts of volunteer orientations, trainings, and tutorials delivered via any responsive device to assist volunteers precisely when they need help
  • Tailored recruitment opportunity offerings delivered to prospective volunteers who have indicated their specific interests in an online personal profile, rather than requiring volunteers to initiate the search.

New Volunteer Leadership Skills

At the same time, the adoption of new approaches also means new learning.  So, what do these tectonic shifts in the nature of work mean to our own core volunteer leadership competencies?  What is required of a virtual volunteer leader anyway? 

Two main needs come to mind --

  1. Access to, and command of, a strategically curated set of technology tools that support program goals; and,
  2. The leadership skills necessary to facilitate the fluid exchange of info and to reduce the perceived “affinity distance” between team members (a term coined by virtual leadership expert Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski that refers to how teams are connected emotionally and mentally).

In a mobile volunteer environment -- whether supporting rural volunteers across the miles or volunteers working a few cubicles over -- leaders of volunteers will need new skills and approaches to retain, and even surpass, the productivity of their traditional teams.  But how?

Part II:

In Part I (above), I discussed the changing nature of the workplace and how technological advances affect how we work with volunteers.  In today’s world, most volunteers are both virtual and mobile — even those that work on site — because many already access information, communicate, and collaborate via a variety of personal virtual devices like tablets, smart phones, and laptops.

I also noted that the future success of volunteer programs may hinge on whether or not we are prepared to support volunteers in this new team environment.  In this post, I focus more on what you can actually do to help your volunteers feel more connected to you, each other, and your cause even when they don’t come into the office every day.

Understanding Virtual Distance

Virtual leadership expert Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski has conducted extensive research on how technology affects performance on the job.  In her book, Leading the Virtual Workforce, she presents the idea of “Virtual Distance,” which relates to the physical and emotional distances created by technology that keep us, ironically, from connecting.  It is the responsibility of leaders to find ways to reduce this distance.

Virtual Distance is exacerbated by three factors:

  • Physical Distance — for example, the different work schedules, departmental silos, and worksites
  • Operational Distance — caused by everyday communication breakdowns, multitasking, and low morale
  • Affinity Distance — reflecting the affect of personal relationships, cultural dynamics, interdependence on productivity

Of the three, addressing the Affinity Distance between team members (how teams are connected emotionally and mentally) can have the most impact on how well virtual teams, including volunteers, can work together.

Virtual and Mobile Leadership in Practice

So what can be done to lead remote volunteers and reduce the effects of Affinity Distance? In some respects, this is more difficult than addressing Physical or Operational Distance, but the research shows that the most direct way to address gaps is to focus on limiting this trouble spot.

Dr. Sobel-Lojeski identifies four relationship dynamics that feed Affinity Distance.  Below are some of my solutions to address each:

  • Reduce Perceived Cultural Distance — This relates to team member values, not so much individual demographics.Reduce Perceived Social Distance — This relates to the status within groups and whether members believe there is a level playing field.
    • What You Can Do: Bring volunteers from different departments together (online or off) increase functional partnerships; ensure that volunteer teams are layered with diverse cultures, communication styles, and points of view; facilitate candid, respectful conversations to build shared understanding; develop shared norms for virtual communication; and openly celebrate differences and welcome a variety of modes of online communication.
  • Reduce Perceived Social Distance — This relates to the status within groups and whether members believe there is a level playing field.
    • What You Can Do: Actively recognize volunteer value based on their contributions rather than their job title; acknowledge volunteers as equal contributors in the organization’s mission delivery; encourage visits and participation of organizational leaders in virtual volunteer events; and ensure that all volunteers have equal access to online tools by using responsive web design and clear instructions on how to join groups.
  • Reduce Perceived Relationship Distance — This relates to the connections people have with one another from past projects; this can be a challenge with new volunteers who don’t know one another.
    • What You Can Do: Highlight “friends in common”; weave informal social interaction and chat into virtual meetings and training; arrange face-to-face meetings at the beginning of projects, when possible, and include social mixers in the agenda; set up an online “buddy system” for new volunteers to welcome them and orient them to the tech tools in use; facilitate online “getting to know you” exercises and chats to help volunteers surface commonalities.
  • Reduce Perceived Interdependence Distance — This relates to the belief that team members are mutually dependent on one another to be successful.
    • What You Can Do: Work with virtual volunteers to develop project-based charters that include a collaboratively-developed vision statement; actively share individual volunteer and team accomplishments in social networks and the organization’s website; consistently and explicitly link volunteer activity with program goals; offer “virtual tours” of the organizations “back office” and “insider” operations; invite volunteer leaders to present via video chat at board and coalition meetings.

These are only a few ideas.  You may use others that work well to increase connection and reduce distance at your organization. 

Managing Virtual and Offsite Volunteers

In today's wired world, volunteers can make significant contributions to an organization, even if they live tens, hundreds, or thousands of miles away.  Working virtually, volunteers can be just as effective (or as ineffective) as those working on site, provided they are able to manage their time and priorities, have adequate technology, and are given the proper support.

Tips for Leading Volunteers in a Virtual Environment

Below are a few tips for supporting virtual teamwork.  These tips will help those who work in the same office, too.

  • Clarify Team and Individual Goals – Make sure that everyone understands the goals and objectives for the project or service (including deadlines) and how their work contributes to the organization's overall success. Have the team work together, using a participatory decision-making process (check out People and Planet's excellent overview), to develop and agree upon goals that are achievable and make sense.
  • Highlight the Skills of Each Team Member – To build confidence and trust, take time to describe the unique talents each person brings to the table with the others.
  • Allow Time for Interpersonal Sharing – Encourage team members to share something about their personal lives beyond volunteering. This helps members find commonalities and knits together trusting relationships with people who find common ground.
  • Share and Rotate Leadership – Appoint an overall leader, but share leadership for project stages or meetings with individuals who have the most knowledge or information at the current moment.
  • Establish Communication Norms – As a group, set up basic guidelines for frequency and types of communications as well when and how to alert others about availability. This is particularly important for volunteers who, because of their schedules, will most often communicate asynchronously. Set up a regular schedule to meet as a team, but also allow the flexibility informal “just in time” interactions between individuals or small groups, both online and on land.
  • Meet In-Person, Too – Some team activities are difficult to accomplish without being able to facilitate rapid discussion and read body language. For tasks like strategic project planning, problem solving and celebrating, bring the team together for a team meeting.
  • Promote Healthy Boundaries – Encourage volunteers to maintain a productive work-life balance and let them know they are NOT expected to check email when they are off duty. Refrain from sending texts to volunteers unless they agree or in emergency situations.
  • Establish a Code of Conduct – Although volunteers may not be working in your office, they are representing your organization when they are on duty. Communicate clear standards for confidentiality, volunteer and staff privacy, email, social media communications, and ethics. These guidelines need to be reinforced regularly.

Read More: How Changing Our Volunteer Interview Approach Increased Our Retention by 30%

Technology to Support Virtual Teams

A second element of effective management of off site volunteers is, of course, the technology that is used to facilitate communication, resource sharing, and collaboration. The software you use doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated, but it does need to meet the team’s minimum needs and be easy to navigate.  Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Maintain a Shared Calendar – Use Google Calendar or other software to communicate when volunteers will, and will not, be working as well as task due dates. Also, send team meeting notices via email, so that volunteers can download to their personal calendars, if they so wish.
  • Use Group Video Chatting – Software like Skype and Google Meet Ups allow individuals and teams to view each other during meetings. This adds more interest that telephonic calls and allows participants to physically point to sections of documents as well as read facial expressions.
  • Use Screen Sharing – To take it a step further, there are a number of free and fee-based screen sharing tools that can be used to share, and even collaborate on, documents in live time. 
  • Set Up Separate Emails – Instead of using their private email, have volunteers set up a free email address, such as Gmail or Hotmail so that their privacy is protected. This is especially important if they work directly with the public.  If you are contacted by clients who receive assistance from volunteers, set up a general inbox that specific volunteers are assigned to check on specific days of the week.
  • Store Documents Online – Google Drive and Wikispaces are two platforms that allow approved users to post and view shared documents. Be sure to establish a file naming protocol the team will use to keep track of multiple versions and edits over time, as well as final documents. Make sure you store both documents that are in development and your basic assets, like your logo, mission statement, templates, etc. – as well as current team contact info – in one, well-organized place.
  • Set Up A Project Management System – Once you have your project plan decided and tasks assigned, have team members add their key milestones and tasks to the team calendar. If the calendar is integrated into a project management system all the better. There are several free options you can chose from, and all have integrated file sharing and management, project chat/email communications, a task tracking function, and a shared calendar.

Read More: A Letter to Nonprofits That Want to Hire a Volunteer Manager

About the author – Tobi Johnson (Tobi Johnson & Associates)

Nearly thirty years ago, Tobi Johnson took her first job in the nonprofit sector — an unpaid summer internship at the Seattle Arts Commission. Working for the public good captured her heart and launched her lifelong journey as a “serial social entrepreneur.” Since that summer, Tobi has been launched and renovated numerous programs in the arts, employment and training, social services, health benefits education, and community outreach and advocacy. Now, Tobi runs her own volunteer management consulting firm where she helps nonprofit organizations make connections with remarkable volunteers who share a common vision for a better world.

Image source:  Man holding photo with virtual volunteer - courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com


Additional Resources:

If you’re wondering which online collaboration tools might work for your program, check out these articles to get a running start:


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Understanding and Working With Virtual Volunteers by Wild Apricot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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