5 Ways to Recruit, Train and Organize Volunteers Online

By Marc Cousineau

Volunteers are often the backbone of an association’s efforts. They are the behind the scenes members working to plan, strategize, create and deliver services that are integral to any non-profit organization.

However, as much as volunteers are amazing (an understatement), the details around recruiting, training and organizing them can often cause you and your staff to lose sleep and pull out hair in frustration.

Alas, technology is here to save the day! A variety of online options have cropped up over the past few years to help association professionals manage volunteers. Here are five of the best:

1. Social Media

Social media platforms are like the gold fields of 19th-century Yukon, a place where the passionate and the ambitious flock to in search of ideas and opportunity. The difference is, instead of your association getting rich from mining minerals, it can get rich by mining the knowledge and contributions of volunteers. Not only does social media allow you association to connect with a broad spectrum of demographics at one time and in one place, it also allows those connections to spread the word easily and with little effort (which in itself is a small act of volunteering).

Recruiting and training volunteers can be done through various social media platforms that may already be set up by your association. One of the benefits of social media is that if your organization doesn’t have a presence on these platforms, it is relatively time and cost-effective to get started right away.

LinkedIn is a great way to draw those of your members who are young professionals to volunteering opportunities. Besides posting and promoting opportunities on your association’s group or page, LinkedIn launched a “Volunteer Marketplace” for non-profits in 2014 which lets users search for volunteer opportunities in their local communities. While this service isn’t free, it does come at a discounted rate. It may also be a good idea to encourage your association’s volunteers to create their own group on LinkedIn to discuss ideas and relay news.

Twitter and Facebook, blog posts and YouTube videos are also great ways to guide members from potential volunteers to full-fledged contributors. Facebook allows your organization to spread the word from member to member and create a group that can be used to schedule volunteers, encourage idea exchanges and relay information. Twitter gives your association an opportunity to throw open its doors and conduct a Twitter chat where your staff can communicate with those interested in volunteering. Blog posts allow your association to showcase the value of volunteering through infographics, interviews with current and past volunteers and FAQ sections. Finally, YouTube is a great platform for associations looking to create how-to videos to recruit and train volunteers.

2. Volunteer Resource Portals and Mobile Apps

Social media is a great resource for associations looking to boost their volunteer efforts, but if you want to take your recruitment, training and organizing to another level, look into building a volunteer resource portal on your website or a mobile app for volunteers.

Volunteer resource portals are like a private networking platform tailored to your association’s wants and needs. It’s a place on your website that only volunteers have access to and which can be formatted however you like. Some resource portals provide schedules for meetings and events, special updates that apply to volunteers, message boards where volunteers can share ideas and network and areas where volunteers can be recognized by staff and the association.

The benefit of these resource portals is that they can be tailored and can give volunteers exclusive content, which gives them more incentive to get involved. A great example of a volunteer resource portal that associations can copy is the Volunteer England platform. The off-shoot of VE’s website offers members a variety of articles, information sheets, case studies and links to other helpful guidance or external websites. Most sections include example and template documents and how-to guides to help volunteers reach personal and organizational goals. For all the benefits that volunteer resource portals come with, they also have a hefty price tag of money and time.

Mobile apps can mimic an association’s volunteer resource portal, but can add an extra element to the platform. A mobile app for your organization’s volunteers will allow them to access tools, like calendars or news boards, anywhere they go. Your association can draw inspiration from volunteer-based apps GiveGab, which was built to be a social platform for volunteers with like interests, or PayItForward, which gives users a weekly alert with volunteer suggestions, from big to small.

Mobile apps also allows for gamification, which has been proven to be an effective tool for engagement. Gamification gives an association an opportunity to engage volunteers by making volunteering more fun. For example, volunteers can earn points for every task they accomplish, such as writing an article for the bi-monthly magazine or attending a meeting. Once they reach certain levels, they achieve recognition. This recognition can come solely from the app or can even be a public recognition at your annual conference. The mobile app Cause.it is a great example of an app that promotes recognition in return for volunteerism. One downside of building a custom mobile app; it can also get pricey. 

3. Online signup and survey sites

Online signup sites and survey sites help your association bookend the volunteer management process. Signup sites allow your association to keep track of its new volunteers and give would-be volunteers easy access to joining your cause. Survey sites can help your association canvas its volunteers, both past and present, to gather data on the volunteer experience and improve all aspects of the process.

Three signup sites that can be effective for associations are Jooners, SignUpGenius and iVolunteer. These platforms are flexible, easy to set up and give associations a chance to share opportunities with members, track the response, organize volunteers and recognize them. These sites are all free, but come with an option to upgrade to a premium version for a fee, which may be something your organization looks into, based on its needs. An added bonus to using these sites; many of your members may have had experience with the platforms as they are commonly used by youth sports teams, local charities and school/community volunteer drives.

Survey sites have become a popular tool for non-profit organizations when collecting member data, such as feedback on events or conferences. They can also be used to ask association volunteers about their experience and analyze the answers to make your operation better. One of the most frequently-used survey sites is Survey Monkey. By using Survey Monkey, or any other platform, it gives volunteers a chance to comment on the recruitment, training and organizing process, as well as allowing them to provide suggestions on how to improve the experience. These surveys can be done anonymously so volunteers don’t feel hesitant about being honest.

4. Google Apps

When you’re looking for a way to effectively organize volunteers, it might be a good idea to ask yourself WWGD, or, “What would Google Do?” The massive search engine offers associations a variety of ways to manage those who contribute their time to the organization through its apps. 

Google Docs makes interacting with volunteers time-efficient and erases many of the headaches that usually come with organizing a group of people with different schedules and different expertise. Volunteer managers can create a meeting or responsibility schedule and volunteers can add notes and indicate when they can meet and attend an event. Volunteers can also collaborate on documents or a variety of documents (such as an association’s newsletter) in real time. This is a great feature for committees and those members who volunteer on them. Google Docs allows these committee members to add to minutes of a meeting, jot down reminders and build strategies for an initiative in a collaborative effort.

Google Calendar is another simple, but effective Google app that can help you and your volunteers be better organized. This platform gives you a chance to plan meetings, set deadlines and include important benchmarks. The great thing about Google Calendar is its ability to integrate with Gmail accounts. No one will miss a crucial meeting or important deadline because Google Calendar gives you a handy alert about the impending due date.

Google Drive allows your association and its volunteers to share files with little or no cost and time. Volunteers are often asked to share articles, pictures, videos, data, brainstorm documents or any other type of media that can help build a plan, strategy, report or publication. Google Drive lets your volunteers upload these files to one place without having to worry about multiple email threads or missing a piece of the entire puzzle.

Lastly, Google Hangouts provides your associations with a platform to virtually meet, train and answer questions from volunteers. Hangouts is free and cuts down on coordinating conference calls while giving volunteers a chance to ask questions and network with fellow volunteers. Not only will volunteers be more confident in their roles, it will build a greater sense of commonality and community within your volunteer base.

5. Email groups

This last suggestion comes from ASAE member Peggy Hoffman, CAE and is a great way to utilize those members who make up a surplus group of willing volunteers.

Your association might know this conundrum all too well; your call for volunteers has resulted in more members raising their hands than was expected and, unfortunately, there are no roles available for them to fill. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Email groups can be the solution you’ve been looking, one that seeks to include all would-be volunteers and may even help your association think outside the box when providing its services.

Hoffman describes her experience with what she calls the ASAE email writers pool, “All of us who at one time had raised our hand to be on the publications committee were given an opportunity to be in this writer’s pool. So once a month I get this really cool email listing all the different larger projects or questions or articles that they’re working on in the ASAE family and I have the opportunity to weigh in. I can make a recommendation for a source for an event or article, for an answer or solution or an idea.”

These email groups help keep members involved without stretching your association’s resources too thin or overloading committees with volunteers. Another bonus of email groups is the new perspectives on old problems that are bound to come in when involving volunteers who haven’t been wearied by bias. Email groups also provide associations with a great way to implement micro-volunteerism, which is the practice of giving small projects to those who don’t want to make a long-term commitment. Email groups give members interested in micro-volunteerism a chance to make their mark and be involved without asking too much of them, which is a great way to allow new members to dip their toes in the volunteer waters. 

Marc Cousineau is the founder and president of Incline Marketing Services. Cousineau works with associations, non-profits and small businesses to expand their reach and better serve their communities through social media awareness, website content creation, video services, print publications and more.