Revised with new information as of November 25, 2008
Internet discussion groups for volunteers
It has become the norm -- the standard -- for nonprofit organizations to use email-based and web-based discussion groups to support their volunteers. Online communities for volunteers are now a natural extension of onsite interactions among volunteers for many thousands of organizations. These 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.
Some 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. Some are web-based, in the style of an online bulletin board. And some are a combination of the two, allowing users to choose how they wish to receive/view messages.
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. In addition, 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. In addition, during this time and in every year since, I have managed several online communities for volunteers, and participated in such communities hosted by nonprofit organizations for which I was volunteering. Based this extensive experience, I've created this page on my web site to help nonprofit organizations create and enhance online communities for volunteers.
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.
- "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.
- "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.
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 to potential participants. 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.
- 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.
- Participate in online discussion groups yourself to get the feeling for what they are like. You can find an e-mail-based discussion group or a newsgroup for just about any topic you can think of using these directories:
Also see YahooGroups and Google Groups for online communities that are both web-based and email-based (depending on how the user wants to receive messages).
- Make sure all participants have been told about the purpose and rules for the forum prior to participation
- Make sure all participants understand the role of the facilitator or moderator
- Encourage new participants to observe a forum for a day or two before actually posting themselves
- 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.
- Make archives of online group discussions available via your Web site in a private area (if they aren't archived already via the software you use), and remind participants that their posts will be archived and reviewed by others
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 synchronous communications.
- 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 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.
- 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:
TechSoup, a nonprofit, provides extensive resources and information regarding various online collaboration tools. Frequently updated and forward-looking.
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:
Profiles of Five Organizations' Volunteer Fora
Please be advised that some of these organizations, and most of these fora, are no longer available. But the profiles of how they used online communities and online distribution lists for their volunteers remains terrific models for other organizations:
- The volunteer email list by LibertyNet was for this Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization/freenet to post volunteer opportunities and information on the organization's events and announcements. All those interested in volunteering with LibertyNet had to subscribe to this online group, by completing a volunteer data form (try visiting www.archive.org and typing in this URL, without quotes:
To access the form this now defunct nonprofit used.
There were more than 200 volunteers currently subscribed to the LibertyNet list, with about 95% located in the greater Philadelphia area. "We post at least twice a week," said Vicki Pellegrni-Cooper, then of LibertyNet. "It is dependent on how many volunteer opportunities are available at the time," and if there are any LibertyNet events coming up.
The biggest benefit of having this Internet discussion group for volunteers, according to Vicki, was "it is much easier to contact all the interested volunteers by an email list than having to call everyone on the phone. It is a very efficient way to get the word out about projects without taking a full staff person's time. Then a volunteer can simply reply to the post by email if they are available and interested in the opportunity. I can have a volunteer ready to start on the project by the end of the same day that I hear about the need."
The factors that promoted the success of this Internet discussion group were "keeping it low traffic and responding to everyone who wants an opportunity even if it was assigned to someone else." The factor that most impeded success for this list was, not surprisingly, "not having enough volunteer opportunities so that everyone can have a chance to feel involved."
LibertyNet also had a technical discussion list for volunteers who wanted to communicate with each other for discussions about "techy" issues.
- Single Volunteers of DC, has used its email-based list to communicate with its more than 600 volunteers since the Spring of 1997, according to Dana Katherine Kressierer. "All projects are organized via the Internet." Volunteers hear about the online community when they join the organization, and can self-subscribe via the organization's web page. "Only team leaders post - this isn't a discussion group." There are about 3-6 messages a week, relating to information about upcoming projects and socials.
The reason the organization cites for the success of its online community is that "the Internet is the only way to get involved with us." The biggest benefit of having this Internet discussion group for the organization is "I don't have to take phone calls. (smiley) I can reach all 600 plus members with just one email message. (smiley)" To other orgs who are considering using an online discussion group to communicate with volunteers, the org says "Get a LISTSERV mailing list and your job will be much easier. (smiley) The 'net is a very powerful medium that can be used to promote volunteerism and organize activities. It needs to be used. (smiley)."
- Since January of 1998, Bucknell University's Alumni & Constituent Relations Office has hosted an e-mail-based discussion forum for Bucknell club presidents and their club board members. Participants find out about the forum via their offline newsletter for Bucknell alumni club leaders. As of May 1998, there were about 40 people on the list, which generates only about 5 posts per month. Any subscribers can post, and the list is unmoderated. Club leaders plan club events (social, networking, community service, etc.). They use the online group to discuss problems and solutions for club issues.
Organizer Jennifer Johnston says "The internet helps speed communication about the planning of these events. We hope the online forum will encourage club volunteers who live in geographically separate regions to share information about the planning of these events in order to help all volunteers who do this work." Since Bucknell alumni clubs are national and international, the online forum "is helpful for timely discussions."
The factors identified as having impeded the success of this Internet discussion group is lack of postings from volunteers.
- As of June 1998, Project Gutenberg ran an e-mail-based list for its volunteers. It has been using online communications to communicate with its volunteers since 1971 (when the Internet was still called DARPANet).
According to Project Director Michael Hart, most people find out about the organization and, subsequently, its online list, through word-of-mouth from other volunteers, searching for Etexts, and through the organization's biannual request for volunteers via the Internet. Members can automatically subscribe to the group.
As of May 1998, there were about 1,000 people on the list, which generates only a few posts a month. The group is moderated, so off-topic posts don't make it to the list. Volunteers from all over the world use the list to find books, proofreaders, copyright info, scanning, etc.
- As of May 1998, Peace and Environment Resource Centre in Canada used a number of internal communication mechanisms, including an e-mail-based group, to keep volunteers up-to-date. Centre representative Michael Kaulbars said at the time that the group was administered by a volunteer, and was used by volunteer leaders of 14 different committees and working groups for org-wide announcements, things the volunteers think may be of broad interest ("but discretion encouraged to prevent over-load") and "social chit chat." The group is unmoderated, but since only leaders of the group's committees know about the list, Michael says there's not a problem with off-topic posts. The Centre also has a different online forum that serves as its issues discussion group for volunteers.
Return to my list of resources relating to online culture & communities of volunteers
Return to my volunteer-related resources
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