Best Practices for the Virtual Volunteer

Tips for volunteering virtually, repurposed from the Virtual Volunteering Project Website

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If you are contemplating integrating virtual volunteer opportunities into your social impact strategy due to COVID-19, check out the list of best practices, which you might decide to share with your potential virtual volunteers. The Israeli Volunteer Council has also published a great list of guidance to share with virtual volunteers, as well.

Volunteering from a computer is different from working on-site with an organization for many obvious reasons: there's usually more flexibility in the use of your time, a greater degree of independence, you interact very little (if at all) with various staff members, etc. For some, these differences make virtual volunteering ideal; these same reasons can make it difficult for others.

Setting your own schedule is one of the chief joys of virtual volunteering. However, there's nothing virtual about the commitment you are making, nor the deadlines you are assigned to complete the volunteer work. The organization is counting on you to finish any projects for which you volunteer.  

When you agree to a virtual volunteering assignment, you are agreeing to completing the assignment on time. It's so easy to say yes to virtual volunteering that many individuals sign up to do so before really considering their expectations and schedule for an assignment.  

Before you volunteer to help an organization remotely, consider the following: 

Determine your readiness.

  • Do you have regular, ongoing access to the Internet?
  • Do you stick to deadlines? Do you see a project through to its finish? Organizations are counting on you to complete the assignment you've volunteered for; there's nothing virtual about your commitment.
  • Are you comfortable working on your own, without direct supervision? That doesn't mean you shouldn't ask for guidance when you need it. However, virtual assignments are best for those people who enjoy working on their own, with just occasional supervision.
  • Do you pace yourself well? Do you avoid over committing for projects? Most volunteers who do not complete their online assignments say that they thought they could do the work when they signed up, but as the deadline for the assignment approached, they realized that other things must take priority: home duties, work projects, etc. The organization is left with an unfinished assignment and an unmet need. Think about your work style and your other commitments before volunteering virtually.
  • Do you have a set time of day when you will work on virtual assignments? Don't just assume that you will get to that three-hour virtual assignment some time before the deadline two weeks from now; schedule a time, however approximate, to complete the project you've committed to do.
  • Will your work area be void of distractions while you are working on a volunteer assignment? Any virtual assignments are going to take a certain level of concentration and intensity. Make sure your environment is going to allow you to devote the proper energies to your assignment.
  • Is this the right time for you to take on a volunteering project? If you are feeling overwhelmed by other responsibilities, now is probably not a good time to volunteer, on or offline. Volunteer managers try to be very understanding about your job and family commitments -- but they are also counting on you to finish assignments to which you commit.

Discuss the job description and your expectations with your contact at the agency at the time the assignment is made.

  • You need to make sure you understand what it is you are committing to. This will cut down on frustration and disappointment for everyone involved!

Expect an acclimatization period. It takes a while for even the most organized person to figure out how to manage time, space, communication systems and projects while working remotely.

  • Even with all of this advice, expect to make adjustments, encounter conflicts, etc.

Define a schedule to complete the assignment.

  • You'd be surprised how easy it is to commit to do an online research assignment that isn't due for three weeks and will only take a few hours to complete... and to then find yourself the day before it is due without having done anything! Don't count on the time to do an assignment to just happen. Set a schedule for yourself to complete the assignment fully and on-time.
  • If you take on a long-term virtual volunteering assignment, periodically check your routine to see if it's working. Systems should make your life easier, not more complex. If you are not getting the results you want from your routine, revise it
  • To be successful in a virtual volunteering assignment, be aware of your goals and target everything you do as a volunteer toward meeting them. Be flexible enough to recognize when something isn't working for you, and adjust it accordingly.

Pace yourself and learn when to say when.

  • It is easy to over commit via the Internet! If you've never volunteered virtually before, start with an assignment that will take only a few hours, to see how you like this kind of volunteering. You may have less time to offer than you think.

Set up a communications routine with the organization if needed

  • Report in at least once a week via email on your volunteer activities for the organization, even if it's to report no activity. Review what you've accomplished, and what your immediate next activities will be. Ask questions! It doesn't have to be a large, involved report; just a short, friendly update will do.

Follow the policies of the organization.

  • Every organization has policies on chain of approval, confidentiality of information, how you may represent yourself on behalf of the organization, etc. These policies are meant to be taken seriously! When in doubt, ask for guidance.

Avoid burnout.

  • At the office, routines structure your time. When volunteering virtually, you may not know when to stop. This will lead to fatigue and burnout, and frustration for the organization if you've committed to a particularly large and very needed assignment. One way to get around overwork is to set firm starting and stopping times: develop a schedule for volunteering virtually (see above). Taking breaks is another (see below); severe headaches, eyestrain, neck and back pain are the result of working too many hours without a break.

Motivation has to come from yourself.

  • At many organizations, there are posters and charts around the office that display the work and impact of the agency. When you are on-site, you come in contact with staff and clients. This all helps motivate on-site volunteers. But volunteers working virtually don't have these natural, informal inspirations around them, so they have to be much more self-motivated and self-driven.
  • Do a task when you are excited to do it -- don't wait until later. For many volunteers, that comes when the assignment is made. Breaking the assignment into parts, and rewarding yourself with a break at the completion of each part, is another way to get through an assignment

Finally, if you are providing technical assistance to a nonprofit as a remote, skills-based volunteer, consider these important things:

  • Mutual agreement on a plan of action between you and those you are helping is the most crucial step of successful technical assistance. Outline the expected outcomes, approaches and resources and estimate the time you think it will take to complete the project.
  • Think about the language you are using to explain something; using terms that only a fellow expert would understand will frustrate the person you are trying to help. Use common language whenever possible, and fully explain technical terms you need to use a lot. Learn what you can about THEIR work and put things in a context they can understand.

  • Nonprofit and public sector agencies operate in a world of very limited resources and ever-shrinking budgets. Don't be surprised if they don't have a staff member devoted solely to human resources, legal issues, computer systems, etc. Also, don't be surprised if they don't have a budget to buy and maintain a large computer system. Respect those limitations by helping them to do as much as they can with their available resources.
  • Build sustainability. Don't just do it for them - involve them in the process. Explain each step, give background, recruit someone to write down procedures or troubleshooting steps if applicable. The most important part of your "mentoring" is that what you leave behind works and can be sustained by the organization.

  • Provide technical documentation (e.g., how parts of a database relate to each other) and user documentation (e.g., how to do the data entry and how to solve the most common problems faced by the user) for the first piece before moving on to the next piece. This way, if you must discontinue work on the project, the staff has the documentation needed to easily integrate a new volunteer into the project.
  • Make sure whatever system you recommend for the agency to use, whether this is a type of software or an organizational model, meets the unique needs of the agency you are helping. Is this a widely-used system? Is there sufficient documentation available on how the system works? Can the staff effectively use or even alter this system without always relying on your expertise? What kind of support is available for this system?
  • If you are designing a website, a database program, or other computer-related product, what you may view as a "feature" may be viewed as unnecessary or distracting by the staff member or other volunteer who has to use it. If a flashy interface doesn't provide the user with an easy-to-use tool, it's of no real use to the user.

Katy Elder

Vice President, Business Innovation, Points of Light

A member of the Points of Light team since November 2012, Katy serves as Vice President, Business Innovation. She brings with her nearly 20 years of experience in employee volunteerism, community affairs and internal communications. After leading Points of Light’s corporate consulting practice for six years, she is now responsible for developing content and innovative learning opportunities to advance the corporate citizenship sector.
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