Technology Acceleration: Grab Hold and Hang On

By Susan J. Ellis

As of this month, we are launching a monthly podcast of these Hot Topics – which either pleases you or further confounds you about the relentlessly changing world of technology.  Whatever your personal feelings about such things as downloadable audio, you can’t escape the fact that new technology exists and is important to many people.  Therefore, professionally, we must all keep up.  

This is not the place to teach you what a podcast is, or what’s up with blogging, or what “digital convergence” means.  If you want to learn, there’s an almost overwhelming amount of information on the Internet ready for you to search out (you can start at or – or ask someone in junior high (really).  Nor is this the place to ponder the cost or accessibility of cyberspace, both of which are important but also changing radically for the better.  And I certainly cannot reconcile the contradiction of a medium criticized for impersonal, low-touch communication while also raising panic about sexual and financial predators.

What I do know is that we are never going back to pre-Web days.  E-mail is here to stay –permanently.  Cell phones are morphing into video centers and Internet access points.  Instant messaging is as ubiquitous as instant oatmeal. 

Think you’re having trouble keeping up?  As I write this essay, the built-in Spellchecker in Microsoft Wordâ is trying to alert me to a problem with the word “podcast,” which it doesn’t recognize as a word (it likes “pod” and “cast” separately, but not together).  The familiar red line also wants me to correct the spelling of “blogging.”  But my software is, of course, out of date.  I can empathize.

What does this all mean to the volunteer world right now?  Well, it may be frenetic and strange, but the explosion of new technologies is an enormous opportunity.  Make the most of it!

Think Pictures and Sound! 

Digital photography is extremely popular, yet most of the Web sites related to volunteers have very few pictures and rarely ones that are current as of today.  Yet the ease and almost no cost of digital photographs let you keep changing the visuals on your Web site as often as you wish.  A picture really is worth a 1,000 words and may generate 1,000 virtual hits.  Show volunteers in action, at a training session, or anything else that illuminates what it means to participate in your organization’s work. 

Web sites such as Flickr allow anyone to post photographs for public viewing free of charge.   In “Five Ways Nonprofits Can Use Flickr to Reach New Audiences” on the Wild Apricot site, they note:

Flickr has become a popular social media tool because it allows nonprofits to upload their photos and supports an active community where people share and comment on each other's photos. But what truly sets it apart is its tagging feature. Tagging (keywording) your photos makes them easily findable on Flickr and the web.

Then, join the audio production craze.  These days there are free programs that allow you to record digital sound directly onto your computer (though it helps to invest in a decent microphone).  So record training sessions, speeches, and other events.  Then place snippets online – or even an entire presentation for those who could not attend in person. 

Volunteer San Diego was a pioneer in adding both podcasting and blogging to its public outreach menu.  Consider doing your own podcast (assuming, of course, you have something you want to say about the power and impact of volunteers in your organization).   When was the last time someone offered you a soap box in which you control the entire message and have the potential to be heard around the world, at almost no cost?

Think beyond volunteer recruitment. Why not create a volunteer “podcast development unit” that works with each department in your organization to produce worthwhile public messages on all the aspects of your work?


“Blogs” are logs or journals on the Web and have become both popular and easy to create.  Sure a lot of them are private musings on arcane subjects, but there are also many that are truly informative.  In “A Nonprofit's Guide to the Blogosphere,” Willow Cook reports on how blogs can promote a cause and generate public awareness.  She lists free blogging tools and ways to get your blog noticed, even by the media (who go to blogs for up-to-date information they cannot find elsewhere).

What can you blog about?  Anything that’s happening now: special events, conferences, volunteer projects.  Volunteers can create blogs to discuss their volunteer experiences or, if privacy is a concern, you can set up an organization blog and be the one who posts comments from a variety of volunteers. 

Blogs can be part of the organization’s formal Web site or can be hosted on any number of external sites.  You can learn more about the ways that organizations are using blogs at the Nonprofit Blog Exchange.

Use MySpace as YOURspace!

It’s called social networking and it’s a growing phenomenon.  Most simply, social networking is posting personal or professional information about yourself to a Web site created for this purpose and then interacting online with like-minded people who find you through keyword searches (or you find them).  As always, this has captivated the young first, but all sorts of adult and professional sites are taking hold, too.   

Ask volunteers whether they have posted themselves to such sites as MySpace, FaceBook, or LinkedIn (just to name a few).  Then ask if they have ever mentioned the volunteer work they do with you – and, if not, would they be willing to? 

We’ve said forever that the best recruitment of new volunteers is word-of-mouth by current volunteers.  The same applies to word-of-keyboard.  See what happens if volunteers share something about why they love volunteering with your organization and mention that there are openings right now for people with X or Y skills.  You never know who might be online (and I mean that in a good way, not a suspicious one).

You must be kidding….

No, I’m not.  I am completely aware of how steep the learning curve is and how quickly the ground shifts with ever-new devices and sites.  You don’t have to learn everything in order to start testing the opportunities.  You don’t even have to be the one who learns it at all.  Put out a call for an “Online Test Pilot” and see if a knowledgeable and creative volunteer can 1) explain the potential of cyberspace developments, and 2) develop a strategy for trying a few new things that makes sense for your organization.

While it would be wonderful if your Webmaster or IT department helped you with all this, everything mentioned here can actually be done totally independent of your organization’s formal Web presence.  I’m not necessarily advocating an end run around bureaucratic obstacles, but remember that it’s always easier to apologize than to ask permission!  Especially if you are blazing a trail for the good of your organization.

  • Are you hyperventilating?  Intrigued?  Taking an aspirin?
  • What new technology are you experimenting with right now? (Please share URLs of any examples.)
  • Do you download any podcasts to a portable listening device?  What appeals to you?

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