Source 5: Virtual Volunteers
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Source 5: Virtual Volunteers

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How They Can Virtually Improve Your Organization

By Leah Dobkin

Welcome to the brave new world where volunteers can sit at home or in their office and make significant contributions to your organization.

Virtual volunteers complete assignments using their computer, the Internet, and other technology from their home or workplace. It is sometimes called cyber service, online volunteering, online mentoring, or tele-tutoring.

Whatever you call it, virtual volunteering allows you to attract individuals who—because of time constraints, personal preferences, disability, or home-based lifestyle or commitments—may have been unable or unwilling to volunteer before. It also gives your current volunteers a new way to contribute.

What Can Virtual Volunteers Do for You?

Virtual volunteers can bring new talent and resources to your organization. They also can help you generate new funding and resources. They can: 

  • Develop planned giving programs
  • Organize fundraisers
  • Solicit local businesses for financial support or volunteers
  • Research potential funding sources
  • Identify donated items on the Internet
  • Attract new donors, help maintain existing ones, and nurture current donors into giving more

Having lots of volunteers is a good investment for your organization. Volunteers often give more than their time—they also make financial contributions now and planned gifts later.

Using virtual volunteers also shows funders and potential donors that you’re maximizing your efforts.

“History proves that the greater the number of volunteers who become involved in services, the greater the chance that stable financial resources will be developed,” says Susan Ellis and Katherine Noyes in By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers.  

Virtual volunteers also can be strong advocates for your organization and its mission. They can:

  • E-mail letters to the editor of your local newspaper or key government officials
  • Produce and distribute factsheets about a critical government program affecting your organization

Putting Virtual Volunteers to Work

The first step to building a virtual volunteer program is to create a structure that puts them to work.

  • Don’t ask before you tell.
    Don’t start recruiting virtual volunteers until you’ve developed clear, written volunteer job descriptions that include an immediate next step for people who are interested. Asking for volunteers but not responding to them immediately is like advertising a product you don’t really have. It can cause hard feelings about your organization.

  • Identify a responder.
    Designate one person to answer e-mails and calls from potential virtual volunteers within two business days. 

  • Let staff know the word is out.
    Make sure that employees who answer your phones know you’re posting information about virtual volunteer opportunities on the Internet. They might experience an increase in calls regarding volunteer opportunities.

  • Follow the rules of nonprofit lobbying.
    If you plan to use virtual volunteers as advocates, be sure you know what’s legal for nonprofits. Check out a training course on becoming a virtual activist at www.netaction.org/training. Or read Ed Schwartz’s book NetActivism.

Putting it in Perspective

Virtual volunteering may sound strange—and you might feel a bit skeptical about what it can do for your organization.

But if your current volunteer efforts are successful, build on it. Start small with time-limited virtual volunteer opportunities linked to existing volunteer efforts.

The more ways people can become involved with your mission, the stronger your organization will become.

More Ways Virtual Volunteers Can Help

Technical assistance volunteers can:

  • Conduct online research, such as gathering information for grant proposals, newsletters, government programs or legislation, databases, and Web sites
  • Provide professional expertise in areas such as law, technology, or strategic planning
  • Help with advocacy by posting information to online communities and creating legislative alerts
  • Translate documents
  • Offer multimedia expertise such as presentations
  • Design, write, and proofread newsletters, brochures, logos, and other materials
  • Create and maintain a Web site or database
  • Help manage other volunteers by posting opportunities, creating online data banks and volunteer surveys, or conducting orientations

Direct client contact volunteers can:

  • Electronically visit/welcome clients who are homebound or in a facility
  • Provide online mentoring and instruction, such as for older adults who want to learn a new skill, job hunt, or prepare a resume
  • Offer language instruction
  • Provide online support for caregivers, widowers, or new residents
  • Moderate client discussion groups and chat rooms

Leah Dobkin is a freelance writer with over 30 years experience developing and managing innovative programs for older adults.

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