Jan 06, 2009

Do Volunteer Matching Websites Work?

I'm still in the mode of reading and summarizing scholarly articles so you won't have to. This next one is from the summer 2008 issue of Nonprofit Management & Leadership (vol. 18 no. 4). (Yes, I'm a little behind.)

This time around, it's an excellent article titled "A Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Online Volunteering," by Beatrice Bezmalinovic Dhebar and Benjamin Stokes. The authors evaluated more than 300 organizations' use of online volunteering services, talking to both staff members and the volunteers themselves.

Their conclusions are simultaneously more and less heartening than I would have expected.

On the positive side, a few groups have been able to use this seemingly random method of reaching out to people to get some serious help, particularly with technological, operational, or fundraising matters. Some have even built entire programs around online volunteers. The online services can create natural matches between nonprofit organizations that are either remote, small, or new, and volunteers who are busy during normal working hours, live far from opportunities for volunteering, or are physically disabled -- but want to help. Not too surprisingly, most volunteers chose assignments with limited time commitments, in most cases only one to five hours of work a week.

On the non-so-great side, most organizations find that a lot more volunteers say they want to help than actually follow through. Even those who complete an assignment rarely come back and do a second one.

But it quickly emerges that the problem can't simply be chalked up to flaky volunteers. Like any staff member, volunteers need training, management, and feedback. The article provides some concrete suggestions for giving this, including suggestions like:

  • ask volunteers about their qualifications before assigning them anything (they actually tend to like being taken seriously this way!)
  • send a "Thanks, but we've filled that volunteer slot" email to applicants whose services you don't intend to use
  • start with short test assignments
  • be clear about the scope of work and your expectations
  • keep in touch at least once a week (or more) about how things are going, and
  • tell the volunteers (effusively and often) when you're happy with their work and that it's making an important difference to your organization.

As with so many other human relationships, communication seems to be the key. The overriding lesson I took from this article was: While the Internet can be an amazing way to link nonprofit organizations and volunteers, it can also create a barrier between you. Nonprofit managers will get the most from online volunteers if they keep nurturing the human side of this relationship.

Oh and, for a bonus, here are links to the list of volunteer matching websites set forth in the article: