“None of us were ready for this. So I think, in many ways, for as often as everybody complains about technology and all the challenges, I think this past year could have gone very differently if we didn’t have these platforms.” — Volunteer manager embracing technology in Ohio
What a year it’s been. Instead of face-to-face connection, we spent the past year staring at little faces squished into squares on our screens. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were using more and more technology in our work and personal lives. Then, suddenly, we were all shuffled into our homes and our dependence on these technologies went into hyperdrive. It’s no secret that this was a bumpy transition for many of us, exacerbated by the stress and grief of a global pandemic. But among the storm clouds, there were some silver linings.
Over the past year, our research team at Arizona State University has conducted the Technology Evolution in Volunteer Management, or “TEVA” project. We asked volunteer managers across the US and Canada how they used technology to engage volunteers during the pandemic. We started with a survey this past winter: those results are summarized in this report. The survey gave us a basic sketch, but the color and texture emerged during follow-up focus group conversations.
The focus groups captured diverse insights of volunteer managers from the full range of volunteerdom. Some manage a handful of volunteers, others work with many thousands. We spoke with 181 volunteer managers that work in human service organizations, governmental agencies, higher education, hospitals, zoos, and more. Some have been with their organizations for 20 years or more, others only a couple of months.
While nearly all of the volunteer managers we talked with were eager to get back to in-person work, many also recognized that the pandemic drove innovations in technology that helped them engage their volunteers in productive and exciting new ways. That was the silver lining.
One theme we’re seeing over and over again is how the pandemic changed the way volunteer managers educate and train their volunteers and clients, often using Zoom or other video sharing platforms. One volunteer manager at an Arizona zoo described finding new ways to teach their volunteers about wildlife:
“Over Zoom, we would give presentations about the different animals in our collection… So, for example, I did a presentation on bird conservation, which was not something that we ever had before. And these were really unique ways to engage our volunteers.”
In other instances, education efforts were focused more on the people they serve than on their volunteers. A natural history museum’s volunteer supervisor described creating materials for kids that were learning from home:
“Our education department rallied and created all these STEAM videos and ended up creating online curriculum to help parents who are homeschooling. They wanted to help students and teachers who were teaching from home that needed curriculum ideas and ways to engage their students in this new virtual environment.”
Transitioning from in-person to virtual programming was challenging at best and disastrous at worst, particularly for volunteers and clients without the means or savvy to connect digitally. But for some, it opened doors. One volunteer manager at a maternal and child health organization in Canada described how moving online had the unexpected benefit of reaching hard-to-reach clients:
“One of the positives that came out of the whole shutdown and being virtual was that we were able to provide service to clients in remote, rural communities. When we’re in person, some of those clients weren’t able to access our programs because there was no transportation. The [public] transit didn’t go there.”
In addition to reaching new people who need services, technology helped some organizations engage new volunteers, like this Boys & Girls Club:
“We had a couple of corporate partners who asked for virtual volunteer engagement for their employees. One was an airline company, so I assumed it would be their local employees signing up. It wasn’t! It was their employees in Chicago and Atlanta. Whether they’re reading to kids, or working on a strategic project, the fact that we can do this remotely is good for everyone.”
So, what do these stories show us about how volunteer supervisors used technology in their work this past year? Volunteer managers adapted and learned how to use old technology in new ways. In some cases, they diversified their volunteer and client bases. In other cases, virtual technologies helped programs hold onto the volunteer base they already had. In many cases, nonprofits embraced new technologies and decided that they’re worth keeping around when the pandemic tides recede.
This is a glimpse of the hundreds of stories we collected during the focus group conversations. As we continue our analysis of the focus groups in the coming months, we aim to weave these stories into a deeper understanding of the evolving role of technology in volunteer management. We’ve been fascinated by how the pandemic was impossible for some volunteer programs to navigate, while others used it to engage technologies in fruitful new ways. We can already tell that the future will look much different than the pre-pandemic past.
Rachel Nova is a nonprofit professional with ten years of international experience in volunteer management, refugee resettlement, and education. She is also a coffee enthusiast, nature lover, and avid hobbyist, spending her free time crocheting, painting, making candles, and embroidering.
After completing her undergraduate degree in International Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Rachel’s professional journey took her all over the world. She returned to the United States in 2017 to serve as the to serve as the AmeriCorps VISTA Leader for the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Refugee Women’s Empowerment Coordinator at Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.
Currently, Rachel is a Coverdell Fellow at Arizona State University where she is pursuing a master’s degree in Learning Sciences and a Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership and Management. In addition to her studies, she is working with Dr. Mark Hager as a Research Assistant on the Technology Evolution in Volunteer Administration (TEVA) project featured in this post. After completing her graduate program in Spring 2022, she hopes to continue building empowering educational programs in the nonprofit sector.