virtual volunteers3 Key Supports for Happy, Productive Virtual Volunteers

When you think about unleashing the power of virtual volunteers, it may make you a little nervous.

How can I best ensure they feel connected to the organization?  How can I ensure they are productive and accountable? How do I really know what they’re doing anyway?

And you would not be alone.  Private companies are also grappling with how to manage the growing number of remote employees.

By some estimates, half of the workforce in the US holds a job that could be done – at least in part – via telecommuting, and 40% of the workforce works remotely at some frequency.

What’s more, by next year Generation Z (those born after 1996) will comprise over one-third of the US workforce.  These workers will likely be more comfortable with technology and more interested in remote or flexible working arrangements.  This may also translate to the volunteer context.

In today’s digital world more and more people are contributing to the work of teams online. Nonprofits can also tap the power of remote, flexible work arrangements for virtual volunteers.

If planned, one area where virtual volunteers can make an immediate impact is by supporting the organization’s online communications and marketing.  Often, the work can be done at any time of the day or week and be completed in sprints that are flexible enough to make volunteering accessible to busy volunteers who want to share their time and talent but don’t have time to commute.

Virtual volunteers can help organizations achieve many goals. Their work can help …

  • Boost the number of social media followers through more frequent posts
  • Improve the engagement of social media through more relevant, purposeful posts
  • Increase the open rates and readership of newsletters through better success stories
  • Increase the number of interested applicants by answering questions through online chat
  • Speed up the turnaround of volunteer applications through more frequent processing
  • Enhance the number of volunteers who show up for training and shifts with personal emails

And the list goes on. Any of these tasks can be done from a home office with an internet connection.

Like other volunteer roles, engaging virtual volunteers does involve planning, training, and ongoing support.  Simply because volunteers work remotely does not mean they don’t require interaction and access to online portals or software.

Virtual volunteers, like others, also need guidance.  Below are three key supports that can help give volunteers, specifically those that work with you on marketing and communications, the kinds of ready information they need to take the ball and run with it.

Support #1: Communications Style Guide

virtual volunteers First, in order to ensure consistency in their communications, every organization should have a Style Guide.  Most don’t, so don’t feel bad you haven’t gotten around to it, but do think about creating one – it will save you time and the aggravation of dealing with materials that just don’t quite cut it.

A Style Guide helps protect your brand, your personality, and your image in the community.  Like it or not, your organization is competing with a staggering amount of information people choose to recognize or ignore.

So, it’s important that the words and symbols you use to describe your unique identity are clear and focused.  The more consistent you are, the easier it is for your supporters to pick you out from a crowd.

What is a Style Guide?

A Communications Style Guide describes the standards that you use to develop all materials for your organization.  The purpose is to ensure that there is a consistent look and feel – a graphic identity – that the public will recognize, regardless of which materials they are reading.

By following the Style Guide, time isn’t wasted editing inconsistent documents.  If your materials are either produced by a wide range of people, or don’t have a consistent look and feel, or both, you need a Style Guide.

Volunteers and employees alike should be held accountable for following the Style Guide you establish.  If you have an existing marketing team at your organization, they may have developed one that you should use, but make sure it is complete and ready for volunteers to use.

Even if volunteers are not directly involved in “marketing” per se, they should be made aware of these guidelines for use in any other internal or external communications.

And, by the way, if you don’t have a complete style guide yet, ask your volunteer communications team to draft up a guide that you can review, edit, and approve. There’s no better way to learn an agency’s policies than by helping create them yourself.

What Does a Style Guide Include?

At the very least, your Style Guide should include the following elements:

1) Usage Policy – A brief statement that describes who is authorized to use your organization’s branded identity (staff, volunteers, community partners, etc.) and where (on all communications materials, co-branded with partner organizations, etc.); also, where your identity should never appear (materials that pose a conflict of interest, promote discrimination, are unethical or illegal, etc.)

2) Editorial Style – Instructions on what grammar, punctuation, abbreviations, etc. are sanctioned for use and how to use them; also identifies which reference manual will be used for words and phrases not included in your Style Guide (Chicago Manual of Style, AP stylebook, etc.)

Include info on how to use, format, and spell the following words and phrases, at a minimum:

  • Your Organization’s Name (how to correctly spell, which abbreviations are acceptable, etc.)
  • Your Tagline (if you have one)
  • Your Program Names
  • Phone number and web address (directions on whether to use parenthesis or dashes between numbers, etc.)
  • Numbers (how to list numbers, i.e., spell out numbers under 10, use “nine” and “10”, etc.)
  • Hyphenation (which words should or should not be hyphenated, i.e., do hyphenate low-income, don’t hyphenate Email)
  • Website addresses (whether to include http:// or just start web address with “www”)
  • Funder Acknowledgements (which boilerplate should be used and when to identify state, federal, or private funds that were used to produce the materials)
  • Typically, Misused Words (any words that your team frequently uses in error, i.e. “a lot” is two words)

3) Graphic Style – Instructions on which colors, fonts, and design elements to use, as well as when and where to use them (i.e. never try to reproduce the logo from a photocopy).  Also, provide original digital copies of your logos in a variety of sizes and file formats.

Be sure to include:

  • Your Organization’s Logo, Mission Statement, & Tagline (if there is more than one version, instructions on when and where to use each)
  • Program Logos (if any)
  • Standard Colors (which colors to use and where, i.e., Pantone colors, Pantone 18-2120 Honeysuckle)
  • Fonts (describe which typefaces should be used and where and show examples, i.e., Headlines: Arial Black, navy blue when color is used; Text Blocks (serif): Century Schoolbook, 14 point; Alternate Text Blocks (sans serif): Helvetica, 12 point)
  • Union “Bug” (if your organization requires that materials be printed by a union shop, make it clear and include a digital version of the union logo; your print shop can get it for you)

4) Readability Tips – State your policy concerning the readability and the standard reading level you expect (6th grade is the average reading level, believe it or not).  It also helps to provide tips on how to improve your document’s readability and suggest tools your team can use to check the reading level of any document.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Try to simplify complex concepts with graphics, charts, or pictures (but avoid using corny clip art).
  • Use sentences with seven words or less, whenever possible.
  • Use words with two syllables or less, whenever possible.
  • Keep paragraphs short and to the point — five sentences or less.
  • Avoid jargon and only use acronyms when you have first defined what they stand for or mean.
  • Help readers skim by using bold subheadings.
  • Eliminate extra information by using bulleted lists.
  • If you are describing tasks, break them down into steps.
  • Avoid color overload or patterned backgrounds, or light font on a dark background.
  • Use left-sided justification (vs. jagged right side or smooth on both sides).

A basic internet search will bring up lots of samples of Communications Style Guides you can emulate. There are no hard and fast rules about how they should be formatted. To tailor your own, review a few and pick elements of the ones you like the best.

Support #2: A Social Media Policy

virtual volunteersEven if you haven’t yet decided to dip your toe in the proverbial waters of virtual volunteer-dom (or the higher-ups won’t let you even if you tried), chances are your volunteers, staff, and supporters are already in the pool splashing around.

Information about who you are and what you do is being shared across several channels, unbeknownst to you, guaranteed.

The fact is that even before social media existed, people were talking. The grapevine has been alive and well since the dawn of humankind.

Nonprofit communicators lost control of their messages from the moment that expertly crafted press release was printed, stuffed in those envelopes, and mailed. Social media just multiplies the effect.  So, why waste time fighting the losing battle to control things?  Instead, help your supporters do it right.

A Social Media Policy can go a long way toward reinforcing common sense.  It will also help you and your team plan for the inevitable social gaffes your team will make.

Believe it or not, solid social media policy planning can help turn even the most embarrassing post into a fundraising opportunity.  Don’t believe me?  Read Beth Kanter’s account of a recent Twitter faux pas here and how the Red Cross handled it.  Good stuff!

What Should be Included in a Social Media Policy?

A Social Media Policy gives common sense guidelines about what can be communicated about your organization, using which channels.  You don’t have to be a tech expert to write a social media policy, because it’s not about how to operate the software.

Here are some things to include:

  • Why the policy exists – Focus on increasing the effectiveness of the organization’s overall communications and acknowledge that everyone is part of the team’s network of communicators. Be sure to clearly explain how communications furthers the mission of your organization.  Reinforce that you trust your team to do the right thing.
  • Friendly, conversational, and upbeat language – Provide more info on what people can do than what they can’t. This is tough but do-able.  Reverse negative statements if you need to, and tone down absolute words like “never,” “must,” “always”, etc.
  • Common sense guidelines – However obvious they seem, it’s a good idea to include them (i.e., don’t spam, post things your grandmother would be proud of, keep it professional, be yourself, be respectful, share, etc.).
  • What to do if something was shared inadvertently – Include a step by step process of who should do what by when.
  • Where conflicts of interest exist – If there are types of entities that pose a conflict of interest for you, be sure to identify them and describe why they are an issue. Your team may not understand that posting or sharing information from another source, on behalf of your organization, may give the impression that you are partnered with or are endorsing that entity.  Discuss ways to set yourself apart and still share, if it needs to happen.
  • Clear privacy and confidentiality guidelines – Be clear about how your team should protect their privacy and the confidentiality of clients. At the same time, people should identify themselves to build trust with their readers.
  • Guidance about copyrights and licensed material – Make sure your team is not only complying with the law, but also giving people credit for their work. Give them resources to better understand copyrights and to find material that can be shared, such as Creative Commons.
  • Nuts and bolts info on how to spell your name, what URL to use, etc. – This should already be discussed in your Style Guide as well.
  • Your official agency and program social media accounts – Encourage your supporters to share, post, and interact with your content.

Next Steps: Samples & Tips to Get You Started

If you’re looking for examples and explanations about how to create a solid social media policy in the nonprofit context, check out these expert resources :

Be sure to run any volunteer policy by your human resources department (or person) for a final look. You don’t want to miss including something your agency requires.

Once you have your policy in place, it’s time to set up a plan of action.

Support #3: An Editorial Calendar

Once you get your team set up with a Style Guide and Social Media Policy, you might be tempted to simply let folks run with it.

But you’d be making a mistake.  If volunteers are posting and communicating willy nilly, you’ll have less chance of reaching your communications goals.

And, yes, your marketing and communications should always have clear objectives.  What actions are you hoping your audience will take (e.g., clicks on calls to action buttons or links)?  What ultimate goal will these actions lead to (e.g., completing a volunteer application)?

If you set these objectives at regular intervals, volunteers will be more likely to assess whether they are making progress.

Here are four simple ways to plan that can be used together:

  • Annual Plan – When planning your communications, it helps to first map out an annual calendar. This will help you identify events and holidays around which you can develop themes (or what communications people call “hooks”)
  • Special Events – National Volunteer Weeks are obvious examples, but what are other holidays and special occasions that are meaningful for your organization? Build a list that your team can refer to for content ideas.
  • Quarterly or Campaign-based – You can also create quarterly or campaign calendars that break down the phases of different initiatives or focuses key steps that the team must communicate along a “storyline” (e.g. a story about an animal’s journey from stray to adopted).
  • Weekly Themes – Finally, you can break your editorial calendar into weeks that have themes for each day of the week, for example, “Motivation Mondays.” These themes make it easy for any volunteer to start creating and plugging posts into your overall calendar.

There are also other needs your virtual volunteers will have, specifically software tools and times for regular communications.

It’s easy to have an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality around virtual volunteers.  Don’t let this be you.  In some respect, they need more support than volunteers who support you onsite.  So, set aside regular online or in-person check-ins both with individuals and as a team.

What Are Your Next Steps?

What’s the first step you can take toward increasing the number of virtual volunteers who are helping you move your mission forward online?