Online Spying Can Improve Your Volunteer Management Skills

By Susan J. Ellis

Ever think that industrial espionage would be recommended as a best practice management tool?  Keep reading!

We’ve made great strides in communicating online, recruiting volunteers through Web-based registries of opportunities, “talking” on listservs and discussion forums, and expanding our skills from a wealth of electronic resources.   These are all intentional collegial exchanges, which are great.  

So now let’s consider what can be learned online through stealth.

Of course I’m not talking about anything illegal, dishonest, or even unethical.  I’m recommending using the Internet to be a quiet explorer, observing carefully what other organizations are doing (or, at least, are presenting to the public about what they do).  Educate yourself about approaches and models that you might follow, adapt, or even avoid.

Let’s look at some specific examples.  Remember as you read, please, that one of my most-repeated suggestions is to recruit volunteers to be your “cyber-deputies” – folks who are comfortable online and enjoy the challenge of finding Internet resources.  So you do not have to add the suggestions here to your unending personal to-do list; assign it to your cyber-deputies who will love the challenge.

Volunteer Roles and Recruitment
Go to VolunteerMatch (, the United Way’s Volunteer Solutions (, Idealist (, or any other online registry of volunteer opportunities – many countries these days have their own (see which we know about).  Pretend you’re a prospective volunteer and search for a possible placement.   Search by the type of setting you are in and see what comes up.  Then search by your site’s zip/postal code and do the same thing.  Next, search by the different skills needed for the assignments you want to fill.   If you can search by other criteria, see what turns up if you say you want evening hours or something you can do with your children.

All of this will reveal some interesting information if you carefully read each “ad” and see what you think of it.  For example:

  • What’s your local competition? (Like it or not, in this case that’s what the other organizations are.)  Conversely, what organizations do you know want volunteers but are not listed here?  Is this to your advantage or not?
  • What are other organizations like yours asking volunteers to do?  Might such tasks be valuable in your agency, too?  
  • How flexible are the other assignments in terms of schedule, where the work has to be done, etc.?
  • How attractive does each position sound?  How much detail does each listing provide? 

Now study the opportunity descriptions you have posted or are preparing to post.  How do they compare?  Will you compete successfully?

Don’t stop there.  Enter a different zip/postal code – even in another state or country.  If you’ve ever been at a loss about what you might ask volunteers to do, you’ll get your creative juices flowing by sampling what other organizations are up to.  And it will be easier to get the agreement of both paid staff and other volunteers if you can demonstrate that this idea is already being tried elsewhere.

Of course, once you’ve discovered a volunteer role you’d like to duplicate, you can come out from the shadows and contact that organization’s volunteer office and openly ask for help in replicating the activity.  It’s flattering to hear, “I found your great program online and just had to contact you as a colleague.”  Wouldn’t you respond positively?

You aren’t done yet with the potential buried treasure.  Select the advertised volunteer assignments you like best and click through it each organization’s own Web site (or take time to visit the Web sites of every member of your local DOVIA or other professional network).   Here you want to look for:

  • How visible is the fact that this organization involves volunteers?  Is volunteering mentioned on the home page or deep within the site after many clicks?
  • Are current openings for volunteers shown or is the description of what volunteers do general and unchanging?
  • How can someone express interest in volunteering?  With an online application?  Only by telephone during office hours?

Again, how do these Web sites compare with your organization’s and can you do a better job of making volunteering visible to your site visitors?

Make the Most of Existing Opportunities
Smart volunteer resources managers used to read what were called the “social pages” of the newspaper to identify community events and individuals considered leaders, major donors, experts, etc.  The need to find these folks and where they gather continues, but today you can scope out happenings online.  Most local newspapers, radio stations, and television stations also maintain Web sites where you can search for what’s relevant to you.  Look for calendars of events that might lead you to new recruits.  Is there a health fair, a flea market, a high school play scheduled?  Could you “piggyback” on that gathering with an exhibit booth, literature table, or playbill ad? 

Use these sorts of news items and calendars to do targeted outreach.  What’s going on that involves young men or Asian-American families?  Can you glean what issues matter to the population you most wish to reach?  How about ideas for where they spend their free time – and can you get to the same place with your message?

Current volunteers and colleague employees all have special interests, both professional and personal, and you can bet they are active on one or more listservs or discussion boards for those.  Simply ask them to be on the lookout for you and let you know about:

  • Service projects that might be discussed.
  • Events such as the ones just mentioned.
  • Ideas on what might be of interest to their circle in terms of volunteer activities.

Online Tools
Have your cyber-deputies help you find more, but here are two fantastic, free resources:

  • Google Alerts ( – You can enter any number of key words or phrases (a separate form for each) that you want to track and every day Google will send you an e-mail with links for where those words appeared the day before on the Web, with hotlinks so you can read more!  This is like the old newspaper “clipping services,” only neater.  So monitor where and how the name of your organization is used, track the distribution of a press release, monitor an issue, etc.  Keep up the espionage by monitoring your “competition”; get Alerts for the name of the few organizations that seem to vie for filling the same type of volunteer positions.
  • Survey Monkey ( – This wonderful site for conducting electronic surveys (and there are others like it) offers a basic free membership and relatively inexpensive additional options. In terms of uncovering hidden information, create a survey to be taken by people with whom you don’t usually communicate.  Some ideas for sleuthing:
    • Ask the people monitoring discussion forums/listservs for you (see above) to submit a post inviting the members of their forum to “help the agency I volunteer with” by completing a very quick online questionnaire.  For example, if you want to recruit for your speakers bureau and a staff colleague or volunteer is active on a public relations professional list, try to get a sampling of PR practitioners to answer questions like:  Have you ever been asked to contribute your professional skills as a volunteer?  What is the most important factor to you in choosing a volunteer role?  What do you hate to see?
    • Create a graphic that is linked directly to the survey and says, in an eye-catching way, some variation of:  “Give 5 minutes and your opinion!  Click here to answer 8 questions to help X Agency in its important work. Thanks so much!”  Get any volunteer, donor, or vendor to place this graphic/link on any Web site and then gather opinions on whatever you like.

Did I get your creative juices flowing?  How?
Are you already spying positively?  Do share!
What other online tools in this vein do you recommend?   

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