Revised November 23, 2013
   The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

now available for purchase as a paperback & an ebook from Energize, Inc.

Completely revised and updated!
Published January 2014.

Coyote Communications Technology Tip Sheet Logo
Using Real-Time Communications
(VoIP, Chat, Instant Messaging, Live Tweeting, Etc.)
With Volunteers

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, of course. 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?

- Alexandra Haglund-Petitbo, then of UNITeS/United Nations Volunteers, now of Sonrisas de Bombay

It's now standard at many nonprofit organizations and non-governmental to use real-time communications, or synchronous conferencing -- chats, instant messaging, live audio or video conferencing, live tweeting -- 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, interact with a featured "Tweeter" and/or each other, etc.

These forms of real-time, synchronous communications add a new dimension to relationships with volunteers:

Note: I don't talk about this in theory. I use many of these methods myself to interact with volunteers and staff I work with that aren't in the same geographic location as me.

What Are These Tools?

VoIP stands for "Voice over Internet Protocol" and 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. Three of the most popular VoIP platforms, because they are free among the users of the software, are GoogleTalk, Skype and iVisit. Most can be just audio, in case not everyone wants to be seen, or not everyone has a webcam.

There's also web conferencing software, allowing participants to view a slide show, ask questions of a presenter, even take a poll and see the results immediately (see Using Video to Support Online Volunteers/Remote Volunteers, also on my web site, for a list of these web conferencing / webinar tools).

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. More about using tweet chats here.

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.

How Are Organizations Using Synchronous Tools to Involve Volunteers?  
Real-time communications are not appropriate for every program or scenario  
Real-Time Communications - Tips for Humans See these resources for tips specifically regarding tweet chats

There are many more updated and detailed suggestions about using real-time online communications with online volunteers in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

Other resources:  
Other organization's resources:  
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

Return to my volunteer-related resources


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