Or, why it’s better to invest in what you need than improvise with props

When the pandemic first hit, my stepdaughter, Ali, had to make a video. As a veterinary resident, part of her job involved teaching, and that responsibility did not end with the shut-in. Ali was expected to make a training video from home on how to extract a bone marrow sample — without an examining room, without equipment, and most especially without an animal.

That sounds pretty daunting, but Ali, is always up for a challenge so she improvised. She demonstrated the procedure with materials she found around her apartment: a plastic lid for a petri dish, a beanie baby for a cat, you get the idea. It’s a funny video thanks to the props and a good on-the-fly solution.

I was reminded of Ali’s video last week when I led a class for volunteer managers on creating virtual volunteer roles. One of the participants had to take an onsite museum role, where volunteers staff educational carts and engage with visitors, and transform it info a remote position. The biggest challenge was figuring out how the volunteer would demonstrate the cart objects from home. She narrowed the decision down to two options.

  1. Show images of the objects on a screen, or
  2. Have the actual objects at home to hold up to the screen, point to physically, and discuss

Option B sounds more compelling, doesn’t it? With an actual object, the volunteer has something to interact with, something that’s three-dimensional, at least on one side of the screen. There’s more potential to engage the viewer with a live demo.

The challenge here is the cost. Let’s say that every virtual volunteer was mailed a box with replicas of objects from the cart. There’s a price tag attached for creating the replicas and mailing the boxes, and it may be sizable. To move forward with this option, the volunteer manager would need the buy-in of her supervisor.

Other participants created virtual roles with expenses attached, too. In many cases, the roles required new technology to be feasible — new software to streamline a process, new hardware to loan to a volunteer.

Ali demonstrated a bone marrow aspiration with a beanie baby. Your virtual volunteer roles will probably require better resources and technology.

Ali made her homegrown video work. She would also be the first to tell you that the video was a temporary fix – a “better than nothing” solution. When it comes to your virtual volunteers, you will want to offer them more than a quick fix, too. You will probably find that a functioning virtual role requires an investment in new resources and technnology. And that may require the buy-in of your leadership.

The concern right now may be timing. If your supervisor has a catalogue of pandemic-related problems to solve, you might hesitate to add these needs to the list.

When it comes to virtual volunteer roles, though, there are plenty of good reasons to act sooner rather than later. Here are two of them:

  • Virtual volunteer roles allow you to cast a wider net, engaging volunteers from all over the country or even the world. One of my Northern Virginia colleagues, who works a very local organization – a homeless shelter – reported that she has a virtual volunteer from California. Imagine what your organization might accomplish by attracting volunteers from other areas.
  • Virtual volunteer roles have the potential to engage a more diverse volunteer pool. Volunteer roles that require a lot of training or an extensive time commitment are attractive to a limited number of potential volunteers. Sometimes, these roles are barriers to achieving diversity. If you deconstruct these roles, though, you create opportunities. By breaking down a complex role into a number of smaller stand-alone virtual positions, you now have a portal to attract a broader cross section of the community.

As a mid-level manager, you will always have a buy-in piece attached to your important new ideas. And again, as always, you will have to demonstrate value. The advice I’ve given for investing in your professional development applies here, too: calculate what you’re losing without the investment, and weigh that alongside what you stand to gain.

Greater diversity, more individuals who care and align with your cause. Those sound like big gains to me. Why wait?

Want to build your adcovacy skills? My Principles of Buy-In will get you started.  Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.