Choosing a Volunteer Management System

volunteer management system

A new client; and a new request to find a Volunteer Management System (VMS). It is one of the most common requests I receive.

Choosing a new software platform – of any kind – is challenging. Whether you’re trying to decide what kind of office software to use, picking a platform to build your website on, or choosing just the right system to engage and manage volunteers, sorting through the options can be brutal.

There are hundreds of different VMS software programs out there. Most of them have dozens of features and benefits. No two platforms ever seem to use the same language, so it’s hard to compare “apples to apples”. Websites and demos always emphasize the good points, and downplay (or even hide) the weaknesses.

Figuring out costs is hard, too. The up-front stated price is often not the cost you’ll end up paying once you decide on the different features you require. I was speaking with a rep. for a VMS whose stated price just fit within a client’s budget. However, by the time the features the client needed (and most of them were pretty standard) were added in, the final cost came to over four times the stated price per year! The client is a local charity with fewer than 50 volunteers. It was ridiculous!

Add to that data security, ease of use, and half-a-dozen other requirements; it’s no wonder that organizations look around for someone else to deal with it.

But not everyone can afford that. So here is what I do when I search for a VMS for a client.

1.   Set a budget.

While everyone is looking for “free” or “cheap”, it’s important to know what you can pay to get exactly what you need. This will be an annual investment; while many platforms are willing to invoice monthly, it usually comes at a premium. There are also many that charge a one-time set up fee when you first start with them. This usually includes training of some sort, importing data, etc.

Be careful about “free trial” offers. The companies know that once you put the work into setting up a system you won’t want to change, even if it isn’t really what you were looking for. I recommend only going for a free trial after you’ve done all the research and have determined that it’s the platform you want.

2.   Know why you need it.

What are the reasons that you want a volunteer management system, or a different VMS? What are the things you want it to do for you? Save time? Improve reporting? Think high level. Not “I want volunteers to be able to schedule their own shifts”; rather “I want volunteers to have more flexibility and autonomy”. We’ll get into features later on.

3.   Who’s going to be running it?

How many people are going to need to access the administration part of the system? Are they all going to have the same accessibility, or do some need more or less access than others?

It’s important to know that, while most VMSs base their price on the number of volunteers, there are a few that base it on the number of administrators. Even if there isn’t a direct cost related to that number there will be training required which may add an indirect cost.

4.   Decide on the features that you want.

These can be broken down into several categories: scheduling, communications, reporting, etc. Decide which of the specific features under each of those categories are essential (won’t consider a system if it doesn’t have it), good to have (would save time and make things easier, but not a deal-breaker) or nice to have. I have a worksheet to help my clients with this part (if you want a copy, let me know).

5.   Now that you know what you’re looking for, start researching.

It’s always easier to find something when you know exactly what it is!

  • Set aside a couple hours and start by listing any that you have heard about or had recommended. If you google Volunteer Management System, there are sites that do comparisons. I don’t find them terribly useful, but they can at least provide a list of possibilities. Go into their websites and straight to the pricing area (most VMS companies are good about listing this; if they don’t give a price up front, eliminate them). Immediately eliminate any that are above your budget. Unless you are a large organization with a large budget, this should eliminate a huge chunk of them.
  • Next eliminate those that are missing your essential requirements. For example, my Canadian clients almost universally want their data stored in Canada. By looking for this requirement alone, I can eliminate all but a handful of systems. If you are a large organization with multiple locations, you will need a system that can handle that. Etc.
  • Once you have it down to a handful of possibilities, book a call with a representative. Not a demo; as I mentioned, demos are designed to make the system look good. Have a one-on-one talk with a rep. and ask about each feature you’re looking for. If they say the system has it, ensure that there isn’t an extra charge for it, or that it isn’t in a higher-priced tier – their “Enterprise Package”, for example. If you can afford the Enterprise, great, but if you can’t you might get a nasty surprise if you haven’t clarified.

By the end of this (long!) process, you will have narrowed things down to a maximum of two or three that have all the features you want at a price you can afford.  Then just pick your favourite! If none of them have everything you want within your budget, go over the features list and see what you can do without.

Know that a Volunteer Management System isn’t going to solve all your problems.

It’s a tool, and like any tool it can only do what it’s designed to do. It won’t recruit your volunteers for you, though it can help standardize and streamline the process. It won’t train your volunteers, though it may make your training materials (such as videos and handbooks) more easily accessible. And most of all, it will not replace the one-to-one interaction that a leader of volunteers needs to have with the volunteers. Nothing can replace that! However, a good VMS, used well, will save you time, provide you with excellent data, reduce communication challenges, and more.

They are valuable, and I recommend even small organizations to have one. Hopefully this will help you find the right one for your organization.

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