Rob Jackson: Volunteers, loose cannons and social media

Here are three reasons why you shouldn't keep your volunteers away from Twitter and the rest

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

I’ve been taking about social media and volunteering since 2011 and I continue to meet resistance. The fear people seem to have is that volunteers will be loose cannons, firing off any old tweet or post that might cut across the carefully controlled brand and message an organisation wants to project.

I don’t hear this only from staff in communications, marketing, branding, IT or senior management teams either. I sometimes hear it from volunteer managers, perhaps born of a concern, shared with colleagues, that volunteers can't be controlled on social media.

What a potentially sad indictment of contemporary volunteer engagement. It used to be about inspiring and enabling people to achieve the most for our missions and causes. Is it now driven by an obsession with organising people in such a way as to control their involvement in as low-risk a setting as possible?

If it has, then we are missing a major opportunity when it comes to volunteers and social media. Here are three reasons why.

1 Think positive

First, why assume what volunteers say online about your organisation won't be positive? What does that tell you about the implicit belief the organisation has about the quality of the volunteer experience it is offering?

2 The illusion of control

Second, to steer clear of involving volunteers in social media because of an anxiety that we cannot control them is to fundamentally misunderstand social media. Control disappeared on 4 February 2004, the day Mark Zuckerberg turned Facebook on.

For more than 15 years we've been living in a world where we have had less and less control of what people say about our organisations and our work. Rather than trying to shut the gate a decade and a half after the horse has bolted, we need to learn to work with the lack of control and manage it appropriately.

People, including volunteers, are already talking about your organisation on social media. If you do not or are prevented from engaging with this key communication tool you just won't know what they are saying. It's the digital equivalent of putting your head in the sand and hoping it'll all be OK.

3 Missing the point of social media

Third, not engaging volunteers (and, indeed, other supporters) on social media might mean you are failing to realise a key aspect of the very purpose of social media in an organisational context:

"A business feels personal not when it speaks like a person, but when it reflects the persons that make up the business" – Kevan Lee, Buffer

Instead of running scared that volunteers might say something "wrong", what we should be doing is finding a way for the organisation’s voice to be made up of all the individual voices of staff, volunteers, donors and other supporters.

Fear ye not

Just as our approach to volunteer management needs to become less about control and fear of risk and more about empowerment and enabling opportunity, so we need to stop trying to control what people say about us online and instead inspire and enable people to use their voices to help our causes.

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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