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tips on volunteering virtually
Volunteering via your home or work computer offers many benefits for the volunteer, no question. But it also brings with it special challenges, for both volunteers and the organizations that need them. For instance, more flexibility in your schedule is a plus, but the self-management and motivation it entails can make things difficult. Also, this is a cultural adjustment for many staff members -- you are an unseen volunteer, and they may have trouble thinking of you as "real."
Based on feedback from various volunteers who have contributed time virtually, organizations that have involved such volunteers, and various telecommuting resources, we offer the following tips to help make your virtual assignment rewarding for everyone:
- Make sure you are ready to volunteer virtually
It's so easy to say yes to volunteering via the Internet that many individuals sign up to do so before really considering their expectations and schedule for an assignment. There's nothing virtual about the commitment you are making, nor the deadlines you are assigned to complete the volunteer work. The organization is counting on you to finish any projects you volunteer for. Before you volunteer to help an organization via the Internet, take this self evaluation to determine if you are ready.
- Discuss the job description and your expectations with your contact at the agency at the time the assignment is made.
You need to make sure you understand what it is you are committing to. This will cut down on frustration and disappointment for everyone involved!
- Expect an acclimatization period.
It takes a while for even the most organized person to figure out how to manage time, space, communication systems and projects while working in remotely. Even with all of this advice, expect to make adjustments, encounter conflicts, etc.
- Define a schedule to complete the assignment.
You'd be surprised how easy it is to commit to do an online research assignment that isn't due for three weeks and will only take a few ours to complete... and to then find yourself the day before it is due without having done anything! Don't count on the time to do an assignment to just happen. Set a specific time(s) to complete the assignment at the time the assignment is made.
How many hours will you work on this assignment each day and week? Which hours will you work? How many breaks will you take during your volunteer activity? You can limit your tendency to overwork or motivate yourself to work harder by deciding this up front.
Some people are most comfortable with systems and routines that would be very much like those they would use onsite at an agency. You could also try counting backwards from project deadlines, then making careful daily and weekly schedules for what you need to accomplish; work until you've finished meeting your goals for each day, then quit.
If you take on a long-term virtual volunteering assignment, periodically check your routine to see if it's working. Systems should make your life easier, not more complex. If you are not getting the results you want from your routine, revise it.
To be successful in a virtual volunteering assignment, be aware of your goals and target everything you do as a volunteer toward meeting them. Be flexible enough to recognize when something isn't working for you, and adjust it accordingly.
- Pace yourself and learn when to say when.
It is easy to over commit via the Internet! If you've never volunteered virtually before, start with an assignment that will take only a few hours, to see how you like this kind of volunteering. You may have less time to offer than you think.
- Set up a communications routine with the organization
Report in at least once a week via email on your volunteer activities for the organization, even if it's to report no activity. Review what you've accomplished, and what your immediate next activities will be. Ask questions! It doesn't have to be a large, involved report; just a short, friendly update will do.
- Be kind to office support staff.
Remember that people that work at the agency your are supporting have many roles and are expected to do a lot with limited resources. While the volunteer manager or your key contact at the organization knows what you are doing, support staff may not be completely up-to-date on the project you are working on.
- Follow the policies of the organization.
Every organization has policies on chain of approval, confidentiality of information, how you may represent yourself on behalf of the organization, etc. These policies are meant to be taken seriously! When in doubt, ask for guidance.
- Avoid burnout.
At the office, routines structure your time. There's a routine for arriving at the office and getting settled into volunteering activities. When volunteering virtually, you may not know when to stop. This will lead to fatigue and burnout, and frustration for the organization if you've committed to a particularly large and very needed assignment. One way to get around overwork is to set firm starting and stopping times: develop a routine for volunteering virtually (see above). Taking breaks is another (see below); severe headaches, eyestrain, neck and back pain are the result of working too many hours without a break.
- Motivation has to come from yourself.
At many organizations, there are posters and charts around the office that display the work and impact of the agency. When you are onsite, you come in contact with staff and clients. This all helps motivate onsite volunteers. But volunteers working virtually don't have these natural, informal inspirations around them, so they have to be much more self-motivated and self-driven.
Do a task when you are excited to do it -- don't wait until later. For many volunteers, that comes when the assignment is made. Breaking the assignment into parts, and rewarding yourself with a break at the completion of each part, is another way to get through an assignment.
If you find yourself having trouble completing an assignment because you just can't seem to get started on it, try re-reading the job description, and review the organization's Web site. Think about what your contribution is going to allow them to be able to do. If you don't know, ASK.
Taking breaks will help you avoid burnout, as well as help you keep you motivated. Coffee breaks, exercise breaks, phone breaks, food, kid time, outdoor breaks, game breaks -- you have a variety of ways to reward yourself!
Remember positive reinforcement. Don't try scaring yourself into working by putting yourself down, labeling everything, including yourself, in terms of success or failure, etc.
- Keep your workspace manageable and free of distractions
Set up your work space with all your equipment and materials within reach. Make sure others in your household understand and respect your commitment to volunteering virtually.
What interruptions will you allow? Define a policy in advance so you don't have to make individual decisions at each distraction. Define "I'm volunteering" rules to help family and friends avoid interrupting your volunteer time.
- Review and follow the dos and don'ts for technical assistance volunteers.
If you are volunteering a particular expertise to an organization, there are some things to keep in mind regarding your interactions with the organization and the way you present your information. This information can help.
- Help the organization evaluate the program!.
If you get a survey from the organization about your volunteer experience or future interests, please take the time to respond to it. Your feedback will help the organization improve its program. Also, agencies rely on such feedback to help them meet the evaluation requirements for certain grants.