Dealing with technology in the volunteer sector

When technology takes over

There is a growing trend toward increased automation and technology in the workforce, and the social impact sector is no exception.

A year or so ago, I was working with an organization that had just implemented an automated volunteer management program. The program saved so much time and labour that the organization drastically cut the hours of the volunteer coordinator, and not long after dispensed with his position altogether.

Understand, I am a fan of technology, and volunteer management programs can be superheroes. They can take repetitive, time-consuming tasks off the shoulders of overwhelmed leaders, freeing them up to do more mission-critical work. That said, many organizations see them as simply a way of cutting costs, often to the detriment of the person currently doing the work. And that’s not going to change.

Volunteer management software, and all the similar technology for fundraising, client management, etc, are here to stay. And organizations are going to continue to use them as a way of trimming their budgets.

What can you do? Well, you can’t fight the tide.

There is an uncomfortable quote by author Dennis Gunton that holds a lot of truth: “Anyone who can be replaced by a machine deserves to be.”

In other words, whether or not you lose your position due to a new software program is, to a large extent, in your own hands. No, you can’t stop your organization from adopting the software. What you can do is strengthen your abilities in those areas that the software can’t replace.

Software can track hours. It can’t show appreciation for those hours. It can provide data about how much impact volunteers are making. It can’t advocate to the board for a larger training budget. Software programs are just things. Useful, certainly, but just things.

It’s your human skills that will make you hard to replace—your leadership skills, your communication skills, your empathy, your skill in taking charge during a crisis. And your insight in seeing when a volunteer is reaching burnout stage. These are the things that can’t be done by a program.

But it’s not just having these skills that will protect you. Your supervisors need to see the value of them and how often they are needed. Yes, an executive director, with the help of good volunteer management software, can run the volunteer program off the corner of his or her desk. With all the other responsibilities they have, however, the chances of them noticing a volunteer is in the early stages of compassion fatigue, for example, are slim.

It’s no fault of theirs, they just won’t have the time to develop the close connections a volunteer coordinator is able to establish. Thus, retention will go down.

Even if you have all these skills, and your supervisor sees the value of them, don’t expect your position to stay the same. With the software program taking a lot of work off your plate – unless you were completely snowed under before – you will now have free time available. The organization isn’t going to let you just sit back and enjoy extra long coffee breaks. That extra time will need to be used. Where can you use that time for the greatest impact?

Do you want to take over creating training modules for the volunteers? Does the organization need someone to look after the new diversity, equity and inclusion program? Maybe you can become such an expert with the software that they don’t dare get rid of you. Find something valuable with which to fill that extra time.

Increased automation doesn’t need to lead to reduced hours or job cuts. By strengthening your skill set, demonstrating the value of those skill and being proactive in filling any new openings in your day, you will prove your importance to the organization.

Maybe you will even welcome the new software.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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