We like to think that most nonprofits are concerned about their reach toward individuals who might struggle to connect with their offerings, at least in the best of times. Not all leaders think that way, but organizations that value equity of access must consider the plights of those who might be systematically excluded from engagement efforts. If the pandemic forced us onto new and unfamiliar ground, now is the time to assess and balance how technologies have affected our reach, for better and for worse.
We wanted to know how technology use has changed in volunteer management, especially through the pandemic. So, we assembled a research team at Arizona State University and set off on an ambitious research project to survey and interview volunteer managers across the U.S. and Canada about their technology use. Although we did not start with a particular emphasis on equity and access, this theme came up regularly in our conversations with the field.
To be sure, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into ways that nonprofits have engaged their stakeholders over the past couple years. That wrench is key to the Big Theme and Conclusion of this article. In short, when we are forced into action, we do not always have time to be thoughtful and properly strategic. We can only hope that we later have the time, information, and bandwidth to make new, better decisions.
We have observed that even the most thoughtful nonprofits made knee-jerk decisions in the pandemic that connected better with some stakeholders than others. One person we spoke with described the sudden adjustments at her food bank:
We had never used a platform virtually before. We need hands on deck, so having to close our volunteer program was a challenge for us—emotionally, losing such a large part of our community—but we also had to find a way to keep them connected so that they would come back when our doors reopened. And so, we kind of scrambled to learn things like Zoom.
A volunteer resource manager at another human service nonprofit that we talked with noted the challenge that comes with the decision to suddenly embrace information and communication technologies. “I would say that we made the best use that we could of the tools that we had,” she said, “but I’d say about 10% of our volunteers are not tech savvy and so they got left behind.”
Talking with Volunteer Administrators
Volunteer programs are some of the most front-facing operations of nonprofit organizations. They solicit community members to volunteer, bring them into mission activities, and broadcast their work to the public. Volunteer operations were hard-hit in the pandemic, with many nonprofits shuttering contact with volunteers entirely. One CVA who organizes volunteers in the Dallas metro area lamented the impacts of COVID-19 on their operations. “Pre-COVID, we could have 10,000 volunteers across the entire city and all the different departments,” she said. “But now we are limping along. We’re open, but a lot of the volunteers just have not returned yet.”
Another CVA who spearheads volunteer operations for a big city civic engagement nonprofit told us that virtual tools have “totally changed the game,” and that “I …….