Technology and Todays Volunteers

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Older man at laptopIn my book chapter for Volunteer Engagement 2.0, I talk about trends that are impacting how volunteers’ needs and expectations are changing. Technology is one of the most important and rapidly evolving domains in our lives and those of the volunteers with whom we partner.

Technology has its benefits. Recent advances offer us an increasing number of of ways to reach and engage current and future volunteers. The challenge is keeping pace with new developments and aligning all of our volunteer processes — communication, training, and support media and methods — with how the public most commonly gets and shares information in daily life. If today’s technology evolved slowly, this wouldn’t be that hard. But, nowadays, new social media pop up each year, adding to the list of options on the table.

Smartphone Screen Time on the Rise

Currently, nearly two-thirds (64%) of American adults now own a smartphone, up from 58% in early 2014 (Pew Internet & American Life). Not only do folks merely own smartphones, these devices have become an irreplaceable part of daily life.

Nearly three-quarters of all smart phone users keep them within five feet at all times. What’s more, nearly 40% look at their phones within five minutes of waking (90% within one hour) (Harris Interactive/Deloitte). They’ve become a virtual appendage.

In addition, screen time is at an all-time high at an average of 444 minutes (7.4 hours) per day in the U.S. The smartphone has now outpaced both TV and computers (laptops and desktops) as the device most often used. Our cell phones have now outpaced our most common methods of obtaining information and entertainment to date.

 Average Daily Screen Usage

  • TV: 147 minutes per day
  • Laptop + PC: 103 minutes per day
  • Smartphone: 151 minutes per day
  • Tablet: 43 minutes per day

Many of us rely heavily on our smartphones for information and seamlessly transition between screens and devices as we travel through our days. Some of us have even ditched the “phone” functionality altogether, preferring to communicate almost completely via text.

As the smartphone outpaces all other communication devices, and takes a front seat in our daily lives, will our volunteer organizations be left behind?

Collective Content Creation

The trend toward hyper-connectivity and the prevalence of smartphones make connecting with one another fast and easy. But, we’re not just connecting, we’re creating.

Videos, blogs, infographics, and “selfies” are created and shared. Digital innovation and creativity is highly admired. Digital “memes” are also powerful ways consumers are collaborating on content creation and distribution. They are some of the most viral content.

Collaborative content has been used by some nonprofits to great success (think: the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge). But, memes and content that champions volunteerism have yet to be fully tapped. 

Trust in “People Like Me”

Fans now trump audiences as the most important people to cultivate. Although audiences simply watch a movie and head home, fans rate it, write reviews, and share their opinions online. These creative acts expand the film’s reach to new audiences, as each fan influences their personal network. 

“People like me” have become some of the most accessible and trusted sources of information (see the Edelman Trust Barometer for research on who the public trusts and how trust is influenced). Could your organization harness the power of truly collective content, created by volunteers (“people like me”), shared across personal hand-held devices to personal networks globally? Imagine the impact.

The opportunity for authentic, compelling information about social causes, generated and disseminated by volunteers throughout their personal networks, has significant potential. How can you tap it?

Future Forecast: Going Mobile

Now is the time to consider pivoting to a new way of doing business. The more screen time, the more there is competition for attention. How can we integrate our communications and volunteer tasks into the virtual environment across platforms? How will we stay in touch with volunteers? How will we collaborate and arrive at decisions? How can we facilitate collective content, in partnership with our volunteers? How can we further our missions in the mobile era?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Now
    • Over-reliance on a single method of communication with volunteers
    • One-way volunteer info blasts
    • Virtual volunteering discouraged or undervalued
  • Future
    • Cross-platform volunteer communication strategies aligned with mobile lifestyles & habits
    • Two-way, social communication that fosters a greater sense of community & collaborative problem-solving amongst volunteers
    • Deliberate strategies to reduce the challenges associated with virtual teamwork

How have you used mobile to connect with volunteers and spread the word about your organization’s mission? What tips do you have to share?

  • Kathy Janes

    Great article! Lots of food for thought both for nonprofits, but also for those who provide us our tools! All volunteer management needs to be mobile-ready! It’s critical in today’s world.

    • Tobi Johnson

      I agree — software and training developers, heads up! Thanks, Kathy!