When low(er) tech is the answer to our scheduling needs

Back in the late aughts I had my first brush with volunteer management, when I volunteered for a second year with a film festival in New York City. In my first year, I just stood at the entrance to a 25-screen megaplex and pointed people to our little corridor of two or three screens. But the second year I returned a bit more ambitious, and volunteered to be the volunteer manager. Thus came my introduction to the wonderful world of Google Sheets for scheduling and the nightmare of sending scheduling emails before we had scheduling apps and volunteer management systems to simplify this laborious task.

We had a list of maybe 100 volunteers and it was my job to email them all to ask about days and times for volunteering. Some people emailed me their availability while others signed up on a google sheet (Google Forms wasn’t even a thing then, it came out in 2008). Then I would manually enter the emails onto the Google sheet, create the schedule, confirm the spots, reconfigure everything a number of times as people’s availability changed, and print everything out so I could use a pen and a clipboard to track volunteers on site at the festival.

Since that time I have been looking for ways to make scheduling volunteers a better experience for everyone involved. Needless to say, the clipboard has mostly been replaced by tablets and Google Sheets has been replaced by Volunteer Management Systems…or is that always the case?

Fast forward to 2020 and I’m working with an incredible education non-profit in New York City which provides programming to and through college for underrepresented students. I came in as a consultant with a focus on Salesforce, but addressing data & tech in all aspects at the organization. They had great volunteer opportunities, especially with their corporate partners, whose employees were able to give their time in a lot of different ways to the students in the program.

The organization was using Salesforce for volunteer scheduling and handling inquiries from potential volunteers. Many of us know and love Salesforce. I’m in there learning new things about the platform all the time . But it isn’t necessarily the answer to all our needs. Because the volunteer component of Salesforce (Volunteers For Salesforce, or V4S) can be complex to set up and maintain, our volunteer manager ended up not using V4S at all and falling back on what she knew best – spreadsheets.

After stepping back and asking ourselves what we really needed to do to get volunteers in front of our students, we had to admit that Volunteers For Salesforce was not the best solution. My volunteer manager and I worked together to switch over to a simpler, less integrated technology to get the job done. Using a combination of Google Forms and FormAssembly, information is collected on the forms and added to Salesforce through spreadsheet uploads.

Now we’re working on the next phase of improvements to our process, which is prioritizing the data that we need in Salesforce on a more real-time, automated schedule. There are lots of different ways this could happen. FormAssembly has an excellent connection with Salesforce already, and Google Sheets can send data through a third app, Zapier, as an intermediary.

If you don’t know all of these apps – no need to worry! My point is that we set up a process to get data from one place to another that works well for the volunteer manager’s needs.

We are all on a technology journey. Sometimes that journey means investing in the newest and most advanced technology, Sometimes the journey leads us to the simplest and most accessible technology available. The question is not which technology you use – it is how you select the technology that best aligns with your needs. Sometimes the most integrated and advanced technologies aren’t the right solution.

There can be a lot of pressure in the age of “digital transformation” and “digital-first” organizations to be using the latest and greatest technology, and to have your systems all be integrated with each other. For sure this can be a goal. Technology can do extraordinary things, but not if we can’t make it work for us.

Sometimes what works for us best in a moment is to go with something a little simpler, a little more manual, and build up to a beautifully integrated, automated tech ecosystem. Looking back, I’m glad that I started out my volunteer managing work with a clipboard and email.


Emily Hicks-Rotella has over a decade of experience working with organizations of all shapes and sizes to support their data and technology culture and strategy. As part of this work, Emily supports staff members to learn, use, and love their data and technology, adding capacity to teams and organizations that need additional technical knowledge and skill. Emily uses a uniquely human and non-technical approach: their goal is to set up staff and organizations for success using data and technology to achieve their missions. Emily lives in the Bronx, New York with their wife and two young children, and when they aren’t being a total data and tech nerd, they are either singing outside, snowboarding, reading, or getting more tattoos.

Email Emily at emily@maketechworkforyou.com to receive their free newsletter and learn more about all things nonprofit data & tech.