Friday, February 26, 2010

Web Based vs Desktop Volunteer Management Software

There has been some conversation on the CyberVPM discussion board recently about the key differences between web based and desktop run volunteer software. It has prompted me to throw in my two cents worth in.

Given that we provide web based volunteer software there is a bias of course, but it is a natural one. The reason we offer a web based solution instead of a desktop solution is because of our bias that this is a better way to go. We could have developed something of either type.

Like everything else in life, there are pros and cons to both types of systems: those that store data locally on a nonprofits computer and those that store the data on a supplier’s servers. When we began developing our software ten years ago, we looked very closely at these issues and for a while considered building software that had both options available. After careful consideration we recognized the world and the way we live were moving online and that this was the sole direction that would benefit the sector the most.
When I am speaking to groups on volunteer management software I often pose the following two questions and ask for a show of hands.
  1. How many of you bank online? (Most or all hands go up)
  2. How many of you who bank online would move to a bank that does not allow you to bank online. (Rarely does a hand go up.)
I have found it to be an effective analogy because:
  1. When we bank online we are doing the administrative work that used to be handled by the bank staff and when volunteers update their information or sign up for a shift online, they are doing the administrative record keeping that the volunteer manager would otherwise have to do.
  2. Our preference for banks that let us bank online suggest that even though we are doing the work that used to be done by the bank, we consider online banking a higher level of service. Volunteers have told us (through their managers of volunteers and through a feedback survey on the site) that they look at it in a similar way.
Reduced time on administrative record keeping for the manager of volunteers and a preference of most volunteers (and a growing number each year) to have a rich communications interaction where they volunteer are two solid pros for utilizing a web based system. Although it is true that a nonprofit could host its own web based solution, the total cost of ownership and the risk of data exposure though security loop holes suggest it is not the way to go.
All of this does not mean that you do not do all that you can minimize the potential challenges of storing data with your supplier.
  • Make your own backups. Companies that provide data storage as part of their volunteer management software should include a mechanism that makes it easy for you to download volunteer profile anytime you’d like.
  • Choose a company with a broad and solid reputation for trying to help the volunteer sector. No matter what you have in a contract, a team that is committed to the volunteer sector is not going keep you from your data, even in the worst case scenarios.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Coopetitioning" for Volunteers

I have long been interested in how nonprofits, like companies can achieve more through strategic alliances, even if those alliances are with the 'competition'.

Thanks to @johnhaydon on Twitter, I read a great article (Nonprofit Collaboration: Doesn’t It Make the Pie Bigger? by Debra Askanase) on the topic that I want to recommend. You can read it at It inspired me to think about how it applies differently between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors and then (further down) how the concept can be directly applied to improve volunteer programs.

I have often found it unfortunate how some in the nonprofit sector have been more reluctant than the business sector to embrace coopetition. In the business sector coopetition must lead to a bigger pie being shared positively by ALL parties to call it a real cooptetition success. In the nonprofit sector however, coopetition ought to be considered a success if the pie gets larger even if some players lose some of the pie they had.

Consider the differences in following two basic scenarios.

1. Through coopetion the number of clients in a business sector went up. As a result, the number of clients at Business A went up by 75% but at Business B it went down by 10%. Business B is not likely going to call this a success.

2. Through coopetion the number of clients that were able to be served at foodbanks in a city went up. As a result of working together though, Foodbank A's clientele went up by 75% but Foodbank B's clientele went down by 10%. Foodbank B should still call this a success given that their mission is that "fewer people go hungry" and not that "fewer people go hungry because we fed them".

The point is that for nonprofits with a mission that is truly anchored on the greater good, the risk of coopetition is even less than it is the corporate world where it already embraced by a large number of successful organizations.

How can you apply this to your volunteer program?

How would you feel if a volunteer at your organization also volunteered at a competitive organization? Hopefully you would love it because they will acquire new experiences that can benefit your organization. Maybe you could even get in touch with a 'competitive' volunteer program and establish a volunteer exchange for that very purpose. Yes, you might lose volunteers to the other organization permanently but you might also gain some permanently. In the ends it sounds like a better alignment volunteer-organization and therefore a happier volunteer. A happier volunteer is usually a better performing volunteer and a volunteer willing to offer more hours.

A bigger pie is a tastier one too!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Evaluating Volunteers

I saw the comment quoted below posted to to the Cyber VPM group and liked is so much I asked it contributor, Susan Peacock Reehl, Program Director for WestArk RSVP if she mind if I blogged on it. Thanks Susan.

"Many volunteers don't look kindly on being evaluated - especially if as much effort is not put in to letting them have input on their volunteer assignment. If you must evaluate, couple it with an opportunity for the volunteer to self-assess their volunteer activities and your operation. Be aware that if you handle this clumsily you will lose volunteers. Make it as positive as possible and as unlike an employee performance evaluation as possible."

As much as a really like Susan's advice, I don't agree with her comment about making in it as 'unlike an employee performance evaluation as possible'. I understand the kind of employee evaluation that she is referring so I understand what she is trying to convey. However, not all employee evaluations are like that. Leading edge employers are taking an approach similar to what Susan describes initially.

Susan's advice in simply great management advice and can be applied, like so many things, to both a paid worker environment and the volunteer worker environment.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Keeping Your Volunteer Program Current in Today's World

  • 15 years ago (if you are old enough to have even cared) you probably didn’t imagine banking online.
  • 10 years ago you probably didn’t imagine keeping up to date with your friends and family on a website such as Facebook.
  • 5 years ago you probably didn’t imagine that anyone could easily post a video online for anyone else to see and for some to become famous almost overnight because of it.
  • 2 years ago you probably didn’t imagine that a large portion of the world would care what you were doing or thinking at this moment in 140 characters via Twitter.
Somewhere in this timeline some people began to wonder what the possibilities might be if volunteers were able to access their own volunteer information and information about an organization’s volunteer needs. Out of this online volunteer management software was born. This story (you will need to scroll down to the section on The Extraordinaries) makes me think that we have only begun to see the tip of the iceberg related to how innovative management practices and technology can unleash enormous volunteer effort that are, to society’s detriment, currently held back by those afraid to step forward.
What can you do? Go off into a nearby park (or however you can create a creative state of mind) and ask yourself, “If there were no rules I needed to play by and if there were no boundaries I needed to worry about, what great things could my volunteers accomplish for my organization?”. You might need to reel your ideas in a little due to any number of constraints but…
  • 1 year ago could you have imagined how episodic volunteers from almost anywhere around the world would be able to help families get through the struggle of learning about the fate of loved ones in the midst of a huge disaster? (The story linked above.)
Everyone recognizes that the world around is changing at a rapid pace; technologically, socially, financially and more. Is your volunteer program keeping pace? Take some time to imagine the possibilities and have the courage to give them a try. Who knows? Bloggers in the volunteer sector might be writing about your great idea some day. And the whole sector will be better of for it.