I am sometimes asked for my views on volunteer management software. Which products are best? What should the software do? What are important features and benefits? In this article I want to give you my perspective on seven important things to consider when looking for software to help you in your volunteer engagement work.
1 – Get your data in order first
Remember that with any software the rule of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies. It doesn’t matter what the product is and what it can do, if you input rubbish data and/or fail to keep the data up-to-date, you will not realise the benefits of investing a new system.
Before you part with money for a shiny new volunteer system, get your house in order first. Make sure the data you already hold is accurate and that processes and practices are in place for – and followed by – everyone working with volunteers to keep the data in tip-top condition.
2 – Data storage vs relationship management
Do you want to simply store volunteer data so you know who your volunteers are, their contact details etc.? In some organisations an Excel spreadsheet might do this perfectly well. In others, a featured product with a few more features (data sharing between teams, for example) might do the trick, either as stand-alone volunteer system or a module in a product used by another team e.g. fundraising / development, membership, HR etc..
On the other hand, you may be looking for something that goes beyond simple data storage. You might want: reporting functions; the ability to communicate with volunteers by email, SMS, WhatsApp, social media etc.; document storage and sharing; logging volunteer hours; fuller integration with other organisational systems etc.. If this is you then look to systems that provide a more fully featured suite of customer relationship management (CRM) tools for volunteers.
3 – Know what’s essential and what’s optional
Before you start contacting software vendors, be really clear on what any new system must do and what it’d be nice for it to do. Not every product on the market will do everything you need, so be clear on what’s non-negotiable. This will help you short-list potential options and focus the discussion with the relevant vendors.
If you start with a long, inflexible list where everything is an essential requirement then be prepared to be disappointed. You will either have a severely limited choice available to you or you’ll discover that you need to spend more money for someone to develop a bespoke product for you.
4 – Put volunteers in control
As individuals we want control over our lives and our information. We want to do things on our terms, not someone else’s. Look at how we’ve adapted to doing so much more online during the pandemic.
People are the same when it comes to volunteering. They want to keep their own data up-to-date. They want to be in control of logging their hours. They want to be in control of when they give you their time. They want to see their own personalised reporting data. And they are largely comfortable with using technology
They don’t want to have to reply on speaking to you or a colleague every time they need to change their availability, update their email address, or see the current number of hours they have given this year.
Look for a system that puts volunteers in control. Can they update their profile and availability? Can they apply online? Can they do all this easily from a smartphone (app or web browser)?
Volunteers who can will likely be happier and more engaged. And you’ll be able to shift your attention from updating their data for them, focusing instead on more strategic and developmental work.
5 – Put colleagues in control
Do you have colleagues (paid or unpaid) who do the day-to-day work of volunteer engagement across your organisation? If you do, then look for a system that devolves management of the relevant data down to these colleagues, rather than centralising it all with you.
Aside from the operational efficiencies that can be gained by colleagues being able to do things quickly and easily themselves, there are benefits to you too. If their data is current and accurate then the reports you generate centrally will be too. That means no more chasing for things like monthly recruitment figures, hours logged etc. – bliss!
6 – Make access a priority
You, your colleagues and the volunteers all need to be able to access the system at different times and on different schedules. If whatever system you choose can only be accessed when in the office then how are those needing access off-site going to use it? Let’s face it – that’s all of us now!
Furthermore, can the vendors on your shortlist tell you how often their servers have been down, for how long, and how often? Crucially, was this downtime planned or unexpected?
Volunteers may need access at odd hours and get frustrated if the system is always down when they need it. Similarly, depending on where your software supplier is based, their system downtime may coincide with your working hours. For example, if a vendor on the west coast of the USA takes their system off-line at 1am local time, then a UK client loses access at 9am, just as the working day is starting.
7 – Ensure the vendor knows and gets volunteer engagement
There are lots of companies providing software to help with volunteer engagement. Some know little or nothing about what we do, they’ve just noticed a potential market to sell to. Others ‘get’ the work of leading volunteer engagement. They don’t just exhibit at conferences (remember them?), they attend trainings and seminars to develop their knowledge. They may even run workshops on volunteer engagement, focused on topics that aren’t about selling their product.
The more your chosen vendor understands the reality of your work, the better working relationship you’ll have and the more closely aligned to your needs their software will likely be.
My final observation is this. As much as you can, resist being forced to use a piece of software that wasn’t specifically designed for volunteer engagement. You need a specialist tool for a specialist job. HR have one. Fund-raising have one. Membership have one. You need one too. Not a bolt on to something else that half does the job. Volunteer engagement is too important to compromise on the quality of the software used to support and facilitate it.
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