Starting an Online Forum for Volunteers

By Jayne Cravens and Susan J. Ellis
From The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, Energize, Inc., 2014

If you already interact with volunteers via e-mail, and you already lurk on an existing online forum or community, then you are ready to start an online forum for your organization's current volunteers. We strongly believe that this is a fundamental step in implementing virtual volunteering and increasingly for working with all volunteers. An online forum for volunteers will be referenced throughout the rest of thisGuidebook. An online forum allows an organization to make announcements easily to all volunteers at once and, conversely, enables volunteers to interact with employees and each other, to get suggestions and feedback, ask questions and more, at any time that is convenient. In addition to message threads, most forum platforms also permit members to upload document files, pictures and other materials for the rest of the group to see, and also maintain the history of past exchanges in a searchable archive. An online forum can serve as a written record of participation, concerns, trends and issues for volunteers. It is a natural extension of onsite interactions among volunteers and employees. And the good news is that many of your options for hosting an online forum are free of cost.

We encourage you to select a platform that allows users to choose message delivery methods and functionalities that are best for them. Two popular platforms are Yahoo Groups and Google Groups—both are free and allow you to have complete privacy for your online communications. You can also search TechSoup for additional free online group options. As we write this edition of the Guidebook, Facebook and LinkedIn have created group options that are increasingly popular, and even newer platforms will surface in the future.

For online volunteers, this electronic forum will be an important way to feel connected to your organization and to a larger corps of volunteers. Anyone in a virtual assignment should automatically be given access to the online community. Participation in online exchanges should be listed as one of the responsibilities in each virtual volunteer position description.

A Successful Online Forum
Your goal is to make the online community something that offers essential information, is frequently updated, and is both useful and welcoming to online volunteers. Online forums connect your online volunteers to information routinely shared with onsite volunteers, since you can post electronic versions of memos, newsletters, announcements about events, policy changes, and new volunteering opportunities currently communicated in other ways.  A successful online community needs: 

  • Participation.  You may initially need to be intentional about asking certain volunteers to post. We return to this issue of encouraging group exchange in the chapter on working with online volunteers.  
  • People to fill the roles of facilitator, administrator and moderator. 
    • Facilitator:  keeps the community focused, posts items to generate useful discussions, reminds participants of the ground rules or topics for discussion, and sometimes steps in to calm nerves when arguments get out of control.
    • Administrator: helps with technical issues/problems, deletes/adds members, and archives the conversations.
    • Moderator: filters content by reading it before it is posted, and keeps out improper posts (jokes, advertising, insults, etc.).

The VRM, another employee or an online volunteer can fill all three of these roles. Or you can have different people in different roles, or you can have multiple people in each role. 

  • Forum guidelines, based particularly on your organization's policies and procedures regarding confidentiality, sexual harassment and discrimination. 
  • Support from the VRM.  If you are not the VRM, you will need to convince your VRM that creating an online forum for all volunteers is a great idea. Assure the VRM that you will take care of setting up and supervising the community, and encourage the VRM to mention the forum in regular communications with volunteers, and to participate in the community as well. 

Applying this to All Volunteers
       ...Should you make joining your online community mandatory for all volunteers? 

The answer depends on your organization’s culture or business needs, but recognize that you may lose some volunteers who are not willing to agree to a mandatory requirement. Most traditional organizations that have lots of volunteers find that it is best to introduce an online community as an option rather than a requirement, while newer organizations get no resistance at all to such a requirement. It may be tempting to sign everyone up and offer them the opportunity to opt out, but for-profit companies who have tried this over the years have ended up with customer backlash and even some negative press. 

Again, the key is to provide volunteers information through the community that is essential, making it something that they feel they must be a part of, even as a lurker. For onsite volunteers to value an online community and log in to it regularly, it must provide at least something that cannot be found anywhere else. That is one benefit of electronically posting all printed-on-paper materials to the community archives: all volunteers will know where they can find the latest versions of all important documents, refresher information from past training and any notices predating their first day with you. So it is a great resource for both new and long-time volunteers.

Use your creativity to offer materials of interest to volunteers. You can post: announcements about the results of onsite events that your volunteers may have helped to coordinate; links to newspaper articles about the organization; the text of a recent speech by your executive director;  links to photos of volunteers in action—all items that your volunteers might miss if not for their online forum. Frequently encourage volunteers to post about challenges they face, resources they find particularly helpful and their volunteering experiences in general. Remember to thank every volunteer who posts to your online forum. Altogether, this encourages volunteers to help other volunteers using the forum. 

Refer to the forum regularly in onsite events and meetings (“I hope you all have had a chance to see the debate that is happening on the online forum about the best method for reporting...”), and via your volunteer newsletter. Also, the VRM, as well as other employees or core volunteer staff supporting and involving volunteers, must participate in this online community for it to be successful. Volunteers must know that employees and other volunteers value the forum enough for them to use it as well. 

Such an online forum can be kept private, with only vetted volunteers allowed to join (to post and to read messages). Volunteers who have been dismissed from the organization should be removed from the forum. But consider allowing volunteers who are taking a pause or retiring from volunteering to stay on the forum; it keeps them involved in your organization and perhaps  lead them to come back. Further, these experienced folks can help new volunteers via the forum, becoming online volunteers without even knowing that is what they are!

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