Even during “normal” times, it requires a lot of organization and effort to properly recruit, manage, and engage volunteers. With the added difficulty of social distancing recommendations due to COVID-19, it may feel all but impossible.
The idea of managing volunteers often brings to mind corralling people as you prepare to open doors on the day of a big fundraising event, or scheduling to fill slots with the optimal number of people each hour. Now, you have to navigate many of the same obstacles while also trying to keep volunteers and staff as safe as possible.
This may mean scheduling only virtual volunteering opportunities or drastically reducing the number of volunteers for an in-person engagement. No matter what, it requires an overhaul to your existing volunteer management structure.
When you aren’t able to work with your volunteers in person, the right digital tools and volunteer management best practices ensure your workforce stays engaged and productive.
At Grassroots Unwired, we help nonprofits and political organizations leverage the power of technology to pursue their missions. To help you refine your volunteer efforts in 2021, we’ve created this guide that walks through essential best practices for managing your volunteer program in the midst of COVID-19. We’ll cover:
Virtual vs. Socially Distanced Volunteering
Managing Virtual Volunteers
Engaging Virtual Volunteers
Examples of Volunteering During COVID-19
Your nonprofit’s work wouldn’t be possible without the dedication and support of your volunteers. With this guide, you can make sure you’re maximizing their efforts to make the largest impact on your mission.
Virtual vs. Socially Distanced Volunteering
First, one of your top priorities as a volunteer coordinator is to keep both staff and volunteers safe and healthy. Right now, this means eliminating in-person volunteer opportunities where you can and instituting strict safety and social distancing protocols when in-person tasks are still needed.
Many volunteers will be able to pivot to giving back online. For example, if you typically organize a group of high school students to play games and connect with residents at a senior citizen center, you could move these interactions to video chat or even just phone conversations. The same goal of establishing relationships can still be achieved, just through a different format. This switch is possible for a variety of other volunteer efforts like administrative tasks, mentoring programs, and even highly skilled work like translating documents. At Grassroots Unwired, we developed a video canvassing tool that allows your organization to maintain face-to-face contact with your targeted audience online.
If your nonprofit provides in-demand goods or services, it may not be possible to transition all of your volunteer opportunities to the virtual sphere. In these cases, you’ll need to limit the number of volunteers to make sure six feet of distance can be maintained.
Later in this article, we’ll discuss additional examples to show how both virtual and socially distanced volunteer opportunities can occur during the pandemic.
Before you can effectively manage and mobilize your volunteers, you first need to recruit individuals who are eager and willing to contribute. This could mean seeking volunteers with specific skills for ongoing roles, or perhaps you’re just trying to fill a pool of general volunteers.
Volunteers can be recruited through your existing supporter base, the local community, or broader volunteer network platforms. One benefit of virtual volunteering is that you’re able to expand your reach to recruit potential volunteers from any geographic location.
You can put out the call for volunteers through:
Physical or online community bulletin boards
School or university networks
Of course, you should also include clear instructions for becoming a volunteer on your website. That way, if potential volunteers hear about your organization from a source other than your recruitment campaign, they can quickly find out how to get involved.
Depending on the goals of your volunteer program, you may need to screen or interview prospective volunteers. This will ensure you find candidates who are committed to your organization and have the necessary skills, both of which are especially important for specialized or long-term volunteer roles.
Managing Virtual Volunteers
Once you’ve recruited an enthusiastic group of volunteers, you’ll start the process of building mutually beneficial and long-lasting relationships with each individual. Let’s dive into the best practices for training, scheduling, and engaging volunteers during COVID-19.
First, make sure your volunteers start off on the right foot with an appropriate amount of training. If you skip or rush through this part of the volunteer onboarding process, volunteers may end up feeling confused, disengaged, and frustrated. Even worse, their responsibilities may be completed incorrectly or not at all. Ample training will help you avoid these challenges.
Depending on the nature of your organization and the specificity of the tasks, this training could range anywhere from a short training session to an entire online course. Training will help volunteers feel confident and prepared to start contributing.
While creating a standardized training program will take a lot of work upfront, the investment will pay off in the long term due to a decrease in costly volunteer turnover.
Once your volunteers are up and running, it’s time to put them to work! However, this requires overcoming another major volunteer management hurdle. Volunteer scheduling is often one of the biggest headaches for coordinators, and with COVID-friendly volunteering, you’ll have even more details to take into consideration.
Make sure you’re using volunteer management software (VMS) with a user-friendly scheduling tool to simplify this process. Whether you’re dividing groups up to make phone calls or designating certain volunteers to manage in-person tasks, the right tech can manage the process without miscommunication or confusion.
In a virtual environment, you may struggle to create the same level of collaborative energy among your volunteers. To facilitate volunteer engagement (and retention), you’ll need to build new ways for volunteers to connect with one another and understand the impact of their efforts.
Consider the following strategies for boosting engagement among your volunteers:
Encourage social media sharing. Ask volunteers to take a selfie while working on a virtual opportunity or write a post about what your organization means to them. This can help them feel more connected to their work, spread awareness of your organization to a wider network, and encourage volunteers to interact with each other. To focus on the community-building benefits of social media, create a private group for volunteers to engage with one another and form relationships.
Maximize their impact. Help supporters generate the most value out of their efforts by sharing information about volunteer grant programs. According to Crowd 101’s guide to volunteer grants, these programs are also often called matching time programs, dollars for doers programs, and grants for time programs. Regardless of the name, the premise is the same—employers commit to making monetary donations to nonprofits corresponding to the volunteer hours given by their employees.
In addition to these strategies, don’t hesitate to ask your volunteers how they want to be engaged. Understanding your volunteers’ communication preferences and preferred volunteer opportunities will allow you to tailor your program appropriately. To do this, send out a survey that gathers both quantitative and qualitative feedback from volunteers.
Examples of Volunteering During COVID-19
A food bank is one type of nonprofit with in-person volunteer needs that can’t be fulfilled online. Volunteers are necessary to sort, package, and distribute food, and due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, the demand for this food has grown significantly.
When creating a food bank volunteering program during the pandemic, you should implement the following precautionary measures:
Limit the number of volunteers in a shift to a low number that enables social distancing. This number will vary depending on the size of your facility.
Only allow volunteers to give time as a group if they are from the same household.
Have the same staff person oversee all of the volunteers. That way, if there were to be an exposure, it wouldn’t impact your entire team.
Take precautions to lessen the spread of the virus, such as requiring masks, encouraging frequent hand washing ,and sanitizing any shared materials or equipment in between shifts.
These precautions should be implemented in any volunteer scenario that still requires in-person labor. Other examples might include animal shelters, outdoor cleanup projects, or donation sorting.
Thank You Drive
A thank you drive is a virtual volunteer opportunity that any nonprofit could take advantage of. While this kind of activity can also be executed in-person, it can be easily conducted online without any problems and with no additional software needs besides your VMS.
Here’s how it works:
You recruit a group of volunteers who would be comfortable making phone calls or writing handwritten notes on behalf of your nonprofit.
You provide a template or script so each volunteer understands how to thank donors appropriately.
Each volunteer gets a list of donors to call or write to.
The phones start ringing, pens start writing, and gratitude starts flowing!
This opportunity works especially well for volunteers who have a long-standing relationship with your organization. With a history of involvement, they’ll be better equipped to speak to the impact your nonprofit has made on the community.
Another virtual opportunity is asking volunteers to engage in “digital door-knocking” or virtual canvassing in support of your organization or cause. In this, volunteers will try to engage in one-on-one conversations through video calls, use scripting tools to survey supporters, and keep track of all contacts in one place
Unlike texting or phone calls, virtual canvassing allows for seamless face-to-face conversation and relationship building.
As an example of this in action, many political advocacy organizations and campaigns leveraged Grassroots Unwired’s virtual canvassing software to register voters, generate vote-by-mail requests, and help voters create their “Vote Plans” ahead of the 2020 election. Volunteers reach out to potential voters with a text message, and then they can easily transition to a video call or schedule a video session for a future date/time.
To summarize, managing and engaging your volunteers during the pandemic is possible with the right tools and strategies. As we continue to fight COVID-19 in 2021, implement these best practices in order to continue pursuing your mission while keeping staff and volunteers safe.
Guest Author - Russ Oster
Russ’ first experience in the world of grassroots organizing came when he was an infant and his mother pushed him in a stroller door to door to collect signatures for the Impeach Nixon movement. Eighteen years later he embarked on his college career in Washington, DC and during that time developed a passion for campaigns and elections that started with an internship on the campaign of the first woman ever elected to Congress from the State of Virginia.
For the next 15 years Russ lived and breathed campaigns, running field operations in a wide range of races and for a number of coordinated campaign efforts. When it became obvious to Russ that the technology existed to make field efforts drastically more efficient and accountable but the solutions did not, he launched Grassroots Unwired and has worked every day since to keep GU on the cutting edge, pushing new features and enhancements to meet the needs of every evolving grassroots organizing efforts.