Technology and long distance leadership in volunteer management
25 July 2005
by Mary Merrill

Technology continues to change the way people work. Increasing numbers of employees work on the road or telecommute at least some of the time. Walk through an airport and you will see laptops, cell phones, and Blackberrys everywhere. It seems that no one is “out of touch” these days. Work is always at our fingertips or traversing the airwaves.

Meetings are via conference call, email, chat room or virtual meeting space. Gone are the days when a volunteer has to travel across town for a board or committee meeting. Now they can attend the meeting via audio or visual conferencing services. A board member, sitting on an airplane can vote via text messaging from a cell phone.

Technology allows us to deliver dynamic presentations and trainings at the click of a mouse. We can collaborate with remote co-workers and volunteers online and prepare for face-to-face meetings with advance materials. We can review a contract or edit a document in real time. The Internet can save money if you eliminate printed brochures and send people to your Web instead. You can add a new volunteer opportunity, update information, post photos, change the orientation manual, or post a training schedule quickly and easily when your manuals, postings and newsletters are available online.

A major challenge for managers of volunteers is learning long distance leadership. Whether you are working with volunteers around the world or in your own city, the Internet and email are rapidly replacing face-to-face management. Many of the techniques for working with online volunteers apply to distance leadership because you are primarily interacting with volunteers through written communications.

Email is becoming the primary means of communication with volunteers. A good long distance manager responds promptly to email inquiries. If a volunteer walked into your office during the day with a question you would probably take a few minutes to respond. An email inquiry is often like someone popping in the office with a quick question. The volunteer is waiting for your prompt attention. If an immediate response is not possible, try to get back to the volunteer within a day or two at most.

Leadership is often an informal exchange in the hall or a casual conversation at lunchtime. These spontaneous exchanges of information become intentional communication for the long distance manager. Distance leadership relies heavily on the written word. It is important to have clear, concise, consistent communication with volunteers.

A blog (or weblog) is a great way to maintain ongoing, consistent communication with volunteers. WordPress is an easy to use open source software that can be downloaded and installed with relative ease. You can post daily, weekly, or as needed, updates and messages to your volunteers. By adding a subscriber notification service each of your volunteers can receive a brief notification when new information is posted. Blogs are meant to be informal, casual forms of communication. You can share what is going on this week in the program, or talk about upcoming events, new posting, etc. You can add a “comments feature” so that volunteers can post questions or share comments that are visible to all. A blog is a nice tool for creating a volunteer community. It allows you to communicate in a very personal, informal way with your volunteers.

The web site becomes an important tool for distance management. Volunteer sections of agency websites are often quite static. The information rarely changes and there is little reason for volunteers to check it from time to time. This is a huge mistake. Not only is it an excellent recruitment tool among Internet savvy people, it is a great place for creating an interactive community by posting new volunteer opportunities, photos and recognition notices. One volunteer manager told me she changes her listing of volunteer opportunities at least once a week. She gives her positions new job titles each week, finding that this help continually attract new interest in her program. The website is a place to create a “feel” for who you are and what you do.

An effective distance leadership technique is to create web based groups of volunteers. Perhaps all the volunteers doing certain types of work can become members of that specific group so that you can share job specific information with them. Group members would have access to a group “page” where they can get information, exchange ideas, sign up for new projects or check a calendar of trainings or events specific to their areas of work and interest. The group can have a homepage with a photo album of all the members of the group as well as links to basic information or a place for “breaking news.” You may even have a file area where volunteers can share information and data.

If you are providing long distance leadership to volunteers, the following tips will help you manage expectations, people and communications.

  • Set clear goals.
  • Be certain the tasks are understood.
  • Establish responsibility for completing tasks, including dates when things should be submitted, reviewed, completed.
  • Have a process for regular communication with one another.
  • Don’t abuse email. Most people get more than they want, so be sure you use it wisely. Be brief and to the point. Learn proper email etiquette.
  • Consider creating a blog or web-based groups of volunteers.
  • Make appointments to call volunteers from time to time and build a personal relationship. In-person conversations help two people not only learn facts about one another, but also how to relate to one another.
  • Send regular, consistent updates and keep volunteers informed of overall happening in the organization. Share information about new employees, new volunteers, and important events. Help volunteers feel connected.
  • Follow up. Send a notice before something is due as a gentle reminder.
  • Send an annual summary of work performed, clients served, outcomes reached.
  • Share achievements among volunteers.
  • Send each volunteer a handwritten card at least once a year. Email is convenient, but a personal note is still a nice touch.
  • Be personal and make an effort to combine high tech with high touch.

Many of us are still on the learning curve when it comes to technology. And long distance management was not part of our business management curriculum. If you want to increase your effectiveness, with technology and with long distance management, recruit a technology volunteer (check for a local Linux user group or a local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication) to help you learn the techniques and skill to work with today’s highly connected volunteers.

From: Merrill Associates
© Merrill Associates

This page can found at: