Revised September 21, 2015
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Online discussion groups for volunteers
It has become the norm -- the standard -- for nonprofit organizations to use email-based or web-based discussion groups to support their volunteers. Online communities for volunteers are now a natural extension of traditional, onsite interactions among volunteers for many thousands of organizations. These online groups allow organizations to easily make announcements to all volunteers at once, and, allow volunteers to interact with staff and each other, to get suggestions and feedback, ask questions, etc. These online groups can serve as a written record of participation, concerns, trends and issues for volunteers.

Even today, many online groups are created via email; users receive all group messages via their email address, and respond to all group members using a special email address. A growing number are web-based, in the style of an online bulletin board. Some are a combination of the two, allowing users to choose how they wish to receive/view messages - but this option is becoming less and less. That said, woe to the organization that chooses a web-based platform that does NOT send out email notices to volunteers at least every few days regarding new messages on an online group.

From April 1998 to December 2000, while directing the Virtual Volunteering Project, I solicited feedback from various organizations to see how they used email-based discussion groups, web-based discussion groups/bulletin boards, or newsgroups to interact with their volunteers. TechSoup (then CompuMentor), San Jose Children's Musical Theater, LibertyNet, Boulder Community Net and the American Lung Association were generous enough to let me join their groups and observe first hand how they are used to interact with volunteers. My research on this subject has continued since then, through my own volunteering as well through consulting with various nonprofits, NGOs, schools, etc., and managing volunteers myself. And it's amazing how much of the qualities I identified back in the 1990s remains a best practice today, IMO, regarding online communities for volunteers.

First off, the arguments I've heard against allowing such online communities for volunteers, and my response to each:
  1. "Our volunteers are mostly seniors and, therefore, aren't online."
    Just because your volunteers are mostly seniors does NOT mean they don't have email addresses! If you haven't asked for this contact information, get going -- you will probably be very surprised at what you find. And if you asked a few years ago, ask again - people who weren't online even three years ago are very likely online now.

  2. "Our volunteers from low-income communities and, therefore, aren't online."
    Just because your volunteers come from low-income communities does NOT mean they don't have email addresses! If you haven't asked - regularly - you really don't know. 

  3. "The community could get out of control with off-topic posts. I can't deal with that."
    Ways to solve this is to remind off-topic posters about the purpose of the list, or to create a moderator function where all posts must be approved before they are posted. Also see this resource on ways to address online criticism.

  4. "I'm afraid someone will post something confidential or negative about our organization."
    Confidentiality is a training issue; volunteers are no more likely to do it online than they are face-to-face. How do you address this fear regarding volunteers or paid staff sharing confidential information to their family or at a social activity with friends? Allowing volunteers to ask questions of each other and share their stories is a marvelous way to create a sense of community among volunteers, and promotes the idea of just how important their work is to the organization. Volunteers often help each other (and the volunteer manager) with various issues, and volunteers seem to really value hearing suggestions from other volunteers -- the people who have "been there."
Keys to the Success of Online Communities for Volunteers

The key to creating and maintaining a successful online community for volunteers is to determine a mission/reason for the online forum, and express this mission clearly and  effectively (more than once) to desired participants. Clearly communicate answers to these questions:

A successful online group also takes more than participants -- you will also need people filling these roles:

VOLUNTEERS CAN FILL ALL OF THESE ROLES. Just as with any task, match volunteers to roles based on their experience and interest. There can be more than one facilitator, more than one administrator and more than one moderator.

The group owner must make incentives obvious and valuable to increase and maintain volunteers' motivation to participate. Some groups require all volunteers to join. In addition, some groups also emphasize a sense of responsibility in members to post, making it part of their volunteer commitment, to maintain a certain level of participation in groups.


Other resources: Also see: TechSoup's wiki for online community resources

Other organization's resources:

Return to my list of resources relating to online culture & communities of volunteers

Return to my volunteer-related resources


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