This post may seem a bit late; most of us have been managing virtual volunteers for close to two years. Many, however, have simply put “workarounds” in place, waiting patiently for the whole COVID thing to be over so we could go back to doing things the way we’ve always done them. Sadly, for most of us, that’s just not going to happen.
Managing virtual volunteers will remain part of our work for the foreseeable future.
Those workarounds are going to have to be replaced with effective, long-term solutions. You will need to create permanent ways to foster connection, deal with technology issues, and still get everything done that needs doing.
First, let’s deal with technology.
Have a consistent platform for everyone to use (Google workspace for nonprofits is comprehensive and much of it is free).
Have an “expert” on call (this can also be a volunteer!) who can teach the platform to anyone who doesn’t know it, troubleshoot any issues and walk volunteers through any procedures that they have problems with.
Without a solid technological base, virtual volunteering will break down quickly. With one, you would be amazed at what can be done. Take the time to sort it out.
You can foster connection even if your volunteers are in widely dispersed locations.
Create a virtual “lunchroom” that’s always open, where volunteers can check in and chat with others on breaks, where notices can be posted, and teams can have impromptu meetings or brainstorm sessions.
Have a newsletter, just covering the basics of what’s happening. Progress on projects, good news about clients, etc. Just something to keep people connected to the bigger picture.
Have regular check-ins. Call each individual a couple of times a month to see how things are going, listen to any concerns, and thank them for their contribution. Everyone will need this to a greater or lesser extent, so you make the contact, but let them lead the conversation.
What about managing the actual work?
One of the questions that I hear from managers working with newly-remote staff (paid or volunteer) is “How do I know whether they’re working if I can’t see them??”
For many people, it can take a bit of a mind-shift to move from “Are they working?” to “Is the work getting done?”
If the work is getting done to the standard and by the deadlines necessary, then they ARE working. It doesn’t matter how many hours they put in, or when those hours are completed. If the work is being done, things are good.
Concerned because they are required to fulfill a certain number of hours (say for school credit)? Then assign an average time allotment to each task. When those tasks are completed, then they get credit for that amount of time.
If the work’s not getting done, or is sub-standard or late, then book a conversation. Then, just as you would do with an in-person discussion, find out what the problem is.
The only real change for the manager, in fact, is to keep an eye on the actual deliverables rather than on who’s showing up when.
Managing virtual volunteers may seem challenging.
However, once you make up your mind that it has to be done – and done well – you will find that it’s not that hard. You may even find that you don’t want to go back to the way you’d always done it!