Open Social offers online community solutions to a wide range of clients across a number of sectors, including healthcare, education and government. Over the years we have worked closely with a number of leading NGOs and NPOS and developed true expertise in the field. We have talked with clients and non-clients organizations alike, done our research and created purpose-built products to address their unique online volunteer community needs.
With all this knowledge, we also wrote the Online Volunteer Community Guide called: Learn how to attract, activate and retain your volunteers online.
In this guide, we give some solutions to solve three key challenges NGOs and NPOs face when creating their online volunteer communities. But before you can get to the solutions, you first have to answer: what exactly are these key challenges?
Challenge 1: How do you attract and retain volunteers in an increasingly online world?
According to VolunteerPro’s 2020 Volunteer Management Progress Report volunteer recruitment finding the right volunteers for specific roles and needs has been the top challenge for NPOs over the last 4 years. It is a challenge that organizations reportedly cite two or three times as often as any other issue.
While it might seem as though the internet offers boundless opportunities for attracting new volunteers, organizations are severely hamstrung in their digital recruitment efforts by some of the following obstacles:
It’s impossible to compete in the online attention economy
Research published in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly states that part of the problem NPOs face online is that they are competing in the so-called ‘attention economy’:
“The social media era ushers in an increasingly ‘noisy’ information environment that renders it more difficult for nonprofit advocacy organizations to make their voices heard”
NGOs and NPOs are competing for attention on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These platforms are built on a business model that encourages constant swiping through content: attention-grabbing ads, provocative memes, titillating videos, eye-popping gifs and other multi-media distractions.
How can an NGO’s earnest call for volunteers draw in any new recruits amidst all this noisy information?
Online visitors don’t convert into enrolled volunteers
People might land on your organization’s website – but just as quickly they click away! A big problem many organizations (not just NGOs or NPOs) struggle with is finding ways to get online visitors to take the plunge and sign up, join, connect, or get in touch.
Moreover, simply having someone sign-up for a newsletter or following your organization on Twitter doesn’t guarantee that they will become volunteers.
Once you have someone’s attention online, how do you turn them into an invested member of your organization?
Prospects don’t trust just any technology
Organizations might not be aware of this problem, but it is definitely one that influences their efforts of getting people to join their online volunteer communities. As Don Carlson, the Education Director of Microsoft Asia Pacific says:
“People don’t use technology that they don’t trust”
Oftentimes organizations choose tools, software, or platforms that aren’t completely trusted by potential volunteer members. In recent years online users have grown increasingly apprehensive about proprietary technology as scandals about data leaks, privacy breaches and third-party mining and monetization of personal information became commonplace. When visitors see they have to sign in or volunteer personal details to a platform that they are not familiar with – they might opt-out rather than sign-up.
How can your organization create trust online and make visitors feel secure enough to sign-up as volunteers?
Challenge 2: How do you turn passive online visitors into active and engaged online community members?
If you manage to grab the attention of an online visitor to your platform, and get them to sign-up and join your community, you are faced with a new set of challenges!
Volunteers work for free. This means that they have to be willing to commit their time, energy and even resources to your organization without expecting any formal compensation. For this reason, it is often difficult to keep them actively engaged with your organizational projects, campaigns and goals.
There are well-established best practices and techniques for traditional volunteer engagement within the volunteering sector. There is even a whole body of research published on the topic! But oftentimes these practices don’t translate to online spaces because of the following issues:
Volunteers aren’t talking to one another
The spark to creating engagement in an online community is to get members who are geographically (and often culturally!) separated to start talking with each other. It is difficult to jumpstart conversations in an online space as people often feel isolated because of the lack of face-to-face interaction. When people feel isolated, they aren’t going to keep coming back to your online platform or feel the desire to further engage with your organization’s goals.
How do you start conversations in your online community and use it to build volunteer engagement?
There is no cohesive sense of community
Volunteering sector champion NVCO writes that “identity, belonging and camaraderie are undeniable features of volunteering”. Online communities often fizzle out within the first year because people don’t feel that sense of community and shared identity in online spaces. Without a strong sense of shared identity, volunteers will abandon your platform and unsubscribe to any future volunteering activities.
How do you turn online members into a close-knit community to which people want to belong and engage with?
No one is generating or engaging with content
The lifeblood of any online community is user-generated content. This can include blog posts, uploaded photos, organized online events, documents or even just comments! For online volunteer communities, a lack of user-generated content signals that members are not engaging with your online platform and are consequently not engaging with your organization’s mission. Without this kind of engagement, your online members will remain ‘online lurkers’. For your organization this basically translates into ‘inactive volunteers’.
How do you create an online community where members spontaneously create content that drives engagement with your organization?
Challenge 3: How do you measure the success of your online volunteer community and demonstrate its value to your stakeholders?
It might seem to you that your online community is thriving: people are talking, engaging with content, and joining events. But how do you know if it is really successful or not?
‘Return on investment’ might seem like a private sector concern that shouldn’t apply to NGOs and NPOs. But unfortunately, it does. These types of organizations are all too familiar with budgetary constraints and are thus very wary of trying out new experimental ways of doing things. Too often have we heard our clients air this concern: how will we be able to measure – and show to our stakeholders – whether our new online community is actually successful? This question is often coupled with the following pain points:
The budgetary risk of an online community seems too big
NPOs are by definition not profit-generating organizations, and thus often have limited budgets. It is thus easy to understand why they want to stick to tried and trusted methods – instead of taking on new innovative ventures such as launching a Volunteer Engagement Platform. Add to this that software solutions can often be expensive and might require a long-term budget commitment.
How do you make sure that you are spending your limited budget correctly?
There are too few meaningful metrics to report on
NGOs and NPOs don’t always have easily measurable metrics for success. How would you measure the amount of environmental awareness that a specific campaign generates? It’s difficult!
In an online space, you can potentially get a lot more metrics and data – but without the proper tools, these don’t always mean much.
How do you find the metrics that really matter to your organization, and how do you report on them?
It is not clear whether the community is successful or not
Setting up a Volunteer Engagement Platform for your online community is simple enough. But is it worth the initial and continued investment?
How do you ensure that a Volunteer Engagement Platform is a worthwhile investment?
How do you solve these key challenges?
There are no instant fixes to any of the above challenges. But there are ways to effectively address them and build your volunteer community, see it thrive and show success to your stakeholders.
To find the solution strategies to the above challenges, you can download and read our Online Volunteer Community Guide: Learn how to attract, activate and retain your volunteers online.
This guide will help you discover the secrets of community KPIs and meaningful metrics, choosing platforms that volunteers can trust, how to empower volunteers online, create organic conversation and more!
Insights from real communities
In this guide, you will also find unique insights from real organizations using Open Social to run their online communities.
Read about how:
- Pachamama Alliance’s online volunteering platform grew from 4,000 members to over 17,000
- foraus used their online community to crowd-source over 479 ideas for foreign policy recommendations
- the UNDP connect and create engagement between over 46,000 internal and external stakeholders using an online community platform