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Part of Using Instant Messaging to Work With Volunteers: Benefits and Suggestions

version: November 2002

But what is IM really for?

A central use of IM is to support quick questions and clarifications about ongoing work tasks, to collaborate quickly and efficiently. IM allows more rapid exchanges than is possible with email, but without being as intrusive as a telephone call. IM is a real-time conversation, similar in some ways to what you might experience face-to-face.

People often IM while they are doing other tasks. For instance, while in a phone conference, a colleague can send an IM regarding an issue for which he or she needs immediate feedback. This can feel much less intrusive than a face-to-face office visit when a person is on the phone.

Many people also use IM as a preamble to an office visit or a phone call: a person can write and ask if another person is available to talk on the phone right at that moment; the other person can say yes or no. A rejection to talk via IM, many users report, doesn't feel as harsh as via the phone or face-to-face.

People also frequently switch media, conversing via IM and then deciding that a phone call is needed.

Marc Osten of Summit Collaborative notes, "I find myself using instant messaging in ways I never imagined. The amount of phone tag that I'm cutting back on with colleagues who pop a message at me that says - 'need to chat for 5 minutes - are you free - can I ring you?' is amazing. Also I've found myself recently combining IM, email and phone in creative ways... lots of possibilities and I think getting in and starting to play is half the issue. Jayne Cravens, part of UNV's E-Volunteering Unit, works with a variety of Internet-based initiatives. In Fall 2001, she recruited and supervised three online volunteers to facilitate an online discussion group held with a UN event that was physically-located in Geneva, as well as a simultaneous live web cast.

"All three online volunteers asked me to use IM. I did NOT want to do it -- computers and the Internet already permeate my life too much! But they were persistent, so I reluctantly started using it. Within days, I was sold on it. IM was not overwhelming, as I thought it would be. It allowed the four of us, all in different locations on the planet, to work through issues quickly, to get quick answers, and to express our personalities -- humor and irony are a lot easier via IM than via email. It was a vital tool in coordinating our activities for those online events. Also, I learned so much about these online volunteers, on a personal level, the way I would have if I could have gone to lunch with them or chatted by a water cooler with them regularly. IM allowed us to bond, and that's not always easy to do with people you never meet with face-to-face."

"Now I use IM with many other online volunteers, as well as colleagues all over the world, and a few just down the hall. I don't require volunteers to use it, but I do periodically encourage those who have IM access to add me to their friends list and to say 'hi' periodically if they see that I'm online."

"One of my favorite moments using IM was with an online volunteer in Pennsylvania. She told me her young son had come into the room while she was writing me. We were using an IM screen with an interactive feature that allowed either of us to draw pictures, and for the other person to see the picture as it was being drawn. I began writing her son's name and drawing images for him. We ended up drawing a picture together, her son and I, right then and there. It was like if she had been an onsite volunteer here and one day brought her son into the office. It was a really nice moment."

"I will never stop using email, and I would not rely on IM as a primary communication system to work with remote volunteers. Email will always be my favorite online application, but IM runs a very close second."


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