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I'm wondering how many of you have an online group/forum/bulletin board where your volunteers can post questions, answer each others' questions, and discuss their service.
If you DON'T have such a group -- why not?
If you do:
-- what platform do you use? (email-based group, like LISTSERV? YahooGroups? GoogleGroups? Something else?)
-- is the group private (as in, only members can read and post messages?)
-- is it mandatory for volunteers to join the group? If not, how and when do you invite volunteers to join?
-- do you have someone in charge of facilitating the group and, if so, is that you or a volunteer?
-- are staff members invited to join the group? If not, why not? If so, did they join?
-- how is the group a good thing for you, for volunteers and/for the organization?
-- what have been the factors for success in your online group?
-- what challenges do you face in the group being successful? (frequent and content-rich/relevant posts, etc.)
-- and if you don't think it's already been said, what advice would you give to another volunteer manager wanting to start such a group? And/or what do you wish you had done differently in the early days of the group?
I'd really like to get a discussion going on this, to find out if my recommendations for organizations are on track or not.
-=-=-=-=-=- Jayne Cravens Author, The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook
My organization uses Yahoo Groups. I did a lot of research before settling on that platform. We needed something free that we didn't have to support ourselves, it needed to be restricted, and we wanted a place where volunteers could upload material and contribute to the conversation in order to facilitate interaction. Although we're a tiny organization, our volunteers don't have much interaction with each other unless their territories are adjacent.
I made the group private for two reasons: First, some of our information is not meant for the public, and second, I wanted the volunteers to feel they have a special place just for them since they don't have much interaction while in the field and we don't have in-person meetings more than twice a year.
We strongly encourage them to join the group (we call it the Forum) but we don't make it mandatory. I don't think I could enforce that, and it would just add another layer of administrative tasks to contend with.
I maintain the Forum myself but am also a volunteer. My organization has no paid staff.
The Forum is good for me because many of our volunteers use it to find a replacement when they can't make their assigned day, thereby freeing me from that chore. Doing this fosters an atmosphere of cooperation between some volunteers who may not even know each other in person. Many people step up to fill in for someone because they know they'll need a replacement themselves at some point. The Forum is a good thing for them because they can access it at their leisure to share their experiences, photos, links, etc. in addition to obtaining copies of training materials.
I'm not quite sure how to gauge the level of the Forum's success. I wish it had the ability to show me who signed on and when, and what they did while there. I've spent many hours uploading relevant content but have no idea if it's getting accessed. There are a couple of folks who regularly add some content but 95% of it is done by me. The most activity I see from the volunteers is related to sub requests and posting photos. We've had the Forum for 4 years and each year I see more activity from them. I do feel that it's a useful tool, but of course, that depends on the level of participation.
Some of the other challenges we face:
- Users who are "bouncing" due to inactivity on their account. It's usually the same ones over and over, even after I've pestered them by email to access their accounts.
- Users who join with a non-Yahoo account. They receive emails of the posted messages (if they choose to do so), but they don't have the ability to access the rest of the Forum.
- Trying to get the volunteers to participate in more than requesting subs or posting photos. Often, someone will send me a link or relate a story that would be great content for the Forum, and I encourage them to post it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.
I would highly recommend Yahoo to anyone considering starting an online group. It lacks a lot of bells and whistles but it's free and you don't have to maintain the infrastructure. It's easy to set up and moderate. Can't think of anything I wish I'd done differently.
Beaches Sea Turtle Patrol, Inc. A Florida Nonprofit Corporation
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