Revised as of June 7, 2006

NetSquared and the New Wave of Online Volunteering
(and maybe all volunteering)

For the past two years, I've said on more than one online forum that the most innovative, exciting things I'm learning about volunteer management and other community involvement rarely come from traditional volunteer management workshops and conferences but, rather, conferences focused on entirely different subjects. The NetSquared conference, May 30 and 31, 2006, by TechSoup bore this statement out -- it was a conference focused on the emerging uses of more collaborative technologies by nonprofit organizations, particularly activist-organizations, but in the end, the lessons I heard again and again were on giving volunteers a bigger voice in what they do at an organization (and, in the end, actually giving them lots more to do, and even more responsibility, which they like very, very much), on engaging in activities that exude transparency and openness in all aspects of decision-making and management, and on being immediately responsive to volunteers' and other supporters' thoughts, suggestions and criticisms -- and how not doing so isn't because of a lack of resources but, rather, misdirected priorities and lack of transparency. Tiny nonprofit organizations with very little staff are doing extraordinary things with volunteers, and making the volunteers feel included and energized, not with pins and t-shirts but through greater and more-meaningful involvement -- and this movement is being fueled by inclusive uses of technology.

For instance, the very new and small organization, Blogher, and the very well-established and large Greenpeace USA, provided but two examples at the conference of allowing greater participation, voice and responsibility for their volunteers and other supporters, using a mixture of online and onsite means. Blogher allowed members to manipulate its official logo on their own web sites to show their support of its first-ever conference, and engaged in a variety of online and onsite activities to allow supporters to set the agenda for the conference workshops; Greenpeace USA used a mixture of online means, phone conferences and house parties to mobilize and support volunteers all over the country to create and engage in their own grassroots organizing around particular issues, and to allow these supporters to provide continuous feedback -- feedback that received an immediate response.

Save Ocean Beach (SOB), a very small San Francisco-based group, and the World Food Program, a very large, international UN agency, each are doing innovative work in communicating with their volunteers, allowing them to use their organization's web sites to report progress, receive training and other support, and to engage in various activism activities. Numerous organizations talked about their "citizen journalists" who are providing text, audio and video from forgotten points all over the world to report on issues largely-ignored by mainstream media -- these are online volunteers, trained and organized via the Internet. Democracy Now even acknowledged its online supporters specifically as "online volunteers" (most organizations had another name for them).

All of these examples, and others presented at NetSquared, represent not just the most innovative things happening with online volunteering, but the most innovative things happening in VOLUNTEERING, period. They represent programs creating ways for volunteers to feel even more involved -- volunteers who see recognition in greater responsibility and voice rather than a pen or a mug. Most are applying the best in offline volunteer management to online settings -- being responsive, listening, acknowledging they have heard by action rather than just by saying so (no empty words), etc. They also represent simple, tried-and-true organizing and management techniques being applied with new online tools -- at its heart, tradition reigns in all of these innovations, but only if it empowers supporters and gives them greater voice, rather than slowing things down and imposing unreasonable hierarchies.

I also have to note that several people at the conference used examples of now-famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) flash movies and other multi-media used to get political messages -- or even just silly messages -- across to massive audiences, and I was familiar with every one of them because of, an irreverent, in-your-face, very white-male-focused site made up primarily of links to the absurd or interesting -- or even just the latest news, linked by much-funnier headlines than what the mainstream press gives such. I look at twice a day, mostly for just laughs or to see what I'm missing in USA pop-culture (as I live in Germany), but I now realize that, because of this site, I was familiar with some of the most innovative, popular things being done regarding multi-media to get a message out. I bring this up not-so-much to get you to view, but to encourage you to look for inspiration in your job in non-traditional ways.

The NetSquared conference itself was a great example of a conference using the Net to allow everyone and anyone to participate, rather than people just sitting quietly and listening to speakers -- something future volunteerism-related conferences will, I hope, think about doing as well. One could participate in the conference via online chat rooms provided for each onsite workshop, an overall chat room, called "the hallway," where attendees could drop in and offer whatever overall comments they wanted, and via the NetSquared online web site. While NetSquared used very sophisticated online tools for these activities, I could well imagine a small nonprofit or conference simply using YahooGroups, a free tool, for similar setups. In addition to allowing a whole other level of participation, conference organizers now have a written record of attendee feedback, which will make evaluating the conference far easier than relying only on paper evaluations which may never get filled out and returned.

It wasn't all high-tech, however -- plain, regular paper index cards were provided on every table, and attendees could write down thoughts as they hit them, and put the cards up on onsite bulletin boards at the conference, for other attendees to view and respond to, and for organizers to use to further gauge attendees interests and thoughts in what was going on.

It also wasn't all good: as usual, there were a couple of corporate-based speakers who had little or no grass-roots organizing or nonprofit field experience, and who emphasized the use of tech tools and gadgets by nonprofits but provided no concrete examples of nonprofits, particularly small organizations, actually using them effectively. Also, one very well-known online organizing initiative made a very poor showing, with one of its founders espousing its inclusive practices from the stage while audience members were roundly debunking such, based on their individual experiences, via an online bulletin board provided to conference attendees. In addition, many of the web sites are NOT accessible to people with disabilities, people using assistive technologies or people without the very latest and greatest browsers and other software. And, finally, several conference members hid behind their laptops rather than talking to the other people sitting at their table, thereby missing out on obvious, immediate networking opportunities just inches away (I didn't take mine, specifically so I couldn't hide behind it, which I sometimes do myself at conferences).

Still, it was the most energizing, information-filled conference I've ever attended. Once you look past the jargon -- blogs, vlogs, tags and podcasts -- the human practices represent the next wave of community involvement, not-so-much in tech use, but in involving and empowering people, period. This is more than just what's next in online volunteering -- this is the emerging model of effective any volunteer/community involvement. What will keep organizations from adapting and adopting these practices won't be lack of technology tools but, rather, reluctance to embrace less-hierarchical and more-inclusive, more-transparent practices -- and lack of donor and sponsorship support for the human resources needed for such practices.

If you want to better utilize volunteers and the community, and if you want to know "what's next," you need to visit the NetSquared online conference and view these innovations yourself.

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