Grassroots Tech: Managing Volunteers

In many small grassroots groups I have been involved in, there are real challenges put upon leaders and coordinators (who are likely already putting in time and shouldering a task list way beyond the normal scope of human capacity) to track and mobilize volunteers. And there is a dearth of free software solutions to help effectively manage volunteers, whose help is the lifeblood of many an un(der)funded organization.

What is needed for effective volunteer management

Whether a group conducts tabling at a number of events, or needs strong bodies on a given day to clean up a vacant lot, or needs people with skills and tools to build raised planters in an urban garden, or sends out civil disobedience trainers to several locations in advance of a protest action, organizers and team leaders must:

  • maintain lists of volunteers’ names and contact info;
  • know which volunteers have the appropriate training, experience and tools for each particular job;
  • know the volunteer history of each individual and have a sense of the dependability of each volunteer, so that critical positions are not assigned to someone who has been a no-show in the past; and
  • have some system for advertising volunteer opportunities that arise and for scheduling responding helpers into the right positions, perhaps across several shifts and locations.

And, ideally, organizers and team leaders should be able:

  • to share access to, and maintenance duties for, the list of volunteers and volunteer history with others in the organization or group (yet keep the list secure and accessible only to authorized persons);
  • to enter for each individual  days/hours of availability;
  • to enter custom attributes pertinent to the activities of the group such as “has a car?” or “can lift more than 20 lbs?”;
  • to perform a search for likely candidates for an assignment based upon any combination of volunteer attributes such as prerequisite training, availability, skill set, location, and so on, for matching up appropriate volunteers with particular opportunities;
  • to allow volunteers to sign themselves up for noncritical roles;
  • to allow only authorized persons the ability to assign volunteers to critical roles;
  • for large events and actions, to work with a multi-tiered structure of volunteers assigned to subgroups under the direction of team leaders;
  • to see a calendar view and perhaps share a calendar view with volunteers of their own commitments;
  • to track volunteer attendance and hours (comes in handy when grant writing and sometimes is necessary for reports to granting foundations);
  • at the click of a button, to shoot out an email (or a group text message) to all event/action volunteers or any subset of volunteers;
  • to have a painless system for thanking volunteers via mail or email;
  • to stay in communication with their volunteers between events/actions, so as to keep the corps of helpers “on the hook” and up-to-date with unfolding news;
  • to organize on mobile phones, for managing the crew in the field;
  • to have their list of volunteers integrated into a broader CRM (since the same event volunteers might also be donors, and/or sit on the Board or on leadership committees) so that there is a comprehensive, centralized place for tracking relationships, commitments, positions, and histories, and for general communications — a meta-list that will survive individuals’ computer disasters and the comings and goings of group leaders.

vol management mindmap2(A while back, I got a start on a mindmap of what such an app should offer, and then did not have time to continue… but may well have gotten back to it by the time you are reading this.

Comments below are welcome!)

What types of groups need a free application,
and what they are doing now

When I talk about “grassroots groups” I do not refer to large advocacy NPOs such as moveon.org. I mean 5 or 15 or 20 people working on change initiatives in their own neighborhood; or a nonprofit group engaged in an educational or social justice effort; or a first-time candidate mounting a local election campaign; or a community of public school parents advocating for some school issue who need to organize themselves into subgroups working on press exposure, outreach, petitioning, and so on; or even larger regional groups — perhaps organized as NPOs — that serve a broader constituency but just have no budget to speak of for technology.

The approaches I have seen organizers in such groups use for volunteer management include keeping contact groups maintained in their own Google Contacts (so that nobody else has access to the contact data nor how volunteers are grouped) … then there are the Excel spreadsheets of volunteers that get passed around via email and end up living for a while in several different versions across several people’s computers (and then are not preserved in some central repository for future reference when the same event is held the next year) … and there are the Google Docs that are “owned” by someone who is involved this month, but who is suddenly gone on a six-month tour of northern India the next month, inhibiting further sharing of or editing of or even access to a document that was important to the whole leadership team. And, of course, there are the notes scribbled in a well-worn notebook in someone’s tote bag. Not to mention gazillions of emails that fly back and forth in increasingly desperate communications as coordinators try to stay on top of last-minute details.

And, all too often, information about who the volunteers are, what they bring to the table, what kinds of events or duties they have helped with in the past — in short, the knowledge of who to call, when, for what — lives inside the head of one key leader. If we unplug that leader and try plugging in a different individual — a scenario that could come about for any number of reasons — all continuity is lost and the group’s relationship with the body of people it heavily depends upon is smashed. I have seen this happen and it is not pretty.

Cloud-based volunteer management apps

There are a few web services that offer volunteer assignment & tracking features, and I narrowed the field to two I have evaluated in some depth for my studies.

VolunteerSpot is a well-done application that was started in 2009 by, “Karen Bantuveris, a management consultant working-mom, became a Girl Scout leader and PTA board member once her daughter entered school. Shocked at all the ‘little things’ that made volunteering a hassle, and fueled by frustration with reply-all emails, clipboards, online groups, and late night reminder messages…she decided to do something about it.”

The interface is well done and the app is mobile-friendly so that volunteers can sign up right on their phones. VolunteerSpot allows the volunteer coordinator to configure whether anyone from the general public can sign up (and, as a plus, people are not required to set up their own account, so that for non-specialized positions the sign-up process is made as easy as possible), or whether assignments for certain shifts must be done by an authorized user. There is a nice calendar user interface for volunteers to peruse available shifts and select the one(s) they will fill. VolunteerSpot also offers the option to collect money from supporters who may not have the time to volunteer.

There is a free version of VolunteerSpot, with a huge downside in that it does not track volunteer history. In other words, you can create an event, establish what roles and shifts are available, and enter names yourself or email or publish a sign-up link, but the names of the volunteers do not persist and you are starting over with a blank roster next time. You will still be maintaining all those spreadsheets and address books, and the history of a volunteer’s involvement, skills and dependability will still likely live only inside your head.

The Premium paid version of VolunteerSpot offers customizable fields (“T-shirt size?”), time tracking, advanced reporting and other value-added services. The premium pricing is very fair — for example, $9.99 per month for up to 50 participants signing up for each activity. But while this cost may seem painless to that Girl Scout mom in a North American suburb, $120 per year may not be doable for an organization that, for example, feeds the homeless and needs every penny to purchase food.

Further, even if the price were affordable for all, there will still be a disconnect between however and wherever your group maintains its overall contact list and the list of folks you invite to volunteer for an activity in VolunteerSpot.

It’s also worth noting that VolunteerSpot is ad-ware. Even with the Premium service, invitations and reminders are sent out with embedded ads likely full of trackers, beacons, and pixels that serve to track your recipients’ clicks and website visits.

So, while perhaps VolunteerSpot should be considered by groups looking for an improvement over their current system (or lack of one) for planning and staffing an event, it really does seem most suited to more mainstream “momtrepreneurs” (as the company’s founder calls herself) than to gritty, grassroots applications. In fact, in the company’s fact sheet clearly targeted to prospective advertisers, they make no bones about the market demographics of VolunteerSpot customers: “2 Million volunteers in service. Mostly affluent, influential moms in tech-forward markets in the US and Canada.”

Volgistics is a feature-complete web-based volunteer management system. Virtually ever feature I have ever wished for in such an application is in there. The problems with Volgistics for use by grassroots groups, however, are several:

  • There is a significant learning curve.
  • The application is not easy to use. Even some of the Tip of the Week blog posts on their site, far from offering those “aha!” moments we like to experience when reading tips, are contorted, difficult to follow.
  • As a long-time tech pro, I sense that the underlying technology is quite long in the tooth.
  • The interface is outdated, with old-school looking tabs and many buttons to click and pages to load where a more modern code base would provide, for example, ajax-powered disclosure features.
  • There is no mobile option, not even for volunteers to sign up. Use of the app requires a web browser and, while I admittedly did not try loading a webpage from their site on my phone or tablet during my trial account period, nothing about the site looks like responsive, mobile-friendly layouts.
  • The volunteer list a group maintains in Volgistics is not integrated with their general contact list, donation records, member and committee lists, etc. … as would no volunteer management app that is not a full-fledged CRM.
  • Whereas Volgistics offers a pricing scale at first glance similar to VolunteerSpot, for $9.00 a month you can store 50 volunteers in your list, total. Since Volgistics does track volunteer history (to the Nth degree), if you actually have 200 volunteers overall the price jumps to $24.00/month. (As noted above, VolunteerSpot pricing is $9.99/month for a max of 50 volunteers per activity.)

Even were the monthly cost affordable for a very small group, learning enough about Volgistics to use it effectively is well beyond the capacity of a group that is likely led by already overwhelmed people who are themselves volunteers.

So, then, what can grassroots groups use
to manage their volunteers?

The answer may, in the near future, be enhanced volunteer management features of the open-source CiviCRM. This application is free and there have been efforts underway to define the requirements and recruit interested developers for creating a volunteer module, and another project to make the title mobile-friendly is 60% funded by sponsoring organizations who need that feature.

CiviCRM with strong volunteer management features would solve all of the above-noted needs for small groups to manage their volunteers, and, unlike VolunteerSpot and Volgistics, it is a true CRM allowing the group to manage all kinds of relationships.

More about CiviCRM and any progress on the volunteer module and mobile features in future posts …

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About ilyse kazar

Ilyse Kazar is a planeteer. She is also a writer, tech consultant, solutions architect, community organizer, animal lover, eternal student, and amateur artist. She lives and works in the Lower East Side NYC.
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