Is Technology Changing the Way We Volunteer?

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There is no doubt that technology has altered the way that we work and communicate. But has it also changed the way that we volunteer? And why is it critical that nonprofits pay attention to the cultural shifts and adapt accordingly?

In a recent Salesforce Nonprofit Trends Report, 85% of nonprofits surveyed said technology is the key to the success of their organizations. But only 23% have a long term vision of how to use technology within their organization.

Shannon Farley, Executive Director of Fast Forward, says that “The traditional social sector is a decade behind the business sector in terms of digital transformation.” Nonprofits have passion, commitment and expertise in social engagement, but often have clunky management systems and outdated technology. Three reasons why this may be true are that nonprofits often underestimate overhead value, have an imbalanced emphasis on frontline work at the cost of other aspects of the organization, or they have simply failed to recognize the importance of technology in our current social climate.

Research has shown that 87% of Americans use the internet. In the first quarter of 2020 alone, more than half of website traffic has come from mobile phones, and ninety percent of that time spent on mobile is from people using apps. Studies also show that engagement is up to four times better in apps than in mobile web browsers. So not only are people spending a significant amount of time online, but they are also opting for mobile technology that can be easily accessed as they go about their busy lives.

If nonprofits are going to thrive in this digital age, it will be necessary for them to catch up in the area of technology. 

Tracy Ebarb, National Director of the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives, believes that nonprofits would be wise to take notes from the corporate sector. Businesses who have innovated and chartered new territory have grown quickly. In the same way, nonprofits who have adopted new strategies and leveraged technology to further their mission have found success. Ebarb goes so far as to warn that “if you do not innovate, you will disappear.

Let’s consider a few of the ways that technology is changing the face of volunteerism.

Clay Steelman, program manager with Samaritan’s Purse, utilizes numerous forms of technology in mobilizing volunteers for disaster relief. ROBERT C. REED/HDR

Technology has enabled nonprofits to work more efficiently

One of the greatest benefits of technology for nonprofits has been that it has simplified and automated processes, which allows paid staff to focus on what matters most – their mission. 

Clay Steelman, who serves as a Program Manager for the North American Ministries division of Samaritan’s Purse, explains how technology has enabled his organization to work more efficiently in each of the four C’s of disaster relief:

Coordination

Technology can go where people cannot. Some organizations, working in cooperation with city, county and state emergency management agencies, are using drones to help map affected areas. All of this used to be done by helicopter or plane. The drones allow these agencies to get real time information which aids in recovery and planning efforts.

Communication

One area where technology helps mobilize quickly is in getting out the need for help. A text, an email, a notification through an organization app, and a phone call can all be sent in a matter of minutes.

Collaboration

Technology has enabled organizations to work together more collaboratively, which reduces duplication of efforts and improves overall efficiency. Crisis-Clean-Up is one of the tools that many organizations use. It is a website that is devoted to helping disaster relief organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, Team Rubicon, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and other Volunteer Organization Active in Disaster (VOAD) members coordinate recovery efforts. Homeowners submit their information along with requests for help to the website. Disaster relief organizations can then go online and “claim” a work order, so needs are met quickly and resources are maximized.

Cooperation

Another area where technology helps mobilize volunteers is in the area of GPS tracking. Samaritan’s Purse has GPS features on all of their Disaster Response Vehicles (DRV). Each DRV has a tracker that can be accessed by a website or app. This allows a live feed of where teams are, so that if an urgent need arrives or a team finishes a job faster than planned, a new work order can be sent out to teams working in that same neighborhood.

Steelman adds that technology has also helped streamline the front end of the volunteer process. “A challenge for any organization that uses volunteers is the registration process,” says Steelman. “Technology has helped ease this choke point by allowing volunteers to sign up online and complete the required paperwork before they arrive.”

Once all the volunteer data is in the system, Samaritan’s Purse is able to create a volunteer ID card with a photo and barcode that is synced to the online profile. When the volunteer arrives on site, they simply scan their card. It literally takes seconds and saves precious time so that the volunteer can engage quickly in relief efforts.

“A challenge for any organization that uses volunteers is the registration process. Technology has helped ease this choke point by allowing volunteers to sign up online and complete the required paperwork before they arrive.”

-Clay Steelman, Program Manager, North American Ministries, Samaritan’s Purse

Volunteers are going to continue to be an important part of disaster relief, and as technology is integrated more and more into this critical sector, the need for specialized skills and digital volunteers will become mainstream. Drone operators, communications experts, logistics leaders and supply chain managers may be just a few of the volunteer opportunities made possible by technology.

Technology has given rise to digital volunteerism

One thing that has become apparent in the last few months is that digital volunteerism is here to stay. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of online volunteer opportunities and opened up new frontiers in digital volunteerism. Three of the places where we have seen an increased demand for volunteers are:

Tech Volunteers

Volunteers who have expertise in technology are becoming increasingly valuable not only in the nonprofit sector but also in the healthcare and educational sector. During the pandemic, small businesses and restaurants were even calling on help from tech volunteers to help them survive the crisis. Skills in everything from website design to digital communications are being requested by organizations who find themselves short on staff or skills. The state of New York even called upon volunteer “technology SWAT teams” of developers, data scientists and other techs to help during the pandemic. 

Virtual Volunteers

As the pandemic drove people into social isolation, the world began moving daily life online. Professionals held meetings through Zoom platforms, schools started holding classes online, and churches turned to live-streaming weekly worship services. In the same way, volunteer opportunities became virtual as health concerns made people wary of serving in person. Requests for online tutors, researchers, translators and even call-center respondents were posted across the nation. One organization in Florida even recruited volunteers to make phone calls to Seniors who were isolated and lonely. 

Social Media Volunteers

Limited budgets, small teams, and overwhelming workloads prevent many nonprofits from creating a social media strategy. Yet research shows that 55% of people who engage with a cause via social media will take subsequent action. More and more organizations are turning to volunteers to fill this vital need. The Red Cross has found a way to utilize social media volunteers to address the shortage in blood supply during the pandemic, by calling on people to serve as digital advocates on their behalf.

Interestingly, social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has driven people closer together digitally. It has increased virtual volunteering, birthed relief efforts from the grassroots to the community level, and inspired corporations to become more engaged philanthropically.

Technology has led to an increase in social capital

One key benefit of the rise in technology during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the increase in social capital. Social capital is the way that people function together in interpersonal relationships and measures how they share values, identity, commonality and resources. Research has shown us that by increasing social capital, neighborhoods become healthier and safer. When organizations from the various sectors join forces to contribute to the common good, communities thrive. 

There are three types of social capital: bonding social capital, bridging social capital, and linking social capital.

Source: Estimating Effects of Social Capital on Online Social Engagement: The 2014 Napa Valley Earthquake by Courtney Page-Tan

Bonding social capital

Bonding social capital occurs within a group or community that is interconnected and where members have frequent contact with one another, such as a neighborhood. The rise in technology has contributed to this form of social capital by providing additional platforms for connection. One such example is the nonprofit leader near Chicago who used his social connections and technology to recruit volunteers and care for needs in his community.

Bridging social capital

Bridging social capital occurs across lines that typically divide different sectors of society, such as social class, race, religion or other important sociodemographic characteristics. Some examples of this might be mentoring or leadership development programs or even tutoring relationships. One nonprofit in Texas found a way to use technology to help leverage this form of capital in order to keep the students in their program on track when their schools closed due to the pandemic. 

Linking social capital

Linking social capital results from networks of trusting relationships between people who are interacting across differences in social position or power. An example of this is a community like FWD>DFW, a network in North Texas that links companies, causes, nonprofits and individuals together for the common good. 

While many forms of social capital have been hit hard by the pandemic and are facing decline, volunteering has actually increased. Part of this is due to the fact that crisis tends to bring out the best in people, but another reason for this rise in social capital is the use of technology. For example, in Utah, a group called ProjectProtect was able to rally 50,000 volunteers to make 5 million medical-grade masks by utilizing technology.

Linking social capital results from networks of trusting relationships between people who are interacting across differences in social position or power. An example of this is a community like FWD>DFW, which is a network in North Texas that links companies, causes, nonprofits and individuals together to inspire citizens to engage in volunteerism, fundraising and advocacy. Gillian Breidenbach, Vice President of Community and Civic Engagement for Belo + Company, heads up the FWD>DFW Initiative. 

“Civic engagement and volunteerism is at the core of FWD>DFW’s mission to inform, educate, and activate the North Texas community — and that mission is now more important than ever,” says Breidenbach. “Our partnership with volunteer engagement platform VOMO has taken on new meaning during the coronavirus crisis, as we are mobilizing communities not only in North Texas but also across the country to serve needs through the Be A Neighbor campaign, which is powered in conjunction with The Dallas Morning News locally.”

“Since launching FWD>DFW, nearly 32,000 volunteer hours have been logged with an economic impact of nearly $800,000. It’s amazing what can happen when people are aware of the need, willing to help and work together.”

Technology is an integral characteristic of the next generations

Technology has been such a mainstream part of the lives of younger generations, that most of them view it as an aspect of their identity and an extension of themselves. Think about it–the internet became publicly accessible in 1991–just 11 years after the oldest members of the millennial generation were born. Generation Z was born into a world of technology, and Generation Alpha has had mobile technology at their fingertips from birth. So it just makes sense that the way the next generations choose to volunteer would be shaped by technology, Here are some of the unique qualities of each generation:

Young adults can be engaged socially while simultaneously utilizing personal technology devices.

Millennial Volunteers

Millennials are highly connected with their peers through social media. In general they are concerned about the world around them and believe they have a responsibility to the social good. However, they do not view volunteerism from a traditional standpoint, but rather piece together a patchwork of causes and methods of service, based upon their numerous sources of information and the influence of their peers.

One of the most well-known millennials to illustrate the commitment of this generation to social good is Mark Zuckerberg, who built the tech empire Facebook and whose net worth is 86.5 billion dollars. Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan joined a campaign called the Giving Pledge, in which he made a commitment to dedicate the majority of his wealth to giving back. And he puts his money where his mouth is. When a group of community leaders invited him to join them for a MLK Day celebration, he volunteered to plant a garden in their city and visited with students from a local school.

Gen Z Volunteers

Gen Z grew up in a smartphone world, and they seamlessly integrated technology into their lives. As a result, they expect communication and processes to be fast and simple. When it comes to volunteering, they tend to commit to specific causes. They also desire to have work-life balance more than they care about accumulating wealth, and they expect employers to honor their desire to volunteer. Gen Z also thinks of themselves as global citizens and are very comfortable communicating with peers from a diversity of backgrounds.

One of this generation’s most famous volunteers started when he was just 11 years old. Kelvin Doe, who lives in Sierra Leone, began looking for ways to fix local problems with technology after his country had been through a terrible civil war. Doe invented a way to power houses in his neighborhood by creating batteries out of acid and metal in a tin cup. He also started a radio station for his community that he built out of recycled parts.

Gen Alpha

The oldest members of Gen Alpha will turn 10 this year. They have not only been surrounded with technology all of their lives, but have also been raised on app-based play. In fact, “app” was the word of the year in 2010, the first year of their generation. They have lived all of their lives with personal devices at their fingertips and they expect technology to be personalized to their unique interests.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle says about Gen Alpha: It is almost impossible to pry Generation Alpha away from their devices, which have been prominent in their lives from the day they were born. Their exposure to technology during their formative years will have a great impact on their lives. They have been using these devices from before they could talk, so we are yet to see the impacts of their interaction with screens.”

Like Gen Z before them, Gen Alpha have already proven themselves to be socially aware and concerned about giving back. One of the most well-known volunteers of their generation is 6-year old Austin Perine, who became famous for feeding the homeless in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama when he was just four years old. Already a local celebrity, he promotes his motto “Show Love” on social media, creates his own music videos, and encourages others to join the movement. 

In conclusion, nonprofits will need to adopt technology if they want to be able to engage the future generations of volunteers. We now live in a time where digital touches everything, so it is imperative that organizations begin integrating technology into their organizational strategy. A great place to start is by implementing a volunteer management platform that enables easy and efficient sign-ups for projects. It will also be important to find a good analytics system in order to determine return on investment and help to inform future decisions. With a little bit of research and a few tweaks to organizational structure, nonprofits will be able to easily adapt and catch up with the other sectors. 

To learn more about how your organization can utilize technology for good, visit www.vomo.org.

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