Revised May 23, 2011
Using Real-Time Communications
(VoIP, Chat, Instant Messaging, Tweets, Micro-Blogging, Etc.)
There is warmth in IM (instant messaging). I feel closer to the person on the other end of the computer. I can get emotional, they can get emotional. It just feels so much more personal. It gives me the chance to be myself, even to be more creative online... Email is, to me, something formal. It's for long, official things. It's static. It has it's place, ofcourse. But IM is informal. I use it with 'my' people in the field. I write them and, if they are available, they write back immediately. They may say, 'I can't write right now,' and that's fine, because it's an immediate response. I may email someone and not hear from them for days, and think, gee, are they ignoring me?
It's now standard at many nonprofit organizations and non-governmental use real-time communications, or synchronous conferencing -- chats, instant messaging, live audio or video conferencing -- to hold meetings with volunteers, to allow volunteers to interact with staff, clients, or each other, or to have live, online, real-time events, where volunteers listen or watch a featured speaker or guest, etc.
- Alexandra Haglund-Petitbo, formerly of UNITeS/United Nations Volunteers, now of Sonrisas de Bombay
These forms of real-time, synchronous communications add a new dimension to volunteer relationships. For instance, one-on-one instant messaging between a volunteer and an employee or another volunteer can often solve problems more quickly than email-only communications, and may feel less intrusive than a phone call. An text-based online group chat can feel like the info-sharing-at-the-coffee-machine that remote staff and volunteers miss out on. The dialogue from written real-time communications is easily (and, often, automatically) archived for later reference. Video conferencing puts voices and faces to volunteers and their email addresses. Chats can give a more emotional, "human" feel to all interactions. Live, instantaneous interactions, together with email and other asynchronous tools, phone calls and onsite meetings can help strengthen the bonds among participants and help build community.
What Are These Tools?
VoIP stands for "Voice over Internet Protocol" and is a technology that allows users to make phone calls over the Internet, often for much less money than a traditional phone call. It can be one-on-one or a group conversation. It is also called IP Telephony, Internet telephony, Broadband telephony, Broadband Phone and Voice over Broadband. Three of the most popular VoIP platforms, because they are free among the users of the software, are iVisit (which can be used on older computers), GoogleTalk and Skype.
Video conferencing is a phone call, via the phone lines or an Internet provider, that allows all participants with a web cam and the necessary software to also see each other during the call, or allows all participants to at least see a featured speaker. Many users don't use the video function; they just use the audio. Most video conferencing/VOIP platforms, including the three named here, also provide a live text-based chat function.
A chat or instant message is simply a "live" text-based conversation: a participant types a comment or question and it is immediately available for another person, or a group of people, to review; other participants respond, and these comments are immediately available for review as well. Chats can happen via instant messaging software, via a VOIP software (many users of Skype, for instance, use it mostly for text-based chats), via an online chat room reserved for just such an activity or via a live-blogging site like Twitter (messages on Twitter are called tweets).
Are chats private? It depends on how you have set up the chat. For instance, you can require members to be pre-approved before they can enter a chat room, or you can issue a unique password for access to only those you want to participate in your chats. By contrast, a live micro-blogging event via Twitter could be available to anyone who follows any participant or that uses a particular tag.
The culture of a chat is fast, with short comments coming in quickly and constant. It's much more like a face-to-face discussion than other written communications, and comments happen even faster than during video or telephone conferences. Sometimes, however, people write thoughts they might never say in-person (see the information on Online Culture.
VoIP calls, video conferencing or chats can be a special or regular online event -- a half-hour chat on a particular topic or featuring a special guest the first Monday of every month, for instance. The more your staff and volunteers are experienced in using these tools, the greater the chance of your online event using these tools will be successful.
And then there are presentation programs like WebEx or Go To Meeting, which allow remote participants to view and ask qustions about a slide show presentation, while hearing the presenter talk about the slides.
How Are Organizations Using Synchronous Tools to Involve Volunteers?
Some organizations use a chat room to make a major announcement to volunteers, then give them the opportunity to provide immediate feedback and ask questions that can be immediately answered. Some organizations use VoIP to interact with volunteers, in addition to email, to add a more human, personal touch to their communications. An agency could use a video conference to introduce a new staff member to volunteers in the group, allowing for a more visual, lively introduction than just sending out an email. Volunteer managers sometimes add all of the volunteers currently involved with the organization to their Instant Messaging "address book," allowing these volunteers to send an instant message to the manager whenever he or she "sees" the manager online. Some organizations use a video conference as a way for remote volunteers and clients to ask questions of an "expert" in a particular subject or field, or to "meet" with the Executive Director of an agency. Many organizations use remote presentation software to provide training to volunteers (as well as staff).
Your topic for chats needs to stay simple; you cannot do anything that's too involved, like exploring ways to reduce violence against women, or dealing with teen pregnancy, or addressing long-time misunderstandings between two religious groups, etc. Your goals for such a chat event need to be simple.
These tools aren't used only with far-away remote staff and volunteers; some tools, such as chats, are used with a group to build support or consensus for a proposal before a decision is made or official, onsite vote is held. And many people on conference calls engage in simultaneous instant messaging with each other, creating an easy way for the call moderator to immediately see questions everyone may have, or trends in participant reactions.
Real-time communications are not appropriate for every program or scenario
All of these tools require users to all be at their computers at the same time -- and that takes away one of the primary attractions of working remotely for staff and online volunteers. By contrast, email and email-based or web-based discussion groups -- also known as asynchronous communications -- allow users to participate, ask questions, provide feedback, etc. at any time of the day or week, as often as they want.
These tools require participants to think and react immediately. Many people want, instead, time to reflect, consider, and craft a response carefully.
Many of the synchronous tools noted on this page require that all users have the same software or operating systems, or the latest hardware and operating systems. Not everyone has these! By requiring remote staff and online volunteers to have these tools, you will be excluding many, if not most.
Real-time communications among a group often require a high-degree of facilitation to keep the conversation going or to keep it from spiraling out of control. A lot of pre-planning is also often necessary to get all of the participants together at the same time, to set the agenda, to make sure everyone understands the agenda and protocol before the meeting, etc. This can be time-intensive, and many nonprofit organizations lack both the time and expertise to undertake these steps.
These tools require that participants have an excellent understanding of how the technology works, and a high comfort level in using it. If a volunteer has a bad experience trying to use one of these tools for the first time, he or she is going to be very reluctant to try it again in the future.
Email-based and web-based discussion groups often have a much higher percentage of lurkers (people who read but don't post) than real-time tools. Having 1000 people on an email-based group is usually not overwhelming, because only a small percentage of them may actually post frequently -- the rest will lurk or post infrequently -- and members won't all post at the same time. Having 1000 people on a chat, however, can quickly become overwhelming, because most of the participants will try to engage in conversation.
Also, onsite participants with laptops can become so engrossed in a simultaneous chat online that they don't interact with the people right next to them, nor ask questions of whomever is presenting.
Experiment with a synchronous communication tool in informal situations, again and again, before you launch an "official" event. Your goal is that a tool works for everyone, is inclusive, and is popular and pervasive among volunteers
Real-Time Communications - Tips for Humans
The key to successful use of synchronous online tools is having a concrete reason for using such, and expressing this reason clearly and effectively to potential participants. What do you want the volunteers to value about the real-time encounter? What do you want to happen as a result of a real-time encounter?
Live Tweet Chats/Live Micro-Blogging
A successful real-time online interaction with a group 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.
- Facilitator, to keep the group focused, post items to generate appropriate and useful discussions, remind participants of the ground rules or topics for discussion, and sometimes step in to calm nerves when arguments or comments get out of control.
- Administrator, to help with technical issues/problems, delete/add members, and archive the conversations (if possible).
- These online events also may require a moderator to actually filter content, to keep out improper posts (jokes, advertising, insults); and an expert or special guest, representing a particular field or issue, who answers questions from participants.
If you are going to make any of these events regular, then the "owner" of the event must make incentives obvious and valuable to increase and maintain participants' motivation. The information and interaction provided via these events must be seen as valuable by participants. Some groups emphasize a sense of responsibility in members -- participation is part of their volunteer commitment -- to maintain participation in such events (but remember that not everyone can participate in such events, so be careful you aren't going to exclude several volunteers by making such a requirement for participation).
- Make sure the facilitator or moderator of the group, and whomever that person reports to, has extensive experience participating in these kind of online vents, so that they understand procedures (from both technological and group dynamic perspectives), the dynamics of live conversations (even just written chats), etc.
- Make sure all participants have been told about the purpose and rules for the event prior to participation
- Make sure all participants understand the role of the facilitator or moderator
- Encourage new participants to observe an online event for at least a few minutes before actually participating themselves
- Send regular reminders about an upcoming online event, or a previously-held one, to volunteers, highlighting special features of particular online events, such as special guests or a particular topic of focus.
- Encourage participants NOT to dominate the conversation. This may mean sending out a regular reminder, or it may mean communicating directly with a particular participant.
- If possible, make archives of chats or conversations available via your Web site (even a private area), and remind participants that their posts will be archived and reviewed by others
- Send an email or instant message to everyone five-10 minutes before a real-time event, reminding them of the event and encouraging their participation
- Emphasize that everyone must be on time; it is very distracting to others to have participants entering an online event after it's officially begun.
TechSoup has used live tweet chat events to solicit questions and quick answers from and for nonprofit organizations regarding specific text tools, such as Facebook, online video, and Twitter itself. The purpose of these live events has been to help build the capacities of nonprofits to use these tools (an activity which is directly related to the mission of TechSoup), to create awareness about TechSoup, and to attract more traffic and users to TechSoup's web-based services, such as the TechSoup community forum. The point is that, for this organization:
- They created events that related directly to their mission
- They had ways to measure the impact of the event, by looking at what happens AFTER the event
A live tweet chat event for a nonprofit, NGO or other mission-based organization could be:
Also, remember that anyone who wants to can see this event happen. It's an entirely public event.
- A Q & A with your high-profile executive director or other high-profile, oft-in-demand staff person - someone people really want to talk to
- An event with your volunteers where they talk about what they have liked most about being a volunteer with you, what they've learned, etc.
- Brainstorming ideas for green living
- A Q & A with experts about some issue your organization addresses: helping aspiring actors and dancers, leading exercises with seniors, spaying and neutering pets, etc.
A live tweet chat event is NOT for everyone. It's an intense experience that requires a lot of preparation before the start and a lot of concentration during the event by the organizer, and requires a lot of excited people who know how to participate (and want to!).
The fundamentals of a successful live tweet chat event:
- A live tweet chat event has a definite start and end date, though many participants will tweeting before and will keep tweeting afterwards. Myself: I prefer just an hour for such events.
- The event requires that all participants use the same tag on every message they tweet as a part of the live event. This tag has to be communicated to all participants before the event. Participants follow the event by doing a search for that particular tag. For the TechSoup event regarding using Twitter, the tag used was #NPtwitter.
- The event requires a lot of promotion on other venues: you should list the event on the events sections of LinkedIn and Facebook, put the details on your web site, blog about it, include it in any email or print newsletters, and talk about it ion the organization's blog and on its Facebook profile. Post about it to online discussion groups you are a part of, as appropriate. Staff should also be encouraged to talk about it in their own status updates on LinkedIn and Facebook.
- Use status updates on your various online networking accounts and your Twitter feed to remind people of the event two hours before the event, again an hour before, and again as the event is starting.
- Have your welcome message, opening question, some questions for midway through and your ending message already written and ready to copy and paste into your Twitter feed at the appropriate time.
- Arrange a core group of folks each with at least one question prepared and ready to copy and paste into their own Twitter feeds during the event if questions don't start immediately. This core group should also already have at least one resource or advice statement ready to copy and paste into their own Twitter feeds during the event, to ensure there is something being posted at least every 60 seconds. This core group can be designated employees or volunteers; talk with them beforehand so they know exactly what they are supposed to do.
- Have someone designated to thank every person who posts a question or an answer during the event. They can thank three or four people at once: Thanks to @jcravens42, @ebarnhart & @LCMoy for great questions re: nonprofits & Twitter. #NPtwitter. Now all of the followers of these people are going to see this Tweet, and have the tag to click on to jump in and see what's going on. You've just reach more people with your event! This is a great task for an online volunteer.
- Encourage participants to retweet questions and answers. Most will feel encouraged to do this if they see others doing it, so make sure your core group for this event knows they should retweet something at least once during the event.
- If you cannot answer every question that comes in, that's okay; save them and assure participants that all questions will be addressed on a followup web page or blog.
- Capture every post and compile the information into a web page or a blog so others can read the key information from this event, and answer any questions that did not get answered during the event. This is a GREAT task for an online volunteer to do for you.
- Internet Discussion Groups For Volunteers.
Many organizations use email-based or web-based fora for their volunteers. These asynchronous online tools allow agencies to easily make announcements to volunteers, and sometimes also allow volunteers to interact with each other, get suggestions and feedback, and ask questions. They can also serve as a written record of participation, concerns, trends and issues for volunteers. Unlike chats, volunteers can participate whenever they wish, and they don't need special software to do so.
- Using Video to Support Online Volunteers/Remote Volunteers.
Video is a great way to further support volunteers, and your computer probably already has all of the tools you need to make a video, or to engage in a live video conversation with others. Video isn't something to use only with online volunteers or remote volunteers (those providing onsite service at a different location than yours). It's also a tool you can use with new and current volunteers. In addition to an organizatiog producing videos for volunteers, it can also work the other way around: volunteers can produce videos for organizations. This resource provides information on your options, and links to my own short video on the subject.
- Microblogging and Volunteers
Microblogging means sending text messages of less than 140 characters to several cell phones and/or via the Internet to subscribers. Users can receive microblogs as emails, as updates in their RSS readers or as updates on a particular web page -- the same for regular, old-school blogging. But microblogging works best for nonprofits when they think about such as short messages going to subscribers via cell phones - that application is what truly makes the phenomena unique, and truly sets it apart from other tech tools. A HREF="microblog.shtml">This resource will help nonprofits explore microblogging and use it effectively with volunteers.
- 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 locations.
- Safety 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.
- 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.
- Evaluating Online Activities: Online Action Should Create & Support Offline Action
Hundreds of "friends" on an online social networking site. Thousands of subscribers to an email newsletter. Dozens of attendees to a virtual event. Those are impressive numbers on the surface, but if they don't translate into more volunteers, repeat volunteers, new donors, repeat donors, more clients, repeat clients, legislation, or public pressure, they are just that: numbers. For online activities to translate into something tangible, online action must create and support offline action. What could this look like? This resource can help organizations plan strategically about online activities so that they lead to something tangible - not just numbers.
- 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 considerations.
Other organization's resources:
Guidelines for effective ICQ meetings
By Ruby Sinreich at NCexChange, a project of the North Carolina Justice and Community Development Center.
Web Conferencing Terms and Definitions
The entry from Wikipedia that, last I checked, was pretty good.
A free online tool to help you know what meeting times look like for participants in different time zones. This is very helpful when trying to determine the best time to hold a live meeting with remote participants in different time zones.
The nonprofit TechSoup (formerly CompuMentor) has a web site that provides extensive resources and information regarding real-time technology tools. Frequently updated and forward-looking.
Wikipedia provides a frequently-updated list of VoIP provides and more details on what VoIP is and security considerations for using such.
The Moderator's Home Page: Resources for Moderators and Facilitators of Online Discussion. This is a set of resources, mostly scholarly, for moderators of online discussions, including chats, email-based and web-based groups and newsgroups. This is an extensive bibliography of netiquette guides, sample editorial policies, using online discussion groups in classrooms, tips for moderating, and information on teaching online.
Using 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 other resources.
Computer 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 tools.
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 Online
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 international groups.
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:
Online Community Toolkit
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.
Using 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 youth.
WELL 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:
FYI: I use Yahoo Instant Messenger, because it's easy to use, can be used on any operating system, and anyone also on one of the many Yahoo communities I'm on can see when I'm online. My Yahoo ID is jcravens42
I also have been experimenting with iVisit for audio conferencing (and, as soon as I get a webcam, video conferencing). Unlike many other VoIP tools out there, it allows for video conferences, audio calls, instant messages and collaboration across Windows & Mac Operating Systems and hardware -- including Mac OS 9 users. My iVisit ID is jcravens.4947; please contact me if you'd like to experiment with this tool with me (you will need to have already visited the site, downloaded the software, registered, and have a headset).
Return to my list of resources relating to online culture & communities of volunteers
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