Remote Volunteer Management & Its Discontents: A Brief Guide to Making it Work

The most impactful, holistic advice I could give to those managing remote volunteers or volunteering remotely...

Jessica Sage

For most non-profits, managing volunteers and integrating their skills and schedules into the programs they serve is already a tough enough gig but, when you add in the element of a remote workplace, the task can seem insurmountable. Workplace flexibility is in increasing demand as workers and companies alike turn on to the various benefits of remote working: scalability, cost effectiveness, and healthier labor expectations and outcomes. Earlier this year, Business Insider cited the Non-Profit sector around some of the leading industries pushing toward a remote or flexible workplace model. For many cash-strapped non-profits, the financial benefits of a decentralized workplace are the only foundation by which they can comfortably and efficiently operate.

With all this in mind, remote work has its own trials and tribulations. For non-profit staff, managing a decentralized volunteer base is touch and go and can take more bandwidth than it offers benefits. In my own organizational work, I assist 30+ volunteers globally in planning, sponsoring, and carrying out over 60 events a year; a task that simply wouldn’t be possible without some of the tips I’ve learned along the way. The most impactful, holistic advice I could give to those managing remote volunteers or volunteering remotely themselves is to prioritize distinct and clear lines of communication between the volunteering party and the organization. It seems so simple but, with dates, venues, sponsors, and teammates on innumerable email threads, remote volunteer management can quickly become a too-many-cooks game. Whether you’re deep in the task of remote volunteer management or thinking of starting a program yourself, here are some tips and ideas to consider along the way:

1. Keep an open (Slack) channel

Though the hours we keep as remote workers can be a little different than the norm—why yes, I too have walked my dog during a conference call—instituting some dedicated “office hours” on a service like Slack and making yourself available to your volunteer base is a game-changer when it comes to the nuances of procedure often lost in the general onboarding process. For would-be volunteers: take advantage of the communication channels offered; there’s typically someone on the other side waiting with bated breath to connect!

2. Define a centralized file sharing space and keep it holy

One of the bigger challenges in supporting a remote workplace is, quite honestly, the disappearance of the common file cabinet. When organizations don’t have a physical repository for shared data and information, wading through your email to find old contracts, hiring forms, donor data, and the like is a particular circle of remote working hell. When you add volunteers into the mix, important documents and their integral necessity can be lost in the soup. We personally keep a shared Dropbox file that our volunteers can access and download from, but not alter. If volunteers do have suggestions or needs outside the documents provided, I ask that they reach out directly and, when applicable, generate new content to be shared across the board. This does prescribe a periodic need for updating on the organizational end to make sure all is up to date but it also ensures that everyone—volunteers and staff alike—are on the same page.

Meet up and Shut up

When I began working at my current organization, I was introduced to the concept of a quarterly remote volunteer meeting with a barebones foundation of how to lead it. It struck fear into my heart AND required I sometimes wear something other than pajamas. I’ve come to learn that meetings like this aren’t just to keep volunteers in the loop; they are also to keep organizations accountable to the community that keeps them afloat. A few weeks out from our quarterly meetings, (and if you’re managing remote team you do need to set some real, concrete check-ins) I ask my team to send any current tidbits or concerns they have and add them to the agenda with the same priority as my own updates. Then I offer the floor to the volunteers themselves to discuss the points, pipping in when needed but mostly acting as a time keeper to keep the meeting moving. This does two great things: 1) It lets me learn what my volunteers really need and feel without overly taxing their time and labor and 2) it gets them engaged and excited about the service they do.

What tools or tricks do you use to run a successful remote volunteer program and/or what do you wish organizations would provide to ease the remote volunteer/organization relationship? Let us know below in the comments!

Jessica Sage
Marketing and Event Manager at Women In Research
Jessica Sage serves as the Marketing and Events Manager for Women in Research—a global non-profit which seeks to advance the careers and livelihoods of women in the market research field. She has a background in nonprofit development, higher education administration, and academic writing instruction.She holds an MA in critical theory and research from Pacific Northwest College of Art and a BA in philosophy and art theory from The Evergreen State College. Outside of her non-profit work, Jessica has developed partnerships within local and slow food organizations, working directly with farmers and food cooperatives to foster farm-to-table relationships. She has contributed to several publications, most recently co-authoring a piece on ethics in AI for Research World, and is also a devoted proponent of women’s rights and racial justice, volunteering with organizations such as the YWCA in the service of eliminating racism and empowering women.