Revised September 21, 2015
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
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
First off, the arguments I've heard against allowing such online communities
for volunteers, and my response to each:
- "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.
- "Our volunteers from low-income communities and, therefore, aren't
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.
- "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.
- "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
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:
- Why is this online forum necessary for your volunteers?
- What do you want the volunteers to value about the forum?
- What do you want to happen as a result of the forum?
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
- Facilitator, to keep the group focused, post items to
generate useful discussions, remind participants of the ground rules or
topics for discussion, and sometimes step in to calm nerves when online
arguments get out of control.
- Administrator, to help with technical issues/problems,
delete/add members, and archive the conversations.
- A forum may also may require a Moderator to actually filter
content, to keep out improper posts (jokes, advertising, insults, etc.).
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.
- The person in charge of managing volunteers must be a regular user of
the group, reading all messages, responding as appropriate, introducing
topics, etc. If that person isn't using the forum regularly, why should
- Other employees and, as appropriate, even paid consultants, should
participate on the community, reading messages, and making announcements
and responding to questions, as appropriate. If volunteers see that the
organization values the community - by using it themselves - they will
- Ensure questions from volunteers get answered in a timely manner. That
may mean walking into a colleagues office and saying, "Hi, there's a
message on the community for volunteers that needs your response. Could
we sit down together right now and answer it?" Just sending that person
an email may not cut it.
- Participate in online discussion groups yourself to get the feeling
for what an online community is like. Pick a subject you like - even
love - and use that subject to look for online communities via Google,
Bing or any online search engine. For
- harry potter "online community"
- adventure motorcycle travel "online community"
- dog trainers "online community"
- Make sure all desired participants in your online community for
volunteers have been told more than once about the purpose and rules for
- Make sure all desired participants understand the role of the
facilitator or moderator (it should be clear if this person has the
right to delete messages, for instance).
- Encourage participants NOT to dominate the online conversation. This
may mean sending out a regular reminder, or it may mean communicating
directly with a particular participant that is over-sharing.
- Schedule questions or solicitations for feedback regularly,
particularly when you first launch the community. Here are ideas:
- Always post a message after every large meeting of volunteers, or
training of volunteers, or any event that involves a lot of
volunteers, and ask everyone what they thought of the meeting,
training or event.
- "I want to remind you all of such-and-such policy, which you can
find at such-and-such web address."
- "Perhaps you saw in the news that such-and-such happened. This is
how this relates to our organization...."
- "Do any of you have photos of yourselves while you are
volunteering? We are looking for photos to use on our web site, in
our annual report, etc."
- "What was the most challenging thing you faced while volunteering
this week? Let's share!"
- Reference things that have happened on the online community in
traditional, onsite meetings with volunteers, in reports to staff, in
your online or print newsletter for volunteers, etc. Often, volunteers
who were reluctant to join an online community will do so when they hear
and read about it elsewhere, and participants will feel more valued if
they see the organization is referencing the community offline as well.
- Each time someone posts who has never posted before, write that
person offlist, or call that person, and thank that person.
- If someone provides a particular helpful answer, or shares something
particularly insightful, write that person offlist, or call that person,
and thank that person.
- Make archives of online group discussions available via your Web site
in a private area (if they aren't archived already via the platform you
use), and remind participants that their posts will be archived and,
potentially, reviewed by others (employees at your organization, new
- Consider the security and confidentiality of participants. Will
participants be using real names and email addresses, or aliases? May
volunteers email each other offlist? You will know the names and email
addresses of all participants, but do you want all members to know this
about each other? Only you can decide what will be appropriate, and
whatever you decide, you need to make the decision clear.
- Realize that it will take time and some trial and error to make your
online forum successful. Also realize that, as volunteers come and go,
the culture of your online community can change, and you may need to
make adjustments in your communication and facilitation style.
Also see: TechSoup's
wiki for online community resources.
- Using Real-Time Communications With Volunteers
A growing number of organizations are using real-time communications --
including video conferencing, online phone calls, chats and instant
messaging -- to hold online meetings with volunteers, to allow
volunteers to interact with staff, clients, or each other, or to involve
volunteers in a live, online, real-time event. This resource provides
more information on real-time communications with volunteers -- what the
various tools are, how agencies are using them to interact with
volunteers, and tips to encourage and maintain participation in
- Microblogging and Volunteers
Microblogging means sending text messages of less than 140
characters to several cell phones and/or via the Internet to
subscribers. This resource is a
no-nonsense, anti-fluff, anti-hype, practical list to help nonprofits
explore microblogging and use it effectively with volunteers, event
attendees and others they are trying to reach.
- Telecommuting & Virtual
Teams: Advocacy & Resources
This is a list of links to my favorite resources relating to
telecommuting and working with remote teams (virtual teams), two things
in which I have a great deal of experience. These resources are compiled
for various audiences: workers who want to convince management to allow
telecommuting, managers who are skeptical of telecommuting, workers and
managers about to embark in a telecommuting relationship, and people who
want to work with others (whether paid staff or volunteer) in remote
in Online Volunteering Programs
Information to help your agency create general safety guidelines
for all online volunteering programs, suggestions and examples for those
managing programs involving youth as online volunteers, and
suggestions for bringing together youth and adult online volunteers.
- Leading in a virtual world
There is a plethora of information about leading a team online, but not
much about online leadership-on engaging in activities that influence
others online, that create a profile for a person as someone that
provides credible, important, even vital information about a particular
subject. What does it take to be a leader online? This web page explores
- COMMENTARY: The Growing Digital
Divide Among Nonprofit Organizations /
Civil Society in the USA (and maybe it's not just digital)
I'm seeing a disturbing trend: a gap between those organizations who
are using the Internet in a myriad of ways to support their missions,
and those who are still largely on the sidelines and not using network
technologies in working with their volunteers. The question is, are
these sidelined nonprofits there because of lack of access to
resources, of lack of will to embrace them?
- How People In Remote Locations
Can Work on the Same Document
The key to sharing documents among people in remote locations isn't your
computer technology; it's how your humans save and share information.
- Online culture and online community
It's becoming the norm for mission-based organizations (NGOs, NPOs and
others) to use Internet tools to work with volunteers (including board
members), staff, donors and others. This section of my site has been greatly
updated, providing even more ideas and resources on how to work with
others online, in language that's easy to understand for those
considering or just getting started in using online technologies with
volunteers, donors and other supporters.
- Stages of Maturity in
Nonprofit Orgs Using Online Services
What does a networking technology-savvy nonprofit organization look
like? To help nonprofits think about networking tech standards they
should pursue, and possible goals for the future, I've created this
assessment of the states of maturity for a nonprofit organization's use
of networking/online technologies.
- Handling Online Criticism
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.
- NetSquared and the New Wave
of Online Volunteering
Tiny nonprofit organizations with very little staff are doing
extraordinary things with volunteers, and making their volunteers feel
included and energized, not with pins and t-shirts but through greater
and more-meaningful involvement. This conference provided endless
examples of such, and I summarize them here.
- Nonprofit Organizations and Online
Social Networking (OSN): Advice and Commentary
OSN is buzz phrase used to describe special web-based online communities
that are accessible only for community members, like LinkedIn,
Friendster, FaceBook, MySpace and Care2. Is there a value for nonprofit
organizations to engage in OSN platforms? This
resource offers a realistic set of possibilities and
Other organization's resources:
Instant Messaging With Volunteers
UNITeS (www.unites.org), the ICT
volunteering initiative of United
Nations Volunteers, created this resource to help illustrate the
advantages for using IM to work with volunteers, based on feedback from
various online discussion groups, from its own staff experiences, and
Aided Facilitation Tips
An excellent list of tips for both those who will facilitate an online
discussion group and the agency who will sponsor such. By
Facilitate.com, a for-profit company and producer online conferencing
A mega site of Facilitation
(Face-to-Face and Online) resources
This page of many, many resources relating to facilitation is compiled
by Carter McNamara.
The Self-Help Sourcebook
Sponsored by Mental Health Net. If you are interested in starting or
participating in an online or offline self-help group, this resource
offers ideas for starting both online and offline groups, how to arrange
online support group meetings on commercial networks, how to encourage
participation in online support groups, a searchable database of
hundreds of national and demonstrational model self-help support groups,
and opportunities to link with others to develop needed new national or
Dr. John Grohol's guide to Starting
a New Online Support Group is focused primarily on how to do the
technical aspects of setting up a group via email, USENET, a commercial
chat site or your own web site.
Preparations and guidelines for chatting online is a terrific
set of guidelines by Colin Gabriel Hatcher for SafetyEd International.
Unfortunately, this publication is no longer available at its original
URL. To view the resource, go to Archive.org
and paste this URL into the WayBack machine:
A great set of tools regarding online communities, from what they are to
how to facilitate them to sample online community guidelines, rules and
member agreements. This collection of helpful articles are by Full
Circle Associates Nancy White, Sue Boettcher and Heather Duggan.
Online Chats in Lessons
This is on online lesson for teachers that gives suggestions for use of
chats and guidelines for setting up chat sessions in support of
curriculum activities, but the tips offered are excellent for anyone
interested in setting up a chat, particularly those that may involve
Community Guidelines are an excellent example of rules for
online communities and moderators. Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL)
began in 1985, starting with a dialog between the writers and readers of
the Whole Earth Review. The WELL is now a "cluster of electronic
villages on the Internet." There are more than 260 Conferences open to
WELL members, covering subject categories such as "Parenting," "The
Future," or "Pop Culture." WELL members have founded advocacy
organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and their
experiences have been used to explore online culture and community (such
as in Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community.
CSCW or "Computer-Supported Cooperative Work" is the study of how people
work together using computer technology. Typical types of applications
include email, awareness and notification systems, videoconferencing,
chat systems, multi-player games, and real time shared applications
(such as collaborative writing or drawing). Unfortunately, this
publication is no longer available at its original URL. To view the
resource, go to Archive.org and
paste this URL into the WayBack machine:
Return to my list of resources relating to online
culture & communities of volunteers
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My book: The
Last Virtual Volunteering
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