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Virtual Volunteering Best Practices for Nonprofit Events: 4 Essentials

Association Management, General Interest| Views: 368

This article is perfect for event planners at mid-size organizations that rely on volunteers to power their projects and that are navigating the new necessity of engaging supporters virtually.

With the need to engage volunteers virtually, how can you ensure these supporters stay connected with your events? Here are four essentials to keep in mind.

Amid all the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, effectively pivoting in-person events to take place virtually has been a major concern shared by both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors alike.

For nonprofits, new difficulties around events have impacted nearly every aspect of typical supporter engagement strategies. For example, how do you keep your organization on the minds of supporters when you can’t meet in person? And how do you stand out in a crowded online space full of other nonprofits trying to do the same?

For many organizations, the answer has been to take their events virtual. Thankfully, virtual event technology and communication platforms have been ready for the challenge, making it easier than ever for organizations of all sizes to engage supporters virtually. 

At Mobilize, we focus on one thing: helping mission-based organizations reach, retain, and engage new supporters. Specifically, we help connect volunteers with the missions they’re passionate about and empower those organizations to make the most of their new connections.

For nonprofits that rely on volunteers to drive their missions forward, volunteering events and opportunities have also needed to follow suit amid the shift to virtual. Virtual volunteering events come with their own unique challenges. Effective planning, engagement tactics, and long-term volunteer management strategies are essential, but how can you ensure nothing falls through the cracks when adapting your program to take place virtually?

Here’s what you’ll need to succeed with virtual volunteering events:

  1. A seamless recruitment process
  2. Active communication tactics
  3. An intuitive digital experience
  4. A long-term engagement strategy

The need for grassroots support hasn’t decreased over the course of 2020, and for many missions, it’s actually more pressing than ever. Attracting, engaging, and retaining virtual volunteers should be a top priority for any organization that relies on volunteer power. These essentials will set your organization up for success in the virtual sphere. 

1. A seamless recruitment process

How you reach and recruit new virtual volunteers sets the tone for the rest of your relationship with them. To encourage long-term engagement from the start, offer as seamless a recruitment and sign-up process as possible. We recommend a few best practices:

  • Keep your registration form simple. Complicated or lengthy sign-up forms will discourage engagement. Focus on your mission, emphasize the impact that volunteers will have, and keep the number of required fields to a minimum. If applicable, ask about applicant skills and interests, but don’t over-do it. You can always learn more about your volunteers once you’ve officially started a relationship with them.
  • Tap into existing recruiting resources. Online platforms like Mobilize.us are designed to connect volunteers with the causes they care about. Our own network gives you access to over 3 million active volunteers looking for new opportunities. By posting your volunteer opportunity online, you can begin attracting new supporters and create a single digital location to point existing volunteers towards. 
  • Encourage peer-to-peer recruitment. Your existing base of support is one of your most valuable recruiting tools. Encourage supporters to share your new volunteer opportunities with their own networks on social media. With a dedicated volunteer recruitment platform, you can even automatically ask new registrants to share your listing via social media or email.

Even though your organization might not be engaging with new volunteers face-to-face, prioritizing their registration experience is still essential—perhaps even more so than ever. 

With organizations and businesses of all types shifting to virtual engagement tactics, there’s more competition for your supporters’ attention than ever before. Offering a streamlined, intuitive sign-up process is the best first step you can take to recruit more volunteers and reduce abandonment. For more tips and best practices, check out the complete Mobilize guide to volunteer recruitment.

2. Active communication tactics

Once you’ve secured the support of new virtual volunteers, you’ll need to actively keep them engaged and informed about your organization’s mission, projects, and opportunities. That’s where effective communication comes in. Simply put, when you can’t interact with volunteers in-person, you have to keep your organization on their minds in other ways. 

If your organization has regularly worked with volunteers in the past, you likely already have some form of communication strategy in place. Review your existing methods, and double down on what’s worked well in the past. Look for any gaps in your communication at all stages of the volunteer journey, from recruitment to orientation to long-term engagement. Here are a few communication tactics we’ve seen work well for mission-based organizations:

  • Email drip streams. Creating one or more email streams to keep virtual volunteers informed and engaged can save your team time and help ensure supporters are consistently reminded of your organization. Develop a general volunteer newsletter stream that highlights volunteer impact and promotes upcoming opportunities. For large-scale volunteer projects or campaigns, create dedicated streams that keep your event or campaign on volunteers’ minds and orient them to their tasks and goals.
  • Volunteer-centric newsletters. An email or printed newsletter just for volunteers is an easy way to keep these supporters informed and offer an exclusive peek into your mission and operations. A newsletter is an ideal place to promote your upcoming opportunities and virtual events. Ideally, your newsletter will serve as part of a broader content marketing campaign geared towards boosting volunteer engagement and including other marketing outlets like social media, your blog, email, and video content.
  • Pre-event reminders. Before a virtual volunteering event, be sure to actively remind your registered volunteers that it’s coming up. This simple courtesy can help to significantly boost follow-through and engagement. Volunteer management software should be able to automatically email or text registered volunteers, but you can always handle this communication task manually if needed. In addition to emails and text reminders, consider using group chat features to collaborate with volunteers and send any event corrections if needed.
  • Post-event follow-up. After your virtual volunteer events end, you should always thank supporters for their participation and explain how their support will help drive your mission forward. This is also the perfect time to learn more about their experience so that you can improve future volunteer events. Send volunteers surveys to get their qualitative feedback, and then record and analyze your responses. Dedicated software can help facilitate this process automatically, saving your team time and keeping survey responses organized.

To fully engage and retain virtual volunteers, your communication strategy should cover both immediate needs (like promoting your opportunities, sending reminders, and explaining tasks) and long-term needs (like keeping volunteers informed and growing their relationships with your mission). 

This has been a new challenge for many nonprofits that hadn’t previously adhered to concrete communication strategies. With the shift to virtual fundraising, nonprofits have needed to both promote and explain their new events and campaigns in order to reduce donor disengagement or confusion. Take a similar approach to your volunteer programming, and remember that over-communication is always a safer bet than staying too quiet.

3. An intuitive digital experience

With a streamlined recruitment process and solid communication tactics in place, it’s time to consider the experience that volunteers will have when they’re actually completing the virtual tasks they’ve signed up for. Take any needed steps to ensure that volunteers’ tasks can be completed easily without overly-complicated processes. 

Requiring volunteers to jump between multiple platforms is a common example that opens up space for confusion or frustration, but it can often be avoided through software integrations. Connecting your organization’s internal and supporter-facing platforms can drastically improve the volunteer experience and simplify management on your end.

For instance, imagine that you’re asking virtual volunteers to contact constituents on your organization’s behalf. Ideally, you’ll empower volunteers with dedicated communication tools for the job, like phone banking software. 

However, unless your phone banking software can freely share data with your central database, the process of pulling contact lists can quickly become a logistical nightmare, requiring staff members to manually generate contact lists to share with volunteers or even requiring volunteers to navigate multiple platforms on their own.

By integrating your communication software with your database or CRM, contact data can be automatically shared between the two platforms. This will dramatically improve your volunteers’ experience and save your team’s time in the process. 

Additionally, make sure that your organization’s volunteer management tools also integrate with your database. This way, contact info and engagement data on your volunteers get automatically saved for future reference. With more thorough data on how your volunteers engage with your programming, you can generate new insights to keep improving your opportunities and stewardship strategies over time.

4. A long-term engagement strategy

Having a concrete plan for keeping volunteers engaged with your mission long after their first virtual experience is critical. If you rely on volunteer power to push projects or campaigns to completion, engagement and retention should be a top priority.

However, with many organizations scrambling to adapt their volunteer programming to the virtual sphere, long-term considerations can easily fall through the cracks. Without additional opportunities to get involved or ways to actively grow their impact on your mission, your busy volunteers can quickly become bored or disengaged. After all, there are a million other organizations competing for their attention online. 

Don’t let your organization neglect engaging and retaining supporters over the long run! 

Here are a few ideas we recommend for long-term volunteer engagement:

  • Develop a membership program. If your organization doesn’t yet have a membership program, now’s the perfect time to develop one. Ideal for boosting volunteer and donor retention alike, a membership program should offer exclusive perks that bring supporters closer to your mission by deepening their impact. Double the Donation’s guide to nonprofit membership programs offers a breakdown of the core steps to launch your own.
  • Give supporters a variety of events and roles. A lack of variety in volunteering opportunities can seriously harm your retention efforts over time. New supporters might be eager to join an initial opportunity or virtual event, but they’ll be unlikely to stay as excited if that’s the only way they’re able to support your mission. Brainstorm new ways for volunteers to support your work and develop new roles whenever possible. New opportunities can range from larger roles, like serving as a docent, to smaller tasks, like helping to promote your events on social media. The main idea is simply to offer plenty of opportunities that will prevent anyone from feeling bored.
  • Offer new training opportunities. As volunteers stick with your organization over time, you’ll need to make sure that they’re deriving value from the relationship, too. Offering training opportunities is a great way to give volunteers new opportunities to develop their skills and deepen their impact on your mission. The training you offer will vary based on your mission, so think about the types of roles in your organization that volunteers can grow into over time and what they’d find most valuable.

Developing a long-term engagement strategy with a defined volunteer lifecycle and roles they can fill over time is a smart move. 

At a minimum, you should always include an additional upcoming volunteer opportunity in your follow-up messages to supporters after events. Make it easy for them to stay engaged by taking the guesswork out of what their next opportunity will be. As you build a stronger base of long-term volunteers, you’ll be able to focus less on recruitment and more on engagement, driving your mission forward and saving your team’s time.

With the shift to virtual operations, transitioning volunteering opportunities to the online space has been a major challenge for mission-based organizations.

Volunteers are extremely valuable supporters to have in your corner, so don’t let your strategies get lost in the shuffle. By staying focused on the essentials, including recruitment, communication, and engagement, as well as offering an intuitive virtual volunteering experience, you can maintain a strong program that retains support and lets supporters deepen their impact on your mission.

About the Author

Allen Kramer is the Co-Founder and President of Mobilize. Before starting Mobilize with Alfred Johnson, he worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, in management consulting at Bain & Company, and helped grow a great social enterprise called Assured Labor. Allen was born and raised in NYC, loves a wide range of music and—on his better days—running.

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