How digital can better support volunteers and improve services

Digital platforms have helped charities to engage with volunteers more effectively but there are still areas to improve when it comes to planning, writes John Simcock

John Simcock
John Simcock

Of all the sectors to benefit from the rise of digital and social platforms over the past decade, the charity sector has been one of the clear winners.

It has transformed campaigning and fundraising while the whole process of donating in support of a cause has become virtually frictionless. It has also changed the way charities share information about their work, making it much easier for those who need their support to connect with them in the right way.

Compare this with the way charities use digital tools to work with and support volunteers and an entirely different story emerges.

While there is an acknowledgement that digital platforms can vastly improve the effectiveness with which charities engage with their volunteers and - crucially from a volunteer’s perspective - improve the volunteering experience, there are few stand-out examples of charities who are doing a great job.

Partly this is because necessity dictated that revenue and reputation had to be the initial priorities for charities in their use of digital.

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But it is also the case that, even where charities have tried, successfully delivering the potential gains in knowledge sharing, communication and administration among volunteers has been harder than many envisaged.

Having spoken to a number of charities about their experience of rolling out these programmes in the past year or so, three critical success factors emerge when it comes to planning.

The first is to start small and then build scale.  Initiatives which are driven from the centre of charities, launched with a big bang and an expectation that volunteers will suddenly rush en masse to using a new knowledge-sharing platform or using new collaborative project-planning software to manage volunteering time may make for a good business case but are more likely to fail.

This is down to the simple fact that bigger projects are harder to get right and soak up significant support before and after launch – something which few charities can afford.

A second success factor is to start planning by listening to the priorities of volunteers.

While there is a need to focus on the big picture of what the charity needs to achieve, failing to address and acknowledge the issues that really matter to volunteers in any changes you make will simply alienate them, making them less likely to support any new way of working or resource you provide.

A third planning focus is ensure you get the technology right. In the short term, this is an area where using simple cloud-based applications to meet specific user needs – like document sharing or holding virtual meetings - will pay dividends and volunteers supportive of what you are doing. But from a strategic perspective, given that the big improvements in supporting volunteers will involve the ability to easily access and move data, putting a plan in place to liberate this data and move it to the cloud will allow greater flexibility when it comes to embracing new ways of working and helping them deliver services more effectively.

Lastly, in planning any initiative to the way they support volunteers, charities have to remember that while technology is the enabler of change, it is still people who will drive success or failure. Understanding the extent to which current skills, behaviour and culture can support your plans and where your people may need help is therefore a critical consideration from the outset.

John Simcock is charity director at Eduserv

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