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How nonprofits engaged volunteers during the COVID shutdown

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In the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 and the uncertainty of how to react spread across the United States and Canada, people holed up in their houses and apartments. Many people worked from home, if their work could be done that way. They ordered goods from Amazon rather than drive to the store. Students gravitated to online classes. Restaurants shut down. As nonprofits limited worker contact, many shuttered or adjusted programs and asked their volunteers to stay away. Even if volunteering was an option, many volunteers opted to stay home, either to protect their health or to help take care of their stay-at-home family. Our routines were disrupted, and volunteerism was a casualty. And *poof*… the volunteers were gone.

On the other hand, in this age of electronic networking and virtual technology, we shouldn’t say that the volunteers disappeared. The COVID-19 pandemic heralded the boom of Zoom, when people who had never been in a video conference before were suddenly in them all the time. And while most volunteering is traditionally in-person and face-to-face, many organizations have been hosting virtual volunteer assignments for several decades. What was new in the spring of 2020 was the scale of need to adopt information technologies to do our work, including providing opportunities for volunteers.

For the past year, I have been studying how volunteer managers (in nonprofits and government) have approached various technologies during the pandemic. The Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration is a partner in the research, and we refer to the project as TEVA, short for Technology Evolution in Volunteer Administration. The first big piece was a survey of volunteer administrators. More specifically, we surveyed individuals in the U.S. and Canada who had an active Certification in Volunteer Administration (CVA). We refer to these individuals as “CVAs.”

News! You can read the new brief, an overview of the survey results, right now.

Definitely go scroll through that research brief for details. Two-thirds of CVAs told me that the pandemic had influenced the degree to which they work remotely “a great deal.” In the spring 2021 survey, one-third of CVAs said they were working entirely remotely, and another one-third said that remote work was common. Nearly a third told me that they were now using software that they had not used before the pandemic. A group that is better known for their interpersonal skills than their tech-savvy was suddenly thrust into new technology waters.

I am certainly interested in the successes of these volunteer leaders to engage their volunteers, but I am more interested in their trials and tribulations. Zoom is one tool for connecting with volunteers, but volunteer managers commonly use various desktop programs to carry out their work. Some rely primarily on generic workplace tools like Google Docs and Microsoft apps, but others invest in industry applications like Better Impact and Volgistics.

Using such tools, especially when they are new, can be scary. Turns out that people have been studying technology adoption, from microwaves to online banking, for a long time. They say that a number of things can influence whether people engage workplace technologies or not, including general attitude toward technology, expectations for how helpful the program will be, how much effort they have to put into working with it, whether their bosses and friends think they should use it, whether their workplace supports its use, how apt workers are in figuring a program out themselves, and their level of anxiety in making mistakes with it.

You can get some sense of these issues in the brief, but the big goal of the project is to see how these forces vary with the intention to use primary technology tools for volunteer administration. The more we know about what gets in the way of using technology to work with volunteers, the more we can do to smooth the path into the inevitable proliferation of technology in the not-too-distant future. That future has a lot of computer programs and social media in it, and nonprofits and their volunteer administrators have to be ready for it.

Note: The Technology Evolution in Volunteer Administration Study is funded by AmeriCorps, a U.S. federal government agency

Mark Hager is associate professor of nonprofit leadership and management at Arizona State University. He is principal investigator of the Volunteer Management Capacity Study; the second wave was funded by AmeriCorps for 2017-2021.

Mark Hager


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