Turning a Gift into a Powerful Tool: The Internet-related's Impact on the Volunteer Field

By Susan J. Ellis

The volunteer world has been given a gift – unexpected but extraordinary. The gift is the Internet. Some of us have eagerly ripped open the wrapping and have been playing (quite seriously) with all the possibilities of this present. Some have taken everything out of the box and are still trying to assemble the pieces, finding the instructions hard to interpret. Others are admiring the package but haven’t quite brought themselves to pull on the bow and look inside. And still others, possibly warned to be wary of gifts from strangers (or feeling burned after an unsuccessful start a few years ago when the technology was much slower and cumbersome), are refusing delivery completely.

Before I wear out this metaphor, let me explain why I’m so certain we should all be grateful for the introduction of cyberspace, and most especially the World Wide Web (introduced in 1991 and truly of value only in the past eight years or so), as a resource for our field. Think about a few key problems volunteerism has always faced and how the Internet offers new solutions (at least potentially):

  • Lack of money
    In the past, underfunding was a major obstacle to professional development, both limited volunteer program budgets and low salaries for practitioners. We always had the excuse of “we can’t afford that,” whether the item in question was a book, a workshop fee, or conference travel expenses. The Internet has given us FREE resources beyond our wildest imaginations.

    Web sites are hardly no-cost to those who create them, but site visitors rarely pay anything for literally a world of information at their fingertips. When there is a charge, the costs are always substantially lower for electronic resources than for traditional ones, whether the savings come from not having to print an actual book or circumventing travel and hotel expenses. (This is why Energize has transformed its Online Bookstore to offer electronic publications.)

    Without having to spend any money, practitioners can use the Web to recruit volunteers (free postings on directories of volunteer opportunities are available in dozens of countries now), engage in all sorts of information exchanges with colleagues, find materials to share in volunteer training sessions, and grow professionally and personally. Similarly, our field’s professional associations can now communicate with members at will, provide a wide array of “benefits” online, and advertise their conferences much more widely – without raising dues.

  • Lack of visibility and lack of information
    The work contributed by volunteers and by volunteer program managers has too often been invisible. In the past, we have had to hope (or agitate) for inclusion of volunteer-related thinking and decision making in such things as government legislation, academic programs teaching about philanthropy or nonprofit management, grant proposal requirements for foundations and other funders, mass media publicity, etc. It also took a great deal of recruitment effort to make the public aware of volunteer opportunities.

    Times have changed! I just did four “searches” on Google, and found the following number of items on the Web for these topics:

    Volunteer: 8,770,000 (found in 0.23 seconds!)
    Volunteer Management: 1,940,000.
    Volunteer Administration: 1,310,000
    Volunteerism: 272,000

    Even allowing for a goodly number of extraneous references, anyone asking a volunteer-related question today can find at least some information. And the better you are at using search engines such as Google, the more possible it is to find both generic and setting-specific answers or suggestions.

  • Isolation of practitioners
    We all know that one of the challenges of this profession is being the only person on staff designated to coordinate volunteers. A publishing house once described volunteerism to me as being a field exceptionally broad and incredibly thin! Volunteers are everywhere, but the people who are concerned with leading them are few and scattered under different job titles. This was also the perennial problem for individuals entering the field: How to find colleagues?

    The Web has given us online discussion groups, places to post questions and give answers, chances to exchange information on job openings, and calendars of volunteerism training events. Sites can be local, national or international. No matter where you are physically, you are not alone in cyberspace.

Still Underutilized

The trouble is that we are not yet grabbing the potential of the Internet to transform our work and our profession. For every colleague active online there are dozens limiting their involvement to e-mail only. For every posting to a listserv or online discussion there are literally hundreds of “lurkers” who are not participating fully. As one example, the dialogue that occurs in response to my monthly Hot Topic is often provocative and always interesting. But even the hottest of the topics rarely elicits even twenty postings. Yet we know from our Web records that upwards of 500 people visit the Hot Topic page EVERY DAY! That’s phenomenal but disturbing. Why do so few of our colleagues join in the discussion? The same question applies to CyberVPM, UKVPMs, OzVPM, and any other listserv in our field.

The Internet offers us a level playing field with other professions and with everyone we have always wanted to “reach.” It gives us a voice, individually and collectively. The power is there to use, but for the most part we are not taking advantage of it. Why? Is it technophobia? Is it due to overwork and too little time? Is it disinterest? We must find some way to bridge our field’s own “digital divide.”

In the United States, the most useful Web sites right now are those produced by consultants (and, yes, I include the Energize site as one example). Our professional organizations have improved their sites over the past two years, but still have not grasped the significance of the medium. This is NOT a matter of money! Paying a competent Webmaster with technical know-how to design a site is the least important part of the process. What’s most important is having a vision for the site: whom does it serve (there are both internal and external audiences to consider) and what do these audiences need to know?

Let me offer this list of ways each of us can make use of the gift of the Internet:

  • Recruit volunteers as “cyber deputies” both to teach our organizations (and us personally) how to use the Internet well and to spend time doing the online research necessary to tap all the resources.
  • Maximize all the free ways you can post volunteer opportunities, advertise a conference, and do other outreach online.
  • Sign up for one or more of the many listservs in the field (see /directory/onlinec/discussion) and CONTRIBUTE at least occasionally.
  • Make sure you are taking advantage of your organization’s own Web site (see my Hot Topic from 2000 on this subject, /hot-topics/2000/august) to publicize the work of volunteers well.
  • Share materials. Today all written work is done by computer. If you have a word processing document, you can turn it into a Web page with almost no effort. Here’s one way that DOVIAs and other local associations can help members to help each other: post sample volunteer application forms, handbooks, evaluation surveys, etc.
  • Find and bookmark sites that are worth re-visiting for updated information.
  • Copy and distribute this Hot Topic to your own network (on paper, if you have to) and challenge the hold-outs.

We simply must overcome any fears and dislikes and learn this technology! Of course I’m preaching to the choir in this forum, right? You are obviously already online! So the questions this month are:

  1. How do you see the Internet transforming our field? (If you see some negative effects, please share those, too.)
  2. What ways have you found to make the most of what’s available online?
  3. Why do you think so many volunteerism practitioners are still not making use of cyberspace? What can we do to convince reluctant colleagues to log on?

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