Why volunteer managers (and their co-workers) love technology better than staff meetings

Data management systems may help build relationships faster than a face to face meeting. Really.

There are best practices. And there are better practices.

Two years ago, I wrote a post about DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) to praise their team collaboration in building deeper relationships with volunteers and donors.

DCCK was (and is) so committed to engaging the community that multiple staff: volunteer, development, communications – even data management, met on a weekly basis to discuss individual volunteers and donors and plan to strengthen those relationships.

I was so impressed by this process that I shared it as a best practice example at almost all of my trainings.

But here’s the thing:

DCCK doesn’t hold those meetings any longer.

With staff juggling busy schedules and housed in multiple sites, it became ever-more difficult to sit down together in person and touch base.

You can relate to this problem, right? While some teams succeed at regular meetings (think Volunteer Solutions, featured here in January), many of us find that the competing demands on our time run contrary to our best intentions.

When the DCCK team realized that it could not meet its goal of deepening relationships through regular meetings, they came up with an alternative plan.

They let technology do more of the communicating for them.

How Technology Helps Build Relationships

DCCK built an integrated data management system that tracks the activity of donors, volunteers, and event guests and sponsors all in one place. The system allows the various team members to recognize companies that support them in multiple ways, thank individuals who encourage their companies to get more involved, and encourage more of their financial supporters to become directly involved with volunteer activities.

Take volunteers who assist in the kitchen. DCCK’s Volunteer Engagement Specialist, Jessica Towers, will pull a report of all of the individuals and corporate groups who are scheduled to volunteer in the kitchen the following week. The development team and the administrative staff for the CEO will review the list to see who within the organization may already hold a relationship with someone on the list.  If a staff member has an existing relationship, that person will make a point of stopping by the kitchen to say hello – or following up with them after their visit.

At the same time, Jessica receives information about the volunteer experience in the kitchen by providing volunteers an opportunity to fill out surveys on tablets before leaving for the day.  The survey results help Jessica ensure that volunteer expectations are being met. “We want to make sure that volunteers are having a positive experience, seeing what they want to see, and learning what they want to learn,” says Jessica.

Integrate Your Client Data, Too

The Literacy Council of Northern Virginia leverages its database to track and communicate around students, volunteers, and donors. Executive Director Roopal M. Saran is on the left.

This kind of data integration is not limited to larger nonprofits like DCCK.  The Literacy Council of Northern Virginia (LCNV), a smaller organization that engages volunteers to teach literacy skills to adults, takes a similar approach to information sharing.  The organization is integrating its volunteer, development, and program information into one comprehensive database.

Having student records, volunteer activity, and donor history all stored in one platform allows the LCNV team to communicate in ways that build stronger relationships with their supporters.

“We use our database to make notes on individuals,” noted LCNV Executive Director Roopal Mehta Saran. “If some kind of action is required, we can even assign a task with a due date to a teammate. This process allows us to respond to our stakeholder needs faster and take advantage of opportunities.”

For example, a faculty manager can look at what classes need faculty, and work with the Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator to fill those positions.  The development staff can look at those same volunteer records and see if a volunteer made a gift or perhaps works for a company that matches volunteer hours with corporate contributions.

The database also tracks metrics related to volunteer impact, generating the information needed for reporting on strategic outcomes.

All of this activity increases communication among staff members.

“We confer in person all the time – we all work in the same shared space,” Roopal continues. “Setting tasks through the database allows us to set goals without constant interruptions. We work smarter, not harder.”

Best practices are not set in stone – they evolve. A best practice is a tool that helps us reach our goals faster, more fully, and more effectively.

Alexander Moore, DCCK’s Chief Development Officer, summed it up this way: “We’ve taken the point of those meetings, moved them into sustainable online systems, and created additional measures for accountability and information sharing within our organization. That’s progress!”

Progress, indeed. I’m tempted to check back with these organizations in a couple of years to see what happens next. There’s bound to be a new shift – for the better.


Volunteer managers: do you need to advocate for better technology? My Six Principles of Buy-In will help you boost your influencing skills. Email me for the handout and worksheet, and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.  – Elisa

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