It’s also a shift that could be coming to volunteering. Yes, that’s right, technology replacing volunteers! This is something I touched on last year when I discussed autonomous vehicles and volunteer drivers, but since then other examples have appeared.
It’s also worth reflecting on the UK government’s investment in technology to transform the care system. Reporting on this in 2019, CNBC stated:
“The scheme, backed by funding of £33.9 million across five years, could result in the development of sophisticated “care robots” which would be deployed to assist the elderly. Actions that could potentially be taken by such robots include helping people up after a fall, making sure medication is taken, and delivering meals.” – CNBC, October 2019
In a world more aware than ever of the risks of disease transmission from human contact and where people in care have been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s not difficult to see volunteers in the care system being replaced by so called ‘care robots’.
If all that seems a little far fetched, just think about the growing use of drones for household deliveries. This could be used right now to replace the work of volunteers who delivered food and medicine to vulnerable people during the pandemic lockdown earlier in the year.
“The drone company Manna Aero, which began fulfilling takeout orders in Dublin at the end of March, also got permission from Ireland’s aviation authorities for a trial to deliver prescription medications to elderly and immunocompromised people in early April” – Slate.com, April 2020
Given how important and high profile such volunteer roles have been this year, the introduction of current drone technology could be transformative in the development of post-pandemic volunteering.
You may now be thinking something like, “OK, I get it, but our organisations need volunteers, they are fundamental to our work, we can’t just replace them with technology”. I agree, but consider:
Organisations generally don’t exist to give people an opportunity to volunteer. They exist to fulfil a mission. If they can do that in a different and potentially more effective (and cheaper?) way then why not embrace technology?
During lockdown, some organisations that previously proclaimed they couldn’t do their work without volunteers stopped all volunteering. That’s right, volunteers were so integral to the work that they could all stop whilst the organisation kept on going! In that context why wouldn’t a different way of doing things be considered?
Put it all together and I have to ask, if we faced another global pandemic in ten years time, would volunteers be as needed as they were in 2020, or would technology have replaced them? Will it even be ten years and need a global crisis – is technology coming for our volunteers sooner than we think?
In this special bonus post, we welcome our Canadian colleague Jessica Pang-Parks who shares her insights into volunteerism and volunteer engagement in Canada during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The whole world is on the same COVID-19 car ride right now, wondering, “are we there yet?” and waiting for restrictions to lift.
In Canada, as in most of the Western world, COVID-19 has impacted volunteerism and volunteer engagement. On May 1, 2020, Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada took a poll (during a Zoom call) of fifty leaders of volunteers from across the country. No surprise, none of us said that our volunteer programs were running “business as usual”. Forty-six percent of us said that volunteering at our organizations was “shut down until further notice”.
Indeed, many of us have had hours reduced, been furloughed, or been laid off completely. Many of those who remain employed full-time at their organizations have had to take on new responsibilities, sometimes even stepping in to be on the front lines.
In his interview with the CBC, Imagine Canada’s CEO Bruce MacDonald said that charities in Canada are being “profoundly affected by drops in revenue, by a need to change and adapt their services, by not having access to volunteers – many of whom delivered those services.” As a volunteer engagement professional, I’m glad to see that the main advocacy body for non-profits in Canada recognizes the importance and power of volunteers.
While we grapple with these questions as Canadian volunteer engagement professionals, like in other countries, some jurisdictions are reopening faster than others. And now that you have some context, let’s look at four uniquely Canadian things that affect volunteerism and volunteer engagement during COVID-19.
Canadian charities have moved much of their programming online. While some see this as a temporary measure, others see value in making online programming permanent and plan to continue to expand online offerings. When universal high-speed internet comes to Canada, our sector should be ready to respond and leverage the resources. Volunteer engagement professionals will need to continue to innovate and keep our tech skills sharp. We are in a unique position to combine technical skills with soft skills to help our organizations move their missions forward. Keep learning, and as you learn, think about how to engage volunteers with new technology solutions that emerge.
As these organizations professionalize, they will require volunteer engagement support. This is a great opportunity for leaders of volunteers to step up and support the grassroots. We want these organizations to make volunteer engagement a strategic priority in their infancies, so a culture of volunteer engagement is inherent to their operations. Full disclosure: I live in Willowdale and have provided the We Love Willowdale leaders volunteer engagement consulting on a voluntary basis.
Moving forward, what can professionalized Canadian non-profits learn from the grassroots organizations formed rapidly from tragedy? Perhaps less paperwork and bureaucracy? Perhaps more urgency and emotion? My personal hope is that the learning goes both ways: that “professionalized” leaders of volunteers listen to ideas from leaders of volunteers who were, until a day ago, accountants or farm hands, and that the grassroots leaders of volunteers seek our advice, experiences, and learn from our mistakes.
#3: America – It’s Right There
The United States is our neighbour. Approximately two-thirds of Canadians live within 100km of the US border, which also happens to be the world’s “longest undefended border”.
So, if there is a second, or third, or fourth spike in the Canadian curve because Americans start travelling to Canada, we may be in lockdown for longer than we thought we’d be. Volunteers who were hoping to return to giving their time in-person may need to wait longer. There may be an even greater demand for volunteer engagement professionals to step into front-line healthcare duties. Whatever happens, we can’t ignore the US, because it is right there.
#4: Are you Bilingual?
As non-profit programming moves online, organizations will struggle with being truly bilingual. Canada has two official languages: English and French. National organizations, as well as organizations serving the National Capital Region or other jurisdictions where both official languages are frequently used (e.g. New Brunswick, Saint Boniface in Manitoba) will require even more volunteers and employees with bilingualism than usual.
For predominantly Anglophone organizations, excluding Francophones from programming means losing out on approximately 22% of the Canadian population. Organizations with bilingual resources were either already prepared to engage in either or both official languages, or, can easily pivot to do so.
Volunteers who are bilingual will be in even higher demand, and bilingual volunteer engagement professionals will be much more employable. This means that Canadian leaders of volunteers should brush up on their French, collect better data on language preferences and capabilities, and be mindful of the benefits and limitations of translation technology.
Franco-Canadiens are proud (so proud that there is still a strong separatist movement). We Anglophones may feel it is cute when benevoles mis-conjugate a verb. But to some Franco-Canadiens, mispronunciation can feel like a personal insult. As leaders of volunteers, we are in the business of stewarding relationships, and if we can’t literally speak the same language as volunteers and other supporters, then we can’t do our work effectively.
Are you a Canadian leader of volunteers? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted us uniquely. Are you a leader of volunteers from outside Canada who has noticed similar trends? What actions are you, your colleagues, and your government taking to support volunteerisim and volunteer engagement under these circumstances?
Since 23 March we’ve adjusted to the new normal of lockdown life, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of the change we’ve seen. English charities will lose an estimated £4.3 billion of income by the end of June, putting jobs in jeopardy when the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme ends and even risking the loss of some well known charities. Volunteer Managers are amongst many sector staff who have been furloughed whilst volunteers have been stood down in significant numbers, sometimes by organisations whose websites still proclaim they they couldn’t do their work without those now inactive volunteers!
Cuts in volunteer engagement budgets were disproportionate compared to other departments in nonprofit organisations
Top management did not recognise the importance of volunteer engagement, creating instability in service delivery and fundraising activities that were delivered by volunteers
Organisations benefited from setting aside outdated models of volunteer involvement and moving to involve volunteers throughout the organisation and in positions of significant responsibility
There are serious consequences to cutting volunteer engagement resources
As the slow transition back to normality take place it’s important that we learn lessons from the past. For example, perhaps cutting resource and support for volunteer engagement isn’t the quick and easy money saving solution some may think? Perhaps the knock on effects of laying off Volunteer Managers will do unforeseen harm to service delivery and income generation? Perhaps a modest increase in investment might yield better returns as new ways of working and innovative approaches are supported?
What follows are three thoughts from me about why volunteer engagement needs to be prioritised as we come out of lockdown.
1 – Interest in volunteering isn’t the same as actually doing something
On 22 March I applied to a local organisation who had an urgent need for volunteers due to Covid-19. After five weeks (!) I finally heard back from the local organisation who said they “currently had no roles” available.
Two days later I signed up online to be an NHS Volunteer responder. As this article goes live (seven weeks after I applied) I still haven’t been given anything to do as an NHS Volunteer responder.
”With online tools, it’s never been easier to disappoint large numbers of potential volunteers and, with online tools, those disappointed people can let a lot of people know just how frustrated they are with your organisation.”
Rather than having hundreds of thousands of people who are keen to volunteer, we may well find we have hundreds of thousands of people who have been put off volunteering because of such press coverage and a negative experience of trying give time and help in their community. Consequently, it may actually be harder to get people to volunteer in future. We will need to rise to that challenge. That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.
2 – What people expect when volunteering has changed
To be fair, people’s expectations of volunteering were changing before Covid-19, but the last few weeks has really accelerated that.
Some people who have signed up to volunteer for the Covid-19 fight have gone through speedy online application processes that see them approved and ready to go in a matter of hours. Others have organised themselves, connecting with others and making a tangible difference in their communities, thanks in part to modern technology. This experience is at odds with our sector’s more traditional, formal, bureaucratic, offline and risk-averse approach to volunteer engagement. No more will our lengthy paper-based processes cut the mustard.
We thought we had time to change to new ways of working – we don’t any longer!
If I can be approved in 24 hours to deliver prescriptions to vulnerable people based on providing a photo of my driving licence, why do I need to jump through all your bureaucratic hoops to do some admin or fundraising?
Organisations need to re-think the practicalities of volunteer engagement for life after Covid-19. Change is needed now and fast! That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.
3- We’ve lost key volunteers and not all of them will come back
For the last nine years I’ve been sharing how many organisations are reliant on a small, ageing core of volunteers and how that poses a risk. Like others, I have spent years highlighting the changes organisations need to make if they want to engage volunteers from outside this so-called civic core. The time to make those changes has now run out.
As both the Third Sector Research Centre and the Charities Aid foundation have discovered, some 8% of the population are responsible for 50% of the donated time. I used to ask organisations how they’d cope if half their volunteer hours disappeared in a few years time. Not any more – many organisations have lost that donated time overnight with a large proportion of that 8% stopping volunteering because they have had to self-isolate due to their age.
We mustn’t assume these older civic core volunteers will come back either. Sadly, we may lose some to Covid-19. Others may not want to risk exposure to the virus by returning to volunteering in the short-to-medium term. Some may have enjoyed no longer having the responsibilities of their volunteering and use this opportunity to retire on their own terms.
Similarly, not every sector employee will have a job to come back to. Sadly, we will lose skills we once paid for, skills will still need in order to serve our beneficiaries. Filling these skills gaps through volunteer engagement may be a necessity for some organisations. That could mean a growth in skills-based employee volunteering or more targeted recruitment of volunteers with particular experiences and competencies. However it’s done, it must be handled carefully and intelligently to ensure impact and manage issues associated with job substitution (more on this in my next article in two weeks time). That needs a skilled volunteer engagement professional.
In this article I have highlighted just three reasons why organisations must not make the old mistakes of cutting their volunteer engagement functions as they face the financial challenges of the coming months. There are, of course, many more reasons and I’d love to hear what you’d add to my list, as well as any refections you have on the points I’ve made. Please leave a comment below or via the social media post you found this article on and let’s keep the conversation going so volunteer engagement doesn’t suffer as lockdown ends.
”The purpose of the survey was to gather some basic data that might help organisations that involve volunteers to make better-informed decisions when choosing software, and to help software designers to understand the needs of those organisations. We also wanted to get a sense of what organisations were thinking about volunteer management software.”
As our work confirmed, the answer to the question ‘What is the best volunteer management software?’ isn’t an easy one.
”If we were building something from scratch, how would it look and feel? What would it accomplish for us? How would it make our lives easier, not more challenging? How could it help us save time?”
The list of requirements that VolunteerPro crowdsourced from their members illustrates a problem. There is no magical software unicorn that can do everything that the globally diverse community of volunteer engagement professionals wants.
As Jayne and I said in 2012:
“…how organisations involve volunteers, what information they need about those volunteers, and what kinds of activities those volunteers do varies hugely among organisations. Also, different people like different features; a software loved by one organisation may be loathed by another.”
And as Tobi says in her article:
”…no software platform, whatever its purpose, is perfect”
Tobi’s article did, however, prompt three thoughts about the subject of volunteer management software that I think are important to consider.
First, leaders of volunteer engagement are frustrated at data entry. I get this. Nobody likes to have to sit there and plug data into any system. But even if we could have all the fancy software features people want to see, the value of those features would only be as good as the data inputted. So, rather than being a frustration to avoid, perhaps data entry should be seen as a top priority?
So, as VolunteerPro say, we should look at automation of data entry – I love the suggested idea that when a volunteer arrives on-site, their phone reminds them to start and stop logging their hours – or even does it for them! But let’s also remember that, as volunteer engagement professionals, we should be able to find support for data entry from volunteers rather than have to do it all ourselves. Odd as it may seem, there are people out there that love data entry, so let’s go find them and get them to volunteer.
Second, the list people came up with for VolunteerPro is very ‘now’ oriented: email and text (SMS) communications; integration with existing donor software etc.; live chat support; an online volunteer community forum etc.. I understand why that is – we are busy with the now, delivering for our volunteers so they can deliver for our clients. But the world is changing around us and what we need now isn’t necessarily what we will need in five, ten or twenty years time.
Where is the forward thinking about what volunteer management software might need to do for us? For example:
Being able to observe the data on where volunteers are as they work out in the community (handy for health and safety / lone working monitoring etc.)
Integrating AI / machine learning into recruitment and screening of potential volunteers
Application of bots in managing ongoing communications with volunteers, especially around frequently asked questions
Automated expense submission, process logging and electronic payment
Delivery and monitoring of induction training via video
Good software providers will be doing this future-focused thinking already. If we want their products to help our profession, then leaders of volunteer engagement need to be a part of those conversations now.
Third, and finally, I was surprised to see so many suggestions for volunteers to be given more control over their data. For example, updating profiles, logging hours, submitting impact reporting data, managing shift allocations. All of these are great ideas and some volunteer engagement software has these functions already. But I always hear Volunteer Managers saying that their volunteers won’t use it because it’s too much hassle or the volunteers are too old or too young or…insert alternative excuse here!
Maybe things are changing. Maybe the growing demands of volunteers to be in control of their volunteering are finally getting through. Maybe our tendency to project our own IT anxieties onto our volunteers is finally reducing. Whatever the reason, it’s an encouraging sign that more leaders of volunteer engagement are awakening to the potential of giving volunteers control.
What do you think? Have you got thoughts and ideas about the future of volunteer management software? Leave a comment below or on social media where you’ve seen this article posted.
As we saw last time, technology has changed the way we work in volunteer management. We are so familiar are with the technology that is now a part of our lives that it’s easy to forget the extent of the change that taken place in the last few years. Yet, despite all that change, we have adapted, both personally and professionally.
But what about the changes that are coming? Changes that could be even more momentous. I want to look at just two examples and how they may affect volunteerism – Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles.
Once the preserve of Science Fiction movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the sinister HAL, AI is becoming increasingly common in our modern world.
“AI is anything a computer can’t do yet.” – Seth Godin
The same will be true of AI in our work in 2028. What seems outlandish now will be the norm.
Today, AI systems are helping people do mundane tasks like schedule meetings. Just think, no more email tennis to plan in all those meetings with volunteers. What a time saver!
AI is also helping with recruitment for paid jobs. An AI whittles the applications to a long-list of candidates before an AI powered chat bot conducts an initial interview, asking pre-agreed questions. In theory this approach is fairer than an human interviewing as the AI interprets responses without the unconscious biases all humans posses.
This approach to recruitment is intriguing and it’s application to volunteer recruitment is clear – volunteer managers could save considerable amounts of time deploying AI in this way, allowing them to focus their efforts on those people most likely to be suitable volunteers.
Think this is pure fantasy? Well, AI is already being used by some volunteer involving organisations. Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) use a chat bot to answer frequently asked questions from volunteers on CHAS’s Workplace by Facebook platform, releasing staff time to focus on other tasks.
Back in 2015 Jay Samit, writing in TechCrunch, predicted that a human driving a car will be illegal by 2030. We can debate if that time frame is correct, but it’s safe to say that within the next twenty-five years taxi drivers, bus drivers, lorry drivers and other driving related jobs will be obsolete, replaced by AI drivers.
What will this mean for thousands of volunteer drivers giving their time right now? Will they be out of a ‘job’ too, forced to sit on the sidelines as technology does their work for them?
I suppose that depends on whether the core of their role is the driving or, in the case of those who drive other people, the personal connection they have with their passengers? For example: a volunteer who’d drives to empty charity collection boxes may well no longer be needed – especially as collection boxes are likely to go cashless; whereas a patient transport volunteer may instead be able to focus all their attention on their passengers whilst the vehicle does the work of driving them both to a hospital appointment.
If you are managing a volunteer driver scheme right now, what are you doing to prepare for this change? What threats and opportunities does it present?
I want to close with the Bill Gates quote I opened the first article in this series with:
“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”.
The changes I have hinted at above might seem outlandish and far-fetched to some of you, but they are coming. They are the tip of the iceberg in how technology will change the shape our lives and societies in future. Volunteering will not be immune to those changes and we have to think now about what it means for our work as leaders and managers of volunteers. Embracing these changes will not be easy and we may feel ill-equipped to adapt. But adapt we must. Change we must. For, as retired US Army General Gen. Eric Shinseki said:
“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”
For those interested in doing a little more reading about AI I highly recommend three articles that indicate some of the ways in which AI could be harmful, especially as it may not be as unbiased and neutral as some people argue:
Bill Gates once said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”. In this new two-part blog series I want to briefly explore how technology has changed volunteer management in the last few years and how it might shape our work in future.
An age of wonder
As someone who grew up in the technologically simple days of the 1970s and 1980s, I am often amazed by the modern technological world. The jump has been immense, from the computer games loaded from tape I played as a child to the immersive, Virtual Reality Ultra HD gaming consoles available today. Throughout my life the stuff of science fiction truly has become daily reality.
People are fearful
Yet as technology has become a more integral part of our lives, so people have become more fearful that it will have a negative impact, from the Terminator like annihilation of the human race to machines taking our jobs. Such fears are perhaps inevitable but they certainly aren’t new. Since the industrial revolution people have feared the loss of their livelihoods as machines, computers and technology have become more commonplace.
Some jobs no longer exist
From my own childhood, I can distinctly remember visiting my dad at work in the Bolton branch of Barclays Bank. One of the offices was full of women sitting in rows typing correspondence to customers. No more. Today, that work is done by computers. Those jobs are gone.
Some new jobs have been created
We often forget, however, that as these ‘old’ jobs disappear, new ones are created. For example, fifteen years ago there was no such thing as social media and so no job called Social Media Marketing Manager. Now there are thousands of these jobs around the globe focused on promoting brands, products and services via social media.
How volunteer management has changed
Volunteer management hasn’t been immune to these changes. Some of the volunteer roles we once relied upon have become extinct, whilst technology has also helped us do our jobs better. Here are two examples:
Envelope stuffing. This was a crucial role in many Volunteer Involving Organisations when I started work in 1994. Few organisations had access to email, so teams of volunteers would come together to put newsletters and mass mailings into envelopes. It was a great way to get people to try out volunteering in an easily accessible role that allowed for lots of social interaction with other volunteers. Today, thanks to email and software like MailChimp, envelope stuffing has gone the way of the dodo.
Volunteer management software. If we occasionally mourn for the loss of roles like envelope stuffing, we rarely mourn the loss of some of the more tedious aspects of volunteer management. Today there are a plethora of software products to help us in our work. These tech tools allow volunteers to keep their details up-to-date, manage their own schedules, engage in basic induction and training activities, and much more. Volunteer Managers are freed from a range of administrative tasks that sucked our time and took us away from the human aspects of our role – engaging with volunteers, paid colleagues and the public. Thanks to technology we can now spend more time on the people parts of our roles and allocate more time to do the strategic thinking and planning so necessary for success.
When Bill Gates spoke of underestimating the change to come in the next ten years, he didn’t mention how easily we forget the changes of the past. We live so much in the moment, and with an eye to what is to come, that we rarely look back. I hope the two examples I have shared I have made the case that technology has changed volunteer management in the last few years because, as we will examine next time, there is plenty more change in store for us in the future.
Over to you
In what ways have you noticed technology changing volunteer management in the last 10-20 years? Have those changes been good or bad in your view? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.