In Search of The Right Product
“What do you seek in an online volunteer management system?” is the first question in our fact-finding meeting with potential clients. The leadership response typically includes elements of the following response: we are seeking a product that enhances our brand, integrity, efficiency, partnerships and relationships with our volunteers. Our follow-up session is with the manager of volunteers. This person is responsible for one of the organization’s most valuable assets: the relationship with the volunteer team. The discussions with the managers of volunteers tend to be less aspirational and more focused on the following challenges:
• “My boss doesn’t understand how much time it takes to recruit, register, schedule, coordinate, train and manage our volunteers."
• “We have a system but it wasn’t designed for volunteer management. It was the least expensive option.”
• “We need the volunteer management tools to do the work efficiently and effectively.” Managers of volunteers want to do their jobs efficiently with tools they can operate effectively. Managers want the organization to look good in the process AND they also want to look professional personally. The reality is that it is difficult to ascertain the differences in the numerous system options on the market today as the promotions for products sound very similar. The following article will help your organization differentiate and enhance your brand, integrity, efficiency, partnerships and relationships with your volunteers while using your financial and personnel resources appropriately.
Five years ago, there were a dozen online volunteer management systems in North America. Today every technical service provider claims to have registration and volunteer management options. Your database provider, your e-mail provider, your ticket system provider and many others try to repurpose their existing software to force a volunteer management solution. They can sell the additional services to you cheap or even provide them for free with your existing contract. If your organization manages a very small number of volunteers and has limited reporting needs, this type of “no frills” solution might work. Unfortunately, decisions are often based simply on price and not on the core needs addressed in the opening paragraph: brand, integrity, efficiency, partnerships and relationships with our volunteers. The old adage “you get what you pay for” often applies as organizations end up with an online system that:
• Frustrates the volunteer as the process does not match the organization’s purpose,
• Infuriates the manager of volunteers with lack of functionality,
• Does not create efficiency for the organization and
• Leaves the organization looking weak and disorganized.
Step 1: The Shopping List
Identify the features and functions needed to be successful. Make a checklist and identify which items are a priority and which are nice to have.
✓ Admin Access (e.g. number, roles)
✓ Communications. (e.g. email, text)
✓ Reporting. (e.g. by registrant, by shift, by day, by activity, by custom field)
✓ Registration. (e.g. individual, family, corporate group)
✓ Integrations. (e.g. background checks, payment processing, CRMs/Central Database)
✓ Mobile Friendly
Step 2: Discuss the System’s Primary Purpose
Shouldn’t this be step one? Yes, but most people are more comfortable starting with features & functions. So now, what type of volunteer management system will support your organization’s primary needs?
• Ongoing Activities - Every day? Set schedule at set location? Same hours? Small number of volunteers daily? (e.g. food bank, hospital)
• Event Based - Specific periods of time? Multiple locations? Numerous positions in the same time period? Large numbers of volunteers in shifts? (e.g. championships, endurance, festivals)
• Community Hub or Recruiting - Need to match volunteers to geographic interest-based requirements.
• Enterprise - Central organization with numerous supporting organizations. (e.g. cause based, Special Olympics).
Step 3: Avoiding Account Management Nightmares
When you have questions and worse yet problems, do you have confidence in the support team?
• Account Management - Does the company provide an assigned account representative or a pool of account reps?
• Account Services - What services will you need from the account rep? Consultant? Task? Technical? Only tech support? No support?
• Access - How can you access support? Phone? E-mail? Chat? Forum? When is support available (days/hours/holidays)?
Step 4: Valuation
Has your organization looked at how much volunteer management costs the organization?
• Tasks - Break down the tasks that consume the most time (e.g. recruiting, scheduling, communications, group coordination, check-in, reports, and management).
• Staff Time - Do a time study. Do you know how much time your manager of volunteers is spending doing administrative tasks manually? Probably not, but you can take some sample situations and calculate the monthly time expenditure.
• Program Pain Points - Determine which tasks are causing the most pain. Is there something unique about your volunteer management needs? Or do you have poor process requirements?
• Staff Turnover - Is your organization’s manager of volunteers position a revolving door?
Step 5: Before You Sign on the Dotted Line.
You think you are ready to send in that signed contract, but have you covered all the bases? Here is a quick quality control list.
• Operator - Who is going to operate the system? Has this person bought into the selection?
• Demo - Has your manager of volunteers participated in a full-product demonstration?
• Priorities - Understand that no system is going to give you everything you want. But the volunteer management system should be able to handle the majority of your top priorities.
• References - Have you checked references?
• Continuity - If your manager of volunteers leaves the organization will the system continue to provide your organization with the volunteer database, history of activity, activity schedules and templates for the future?
The Final Question: What is the Return on Investment?
Is your organization putting a band-aid on your volunteer management needs or investing in the future of your program? Volunteer management systems should be measured in the broad return on investment (ROI), not just upfront expenditure. Review the guidelines above and consider all costs. The system needs to do more than just a series of functions and features; it also needs to build your brand, integrity, efficiency, partnerships and relationships with your volunteers.