Tag Archives: inclusion

Nonprofits, NGOs: An Opportunity for a Fabulous Web Site

I am thrilled to announce, at last, that I am working with Knowbility, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas with whom I’ve been working with on and off since its founding in 1998. And even better: what I’m doing will help nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities, schools and others to be able to welcome more clients, more donors, more volunteers and more supporters via their web sites.

I am the Knowbility liaison for nonprofits, NGOs, schools and other mission-based organizations that will participate in OpenAIR 2018 . OpenAIR is my very favorite group volunteering gig and hackathon anywhere in the world. This Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) by Knowbility was a hackathon before there was the word hackathon. It was an onsite, local event for many years, and is now an international virtual volunteering event!

Via OpenAir, mission-based organizations get professionally-designed, accessible websites that accommodate all visitors. In fact, via OpenAir, they get more than a shiny new web site; they become a more-welcoming organization online – and maybe offline as well. This is a life-changing event for many participants – expect to have your horizons expanded and your way-of-thinking about how people use online tools transformed! 

People with disabilities want to donate, volunteer and otherwise support causes they care about. Like all people, they love the arts, animals, and the environment, they enjoy beautiful parks and fun outdoor activities, they support education, they want serious social problems addressed, and they want to be involved in these causes – as employees, as donors, as volunteers and as clients. But if your organization’s web site isn’t accessible to them, you leave them out – and that means you leave out potential donors, volunteers, clients, ideas, talent and more. All of that changes when your organization participates in OpenAIR! Here’s more about what accessibility means and why it’s important.This is a GLOBAL event: participating nonprofits, NGOs, charities and other mission-based organizations can be anywhere in the world!

This is a GLOBAL event: participating nonprofits, NGOs, charities and other mission-based organizations can be anywhere in the world!

I am SO EXCITED about my role, and I can’t wait to start helping nonprofits and others participate!  In September and October, I will market the heck out of this event, and I hope you will help by:

  • sharing this blog that you are reading now via your social media and in emails to colleagues and associates
  • by retweeting tweets that use the hashtag #OpenAIR2018
  • by following @Knowbility on Twitter, liking the Knowbility Facebook page and liking all messages related to OpenAIR
  • by talking to nonprofits, NGOs and charities you know that either don’t have a web site, or have a web site but it’s in need of a redesign, and encouraging them to check out the nonprofit section of the OpenAir web site.

In fact, you don’t have to wait – you can start doing all that NOW.

In November and December 2017, and in January 2018, I will be knocking myself out doing everything I can to help participating nonprofits prepare their information for their design teams, so that those teams can get started on their web sites in February – these design teams have just six weeks to develop these sites as a part of the OpenAir competition! Judging and awards will take place in March 2018. Participating nonprofits pay $100 to participate in OpenAir, but that fee isn’t due until December 2017, and the informational webinars in September and October about accessibility and the competition will be free.

The web designers in OpenAIR are professionals who want to apply their accessibility design skills to a web site for an organization doing good in the world. Each design team pays a small fee to participate, and commits to several hours of classes by Knowbility regarding the latest web accessibility tools and techniques. These design teams are mentored by leading experts in the accessibility field throughout their design time during OpenAIR. The designers that participate in OpenAIR are professional, trained web designers working for a variety of companies and universities. Since 1998, OpenAIR (then AIR) has included teams of web professionals from IBM, Dell, Applied Materials, Google, GivePulse, TradeMark Media, Elemental Blend, Cognizant Technology Solutions, Cal State, University of Michigan, University of Southern Florida and many more. For Knowbility, these teams are volunteers, donating their time and talent to create high quality, professional websites for participating organizations. If your company or university or group of friends wants to form a design team to participate and support a nonprofit or NGO in creating its web site as a part of this competition, please see this OpenAIR design team information.

Can you tell I’m excited?! This is a dream gig for me: I adore the work of Knowbility beyond measure (at left is a photo of me and Sharron Rush, a co-founder of Knowbility and its Executive Director, at a conference in 2006, with me displaying my “are you accessible?” temporary tattoo), I had a blast being a part of the AIR events almost 20 years ago, back when they were onsite in Austin, I am passionate about web accessibility, I love how corporations walk away from this event with much more awareness about the work of nonprofits, and I love helping nonprofits! This means, however, that I’m not available for any consulting gigs until after February 2018. So if you are thinking of me as a consultant for next year, contact me ASAP, as my schedule fills up quickly! More about my consulting services.

Direct links from the OpenAIR web site for nonprofits:

I can’t wait to work with you! In fact, if you are in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area, I would be happy to talk with you face-to-face, in-person about participating in this event. Just contact me at jc@coyotecommunications.com to set up a time and place!

TechSoup webinar on how your web site can welcome EVERYONE

TechSoup webinar on how your web site can welcome EVERYONE
August 24, 2017 (Thursday), 11 am to noon Pacific Daylight Time

Join experts from Knowbility to learn how accessibility will expand your pool of potential clients, donors, volunteers, staff and other supporters, the message your organization sends when it commits to accessible web site and multi-media materials, and, no-cost practical tips on how you can immediately improve your website’s accessibility. This webinar will help your nonprofit, school, church, or library ensure that its website, podcasts and videos are accessible to anyone who visits such, including people with disabilities and people using assistive technologies.

We’ll cover:

  • Why online accessibility is critical and how to become an advocate for such within your organization
  • Steps for simple, immediate, no-cost activities you can do to improve your web site accessibility
  • Resources to help tech staff and volunteers make your site fully accessible, adhering to federal requirements
  • Information about OpenAIR – Accessibility Internet Rally

Register here (it’s free!)

Also see:

Addressing criticism, misinformation & hate speech online

angryjayneEvery program, agency or individual will face criticism online. Every organization and person will have to address misinformation online as well. We have always lived in a world of criticism, hate speech and misinformation – with the Internet, that speech can be instantly widespread.

No matter how large or small your nonprofit, NGO or government program is, your communications staff needs to be ready to address criticism and misinformation – and worse – online. Here are five resources, some by me, that can help:

  • How to Handle Online Criticism / Conflict. Online criticism of a nonprofit organization, even by its own supporters, is inevitable. It may be about an organization’s new logo or new mission statement, the lack of parking, or that the volunteer orientation being too long. It may be substantial questions regarding an organization’s business practices and perceived lack of transparency. How a nonprofit organization handles online criticism speaks volumes about that organization, for weeks, months, and maybe even years to come. There’s no way to avoid it, but there are ways to address criticism that can help an organization to be perceived as even more trustworthy and worth supporting.
  • Recommendations for UN & UNDP in Ukraine to use Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and Other Social Media to Promote Reconciliation, Social Inclusion, & Peace-Building in Ukraine (PDF). This is a draft document I submitted to UNDP Ukraine just before I left Kyiv in October 2014, having completed my term there as a “Surge” Communications Advisor. This draft document offers considerations and recommendations for social media messaging that promotes reconciliation, social inclusion, and peace-building in Ukraine. It provides ideas for messaging related to promoting tolerance, respect and reconciliation in the country, and messaging to counter bigotry, prejudice, inequality, misperceptions and misconceptions about a particular group of people or different people among Ukrainians as a whole.
  • UNESCO’s Countering Online Hate Speech, a free publication from UNESCO (pdf), spends most of its time talking about what is and isn’t hate speech, but does have some good information about countering hate speech and misinformation, without censorship, in the chapter “Analysing Social Responses”, specifically the sections on Monitoring and discussing hate speech, Mobilizing civil society, Countering online hate speech through media and information literacy, Citizenship education and digital citizenship, Education as a tool against hate speech, Development of critical skills to counteract hate speech online, Educational goals of media and information literacy to respond to hate speech, and Assessing media and information literacy and education initiatives (pages 33-41, and 46-52).
  • I have also been gathering and sharing examples for a few years now of how folklore, rumors and urban myths interfere with development and aid/relief efforts, as well as recommendations on preventing or responding to such.
  • List of my blogs related to conflict, free speech, reconciliation, etc. – my blogs that talk about conflict, extremism, extremists, hate speech, words, offensive, offended, hating, haters, reconciliation, toleration, free speech, apologies and inclusion.
  • Feuds in the nonprofit/NGO/charity world

On behalf of a Forest Grove family

I am working with the family of the student that instigated the “Build a Wall” banner incident at Forest Grove High School yesterday. On my blog, I am sharing the apology letter from the student that was emailed earlier today to the main address of Forest Grove High School. It was addressed to:

Ms. Karen O’Neill
Ms. Tami Erion
Mr. Brian Burke
Mr. Doug Thompson
Ms. Yvonne Curtis

 

I am sharing it here on my professional blog because the family urgently wants this apology to get to the community. It is being shared with their permission.

Again, this content is from the letter student to Forest Grove high school earlier today, and these are the words and sentiments of that student:

Dear Forest Grove and Cornelius Community,

On May 18th, I hung a banner in Forest Grove High School that said, “Build a Wall.” I don’t actually believe that a wall needs to be built along our border. I wanted to do something provocative to protest what I see as restrictions on freedom of speech. I was feeling like people weren’t open to discuss  sensitive issues, because no matter what is said, no matter what words I used, someone says, “That’s offensive!” I was angry, and I thought this would be a great way to express my belief in freedom of speech.

But I now understand that I chose a really bad place and way of expressing my belief on free speech. In trying to be noticeable, I used a message that held a strong, threatening connotation. I did not see that it was as strong or as negative as it was – but now I do. I understand now why it is being called racist and that I’ve made some students feel they and their families are not wanted at Forest Grove High School. That was never my intention.

I am truly sorry for anyone that I have hurt. Because my words did hurt – I understand that now. I will think more carefully in the future about my words and my actions. I still passionately believe in freedom of speech, but I also understand that just because it’s legal to do something doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.

I will work to learn about other cultures and how different people perceive different messages. I am going to learn much more about the issues of immigrants in the USA, especially Forest Grove, and learn about why they have come, what their life is like, the challenges they face and how they improve this community.

I may be present at the walkout that I have heard is happening later today. I may not. I haven’t decided yet. I haven’t decided yet what’s best for the school, and what I should do regarding my participation. And to anyone that would like to have a formal and sincere conversation accompanied by a verbal apology I would like to make myself available.

I would sincerely ask that people not threaten violence, or engage in violence, over this incident. As students yelled and drove by my home today, I was scared not for myself, but for my family. I love my family very much – a family I have disappointed and that did not raise me this way – and I want them to be safe.

I am withholding the student’s name, but it is known to all school administrators. The family will be working with others to explore ways to further educate this family member, and all their children, about the consequences of words and actions, about racism, and about community responsibilities. Respectful, meaningful suggestions for this family regarding such action are welcomed in the comments section of this blog.

This blog was originally posted at 12:39 p.m. on May 19, 2016. This edit is from 4:34 p.m.:

I did not write the letter. The student wrote the letter. I did edit the first draft of the letter regarding grammar, and later, encouraged him to add some sentences based on things I heard him saying verbally in discussions with his family I was able to observe. The words are all his.

For the press: if you want to confirm that this is the content of the letter that was sent to the school, please call the school – they will confirm for you.

This edit  was posted on May 26, 2016 at 9 a.m.:

For folks that want to understand the many circumstances that lead up to this banner being put up and to the protest in Forest Grove on May 19, 2016, there are three media stories that, altogether, provide a good overview of how complicated the issues and feelings in Forest Grove are:

Unlikely allies agree hurtful language cuts both ways

Trump supporters feel the hate

Student protests about more than just a banner

And on a related note is this article about a commencement speaker at California State Fullerton getting booed. What I like about it is that students on both sides of the issue are interviewed.

volunteer engagement to promote social cohesion, prevent extremism?

social cohesionThere will be a conference in Brussels, Belgium on 13 October 2016 regarding the possible role of volunteer engagement in promoting inclusion and preventing extremism.

Examples from across Europe and beyond, such as from South Africa, Colombia and Algeria, will be reviewed to explore ways that volunteerism has contributed to building trust and social cohesion. The conference will also discuss elements and factors that are essential for success in such endeavors. The examples will be included in a publication that “will offer analysis of the challenges faced in Europe concerning social inclusion and the risks of extremism from different belief groups and explain how the volunteer projects contribute to addressing these issues.”

The conference is being promoted by the European Volunteer Centre (CEV), supported by the European Commission. The event will be organised in the framework of the Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union and with the support of London House and Team London (European Volunteering Capital 2016).

There are lots of ways for an organization that involves volunteers to be thinking about inclusiveness in its volunteer engagement, even if social cohesion or community building isn’t explicitly stated in its mission. For instance:

Also see these related resources:

Reaching women in socially-conservative areas

This was originally posted on my blog in October 2009

While I was in Afghanistan, I was notorious for kicking-back field reports that stated “the community was consulted” about this or that project, but that never said if the decision-making included any women. Sadly, the report writers often came back to me with a scowl and lots of excuses about why women weren’t included when “the community was consulted.”

When you work in humanitarian and development efforts, you must always be aware that talking to the official leadership of a community, a region, whatever, does not mean you are hearing about the needs of all citizens, such as minority populations or even majority populations — women. There are ways to seek out and include women in even socially-conservative areas so that they can be a part of decision-making.

A good example of this is an intervention in Egypt which used Egyptian women to reach other women regarding eye care, highlighted in a brief article by the Community Eye Health Journal. The successful strategy they employed was this:

  • The team undertaking the intervention held various meetings and presentations to establish a trusting relationship with local policy makers, local health authorities, local community leaders, local non-government organizations (NGOs), etc.
  • The team used this network to explain that women weren’t receiving eye care at the same rate as men, and that saving or restoring women’s sight benefits the whole family.
  • The team used this network to identify local women with previous experience in community development projects who could be trained to reach female community members in the intervention villages, as they would be able to enter homes and meet with women without coming into conflict with local cultural practices.
  • 42 women were trained over three days, and 30 were selected as “health visitors,”
  • The health visitors then visited 90 per cent of the population in the two intervention villages from March to December 2007.
  • During each visit, health visitors explained to women that saving or restoring their own sight would benefit the whole family. Each family received a variety of educational materials, including a calendar with illustrations relating to eye care and information on the importance of seeking eye care for the women in the household.

The result of training local women to do the outreach to other local women was a huge surge in the number of women receiving eye care as part of this intervention. And maybe something more: a change in the way the community viewed the value of its women? That wasn’t measured, unfortunately.

Of course, Egypt isn’t Afghanistan. Every country presents special challenges when it comes to reaching women regarding development interventions. But there’s always a way! Regardless of your role in humanitarian or development efforts, always make reaching women a priority.

What’s your advice?

See also:
Folklore, Rumors (or Rumours) and Urban Myths Interfering with Development and Aid/Relief Efforts, and Government Initiatives (and how these are overcome)
and
Building Staff Capacities to Communicate and Present (materials developed for Afghanistan).

Women & the Digital Divide: still a reality?

Nine years ago, TechSoup hosted a series of week-long online events regarding the digital divide, and I had the honor of co-hosting the thread regarding gender – specifically, barriers to women and girls from using computer and Internet tech, including access to public Internet spaces. Long after the event was over, people kept posting to the thread here and there. The last posts were in February 2011.

This event was quite transformative for me. It lead to this: Women’s Access to Public Internet Access, a resource I developed through research & experience (and continue to update) to support the development of women-only Internet centers/technology centers/etc., or women-only hours at such public Internet access points, in developing and transitional countries.

I would love to revisit the topic: visit this re-introduction to the thread and reply there with your thoughts:

What’s changed since this discussion took place?

What hasn’t changed?

Do you see any barriers to women and girls regarding use of computers, the Internet and related tools, in your country or anywhere else and, if so, what are they?

Or do you think the divide is bridged?

And it’s worth noting that I posted about this thread to the Digital Inclusion Network (formerly the Digital Divide Network), and got a reply off-list from Girl Geek Dinners Bologna. They have launched a project called Smart Women, which “aims to contribute to the dissemination of digital culture in Italy.” It is a kind of road show that will cross Italy within a week, talking about women’s access to digital tools and spaces. From the web site (my translation along with Google translate – hope I got it right):

“Because in Italy we often talk about digital, but women are often excluded from the discussion… We want to talk about digital culture and opportunities with Italian and foreign women, because we believe that cultural exchange leads to the growth and stimulation of new initiatives. A the same time we want to enhance the excellence of local resources, triggering a call to action aimed at involving women in each city. We will leave from Bologna, where we will be guests of Smart City Forum Exhibition, from here we will stop in Florence, Rome, Naples and Cosenza.”

Digital divide, women, Italy and food? So sorry I don’t live in Europe anymore….

Dec. 5: International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development

December 5 is International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly per its resolution 40/212 in 1985.

This is not a day to honor only international volunteers; the international in the title describes the day, not the volunteer. It’s a day to honor, specifically, those volunteers who contribute to economic and social development. Such volunteers deserve their own day. Such volunteers are part of the reason I bristle at all the warm and fuzzy language used about volunteers.

What does it mean – volunteers contributing to economic and social development? It means volunteers who help create and support activities that help:

  • poor or economically at-risk people access microfinance programs or get out of debt or better manage their money
  • poor or economically at-risk people become successful farmers
  • people use sustainable animal husbandry practices
  • women learn to read and learn skills
  • people understand how to protect their local environment while still making a living for themselves
  • create understanding, acceptance and support of people with disabilities in all aspects of society, including paid work
  • develop environmentally-appropriate and historically-respectful tourism that helps local economies
  • train local restauranteurs in developing countries to become more sustainable and more attractive to a wider clientele
  • create and support schools
  • celebrate the arts and bring access to theater, dance, song, paintings, sculpture or other arts to any group or community
  • use the arts to educate about any economic or social issue
  • contribute in some way to any of the Millennium Development Goals
  • give children and teens alternatives to negative/destructive activities

and on and on.

Cultural organizations, vocational programs, education programs, girls-empowerment programs, anti-violence programs, agricultural programs, schools – all of these and more contribute to economic and social development, even if they don’t say so in their mission statements. And if these organizations involve volunteers, then their volunteers also contribute to economic and social development.

How are you going to leverage the International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development?

  • Will you blog about what your volunteers are doing to help your local communities economic health or social cohesion/inter-cultural understanding or community health, showing that your volunteers aren’t just nice and good-hearted, but filling essential roles and being the best for those roles?
  • Will you create a message on YouTube or Vimeo addressing your volunteers specifically, but sharing it with everyone, talking about how volunteers contribute to economic and social development?
  • Will you write a letter to your local newspaper to be published on December 5 and talking about how volunteers contribute to economic and social development in your community?

Don’t make this hug-a-volunteer-day. Don’t turn the day into just another day to celebrate volunteering in general — there are plenty of days and weeks to honor all volunteers and encourage more volunteering; keep December 5 specifically for volunteers who contribute to economic and social development, per its original intention, and, therefore, keep it unique and interesting and something worth paying attention to!

And just to be clear: by volunteer, I mean someone who is not paid for his or her service, or, if he or she has a “stipend”, it covers only very essential expenses so the volunteer can give up employment entirely during his or her stint as a volunteer, rather than the stipend being as much, if not more, than some mid and high-level government workers of a country are making. Yes, that’s a dig at a certain organization.

Here’s how I volunteer – and economic and social development is actually a primary motivation!

People with disabilities & virtual volunteering

I said it back in the 1990s, and I’ll say it again: Online volunteering / virtual volunteering can allow for the greater participation of people who might find volunteering difficult or impossible because of a disability. This in turn allows organizations to benefit from the additional talent and resources of more volunteers, and allows agencies to further diversify their volunteer talent pool.

In addition, ensuring that your volunteering program – online or onsite – is accommodating for people with disabilities will end up making your program more accessible to everyone. For instance, if you make sure your online training videos have captioning, don’t be surprised when people who have no hearing problems at all thank you, since they can mute the video and watch it at work or in a public area without disturbing people around them.

People with disabilities volunteer for the same reasons as anyone else: they want to contribute their time and energy to improving the quality of life. They want challenging, rewarding, educational service projects that address needs of a community and provide them with outlets for their enthusiasm and talents.

I was reminded of this recently when a fantastic testimonial from Alena Roberts for the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind was recently reposted to Inclusive Planet about online volunteering / virtual volunteering.

Here are 11 people’s testimonials about how virtual volunteering allowed them to volunteer, despite their disabilities, compiled by the Virtual Volunteering Project, that remain as powerful as when they were first-published back in the late 1990s.

I told this story back in April 2009, but it’s a good time to repeat it now:

Back in the late 1990s, when I was directing the Virtual Volunteering Project, I recruited and involved online volunteers myself to support the Project, feeling that it would be inappropriate to offer advice to other organizations to involve online volunteers unless I was engaged in the practice myself. The only recruiting I did was via the Project’s web site, on a page that was purposely not easy to find; online volunteers were oh-so-easy to recruit even back then, and by making the page harder to find, I regularly received applications from candidates who I knew were actually reading my web site.

One day, an application came in from a guy I’ll call Arnie. It was clear from Arnie’s application that he was… different. His answers to questions on the application were child-like (though everything was spelled correctly), and didn’t at all sound like they were coming from a man in his 40s (he shared his age despite my not asking for it). Among other things, he said that what he wanted to do most as an online volunteer was to share images and messages from the Virgin Mary, a skill set that I didn’t really have a need for at that time… But I kept reading Arnie’s application and thinking, well, while I know this person is very likely mentally disabled based on his answers, he spells just fine and he’s REALLY enthusiastic. There’s really no reason to say no outright. I’ll put him through all of the regular online screening steps and give him a trial assignment and see what happens, just like I do with all volunteers.

Unlike most other online volunteering applicants, Arnie followed all of the directions on the online orientation immediately, to the letter, and within just a couple of hours rather than a couple of days. I don’t remember what the first assignment was that I gave him, but just as the directions in the online orientation stated, he wrote back (within probably an hour) and said that he didn’t feel he could do what was asked for, so could he please have a different assignment? I think the revised assignment I sent him was regarding a list of names of people who had given me their business cards at conferences, but back in the 1990s, many people didn’t put their email addresses and web site addresses on their cards. I asked him to use Google to find that information for me, if possible. The next day, the finished assignment was waiting for me, with profuse apologies for each person he couldn’t find online, and a request for a new assignment.

I slowly became a bit obsessed with trying to create assignments for Arnie. He could do only basic things online, like looking up information, and he needed explicit directions on how to do every task, but he was SO enthusiastic about it all. I started saving things for Arnie to do that I could have done myself in far less time than it would take him to do. For each assignment he always wrote back promptly if he thought an assignment was too difficult, or wrote back to say how happy he was at the assignment, how excited he was to do it, etc.

I think Arnie’s favorite assignment was when I asked him to visit 20 or so web sites that were supposed to be targeted at children; I was putting together a list of things online mentors and young people could do together online, and I wanted to know if these web sites were worthwhile. A paid consultant could not have provided the thorough, brutally honest assessments that Arnie did. Things like

I did not like this site at all, Miss Jayne. It was confusing! I did not know how to use it! It is a bad web site for this reason.

      or

I liked this site very much, Miss Jayne. It was fun! I showed it to my mother. She thought it was fun too.

I was starting an online mentoring program at a local elementary school in Austin, and I invited all the online volunteers I had worked with to apply to be online mentors. Arnie was probably the first applicant. At first, my reaction was: he can’t do this. I have to tell him no. But then I kept thinking about it — *why* couldn’t Arnie talk online with a 10 year old? His tone would actually be perfect for a 10 year old. They would never know each other’s real name or be able to contact each other outside the web platform we would use for online exchanges, every message he sent would be screened, just like the other mentors. Why not let him go through the whole application process and see if he makes it? So, I did.

Among the screening required was two references who could attest to the candidate’s character and communications abilities. One of Arnie’s references was his doctor. When I called for the reference check, the doctor said, “Are you the Miss Jayne?! I’ve heard about you for a year now! Arnie lives to volunteer with you! It’s changed his life!”

I’m glad I was on the phone, so he couldn’t see me crying.

Arnie survived the screening process and was a wonderful participant in the program. His emails to his student were always perfect, full of questions and enthusiastic comments, written in short, simple sentences. The only thing I ever had to do was ask him to revise an email that had a religious reference in it, not as in “I went to church this weekend and it was fun,” which would have been fine, but as in “I hope you are praying to God every day!” Arnie quickly understood why that was inappropriate once I explained it to him, and it never happened again.

After more than a year of working together, Arnie wrote to say that he would need to take a break from volunteering, because he was getting “too full of worry” when he did assignments. I wrote him after a month saying that I hoped he was doing well, and he wrote back a lengthy, somewhat rambling apology for “letting you down.” I wrote him again to say that was NOT the case at all, wrote lots of encouragement and thank yous, etc. When I didn’t hear from him after a few months, I called his doctor, just to make sure he was okay. He was, but his doctor said he probably wouldn’t be using email anymore, that it had become too overwhelming for him. Sadly, I never heard from Arnie again.

What did I learn from all this?

I became a better volunteer manager for all volunteers because of Arnie. My descriptions of all tasks for volunteers became much more detailed and explicit. I better emphasized to volunteers that the time to drop out of an assignment was right at the start, and that there will be no hard feelings for doing so before the commitment has begun. I started reserving a diversity of tasks specifically for volunteers, and for my own list of tasks, I would always ask, could volunteers help me do any of this? I tried to identify a range of very simple starter assignments, so that new volunteers would not feel overwhelmed — or, if they did, they would know that online volunteering was not for them very early on. I look very much into what a volunteer can do, not what limitations a volunteer may have. I also learned that everyone, people with disabilities and otherwise, screen themselves when it comes to assignments, and it’s rare that someone will ask to volunteer for a task they are unqualified to do.

Since Arnie, I’ve worked with other volunteers with disabilities, though often, I haven’t been aware of such, since online volunteering often masks any disabilities a person may have. I can judge people online only by their abilities, rather than their appearance, if I stick to text-only communications.

When I’m working at a nonprofit organization, I involve volunteers not to save money, not to do what I can’t pay staff to do, but rather, to involve the community in the work of my organization, to create an army of advocates for our work, and to make my work more interesting with input from many more people. I’ll continue to strive to create inclusive programs, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because, in the end, it helps me be a better contributor.

2014 update:

vvbooklittleThe influence of this experience, and many others, as well as extensive research, can be found in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. This book, which I wrote with Susan J. Ellis, is our attempt to document all of the best practices of working with online volunteers, from the more than three decades that virtual volunteering has been happening. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. If you read the book, I would so appreciate it if you could write and post a review of it on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble web sites (you can write the same review on both sites).

There’s also The Virtual Volunteering Wiki: a free resource featuring a curated list of news articles about virtual volunteering since 1996, an extensive list of examples of virtual volunteering activities, a list of myths about virtual volunteering, the history of virtual volunteering, a list of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, a list of online mentoring programs, and links to web sites and lists of offline publications related to virtual volunteering in languages in other than English.

And there’s also our LinkedIn Group for the discussion of virtual volunteering.

Also see: Safety in virtual volunteering