August 16, 2011 | Anna Belle Leiserson
Guest Post by Emily Leiserson
Like any other nonprofit, small or large, churches tend to rely heavily on help from volunteers to make things happen. Whether or not your staff includes a volunteer coordinator, you can keep a few guidelines in mind that will make the whole volunteer experience happier and more fulfilling for all involved (yes, staff included).
First, you will want to have a system to keep all your volunteer information in one place. This should include not just phone numbers, email, and emergency contacts, but also skills, job preferences and weekly availability.
Your office may be lucky enough to have one or two people who manage to keep all this information straight in their heads. But even they may have trouble from time to time remembering the number of hours each person has invested, and on which activities. And there are many other pieces of information you may want to track. A good volunteer management system will make all this transparent and transferable.
Second, consider how you can make it as easy as possible for new volunteers to get involved… or for current volunteers to get involved in new ways. Think about ways in which they can sign up with just one click. Or, if your volunteers prefer not to click buttons, maybe the solution is a quick “reply” to an email request or the tried and true physical calendar or clipboard sign-up list. Whatever tool you use to sign up, make sure your new volunteers don’t feel like they have to jump through too many hoops.
Okay, so what does all this have to do with Faith and Web?
You may feel most comfortable with your volunteer information system in a binder or an excel spreadsheet. However, I encourage you to at least consider some of the tools that the web offers. These range from free services intended for grassroots and community organizations to beautiful, highly-customizable programs used to coordinate volunteers at, say, large international sporting events. Below are just a few options, with pros and cons, to help you consider the best match for your church.
As with other things online, the more customizable and versatile you need your system to be, the higher the price you are likely to pay. Don’t be completely turned off by the cost, though; it is worth considering how much staff time you may be able to save for other activities. These pricier services usually offer a free trial. Do not buy one without it. The free trial is the only way for you to find any potential pitfalls and figure out whether or not the program truly meets your needs.
Volgistics has a holistic view of volunteer management, including scheduling for both individual and group volunteers. With an additional purchase of their VicNet module, volunteers can sign up online, view or change their own profile, and track their hours. VicNet functions as a nice, customizable front end for volunteers, but without it volunteer managers can still use the volgistics system to track this information on their own. According to A Consumer’s Guide to Volunteer Management, an excellent resource released in May, 2011 by Idealware and Techsoup, an organization with two users managing 1,000 volunteer records can expect to pay $53 per month, including the optional VicNet online module about $636 per year. However, be aware that the cost increases according to the size of your volunteer group.
If you have the money, you may find this a very worthwhile investment. You may even find that you can link together your donor database and your volunteer database for more bang for your buck. Research indicates that people who volunteer for a charity are approximately ten times more likely to also donate money than those who do not volunteer. With that amount of overlap, who could fault you for wanting to keep all your information together?
The Raiser’s Edge, by Blackbaud, for example, is another high end database, primarily used for donations, but which can also be used to manage volunteers (under the “volunteer” tab in a profile). It has a sleek and highly customizable online interface (complete with WYSIWYG or HTML editor), decent features for tracking volunteer information and activities, and a particular strength in communications and reporting. With all this functionality comes a considerable pricetag, with a start-up fee $5500 and an annual cost per user of $1300. For more information on consolidated donor/volunteer systems, see A Consumer’s Guide to Volunteer Management.
There are several free sites available: volunteerspot.com, volunteermatrix.com, signupgenius.com, and bigtent.com, to name a few. These sites function less like an online information database, and more like an e-vite for volunteers. As such, they may not take care of all your needs in a volunteer management system – tracking hours, full profiles, e-newsletters – but they provide a means to figure out who can do what and when, without using a staff member as middleman.
I have not used all of them, but most of these free sites make it fairly easy to see or set up a demo. They can help you organize information so that volunteers can see what your needs are, and they also cut down on staff time spent communicating with volunteers. (Great for a small nonprofit or church without lots of financial resources to invest!) For example, they will often send out email reminders a set number of days in advance. And they’re fairly easy to customize, within a given template.
A word of caution if you plan on using free software: because the volunteer profile function is much more basic, it is tricky to ensure that you have contact information for new volunteers. If they are signing up for the first time, you are dependent on them to put in their contact details. And with new volunteers, you have the highest likelihood of needing to contact them with additional information. For this reason, you run the risk of having people sign up who you cannot get in touch with, so you don’t have any way of knowing whether you can rely on them or not.
You could counteract that problem in a few different ways. You might be able to instruct people on how to input the contact information you need. Or you can often limit the sign-ups to people who are already familiar with your organization, by password protecting your job or make it invitation only.
Of course, you need constituents with a certain amount of web-savvy to navigate any of these sites. This can present a bit of a problem for volunteers who don’t have a great deal of confidence online. If you work with a large population of retirees, you might reasonably feel hesitant to move toward a higher-tech solution. In that case, sometimes staff can provide very simple and effective training (optional for those volunteers who feel they would benefit from it). Alternatively, almost all of these sites provide an option by which volunteer managers can input all the necessary information. Instead of putting it into that handy old excel spreadsheet or binder, you would simply be putting your information into a somewhat more robust and interactive system.
If you keep some of these guidelines in mind, it should make your search for a volunteer management system easier. There are many more options available than I’ve been able to cover here.
List of Volunteer Management Software
Jayne Craven of Coyote Communications gives a comprehensive list of solutions that fit her definition of a volunteer management system.
Volunteer Management Software reviews and information
This is a searchable list of seventy systems from Prelude Interactive, with detailed descriptions and an option for consumer comments.
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