Breaking out of the Volunteer Data Silo

In many of my past jobs and internships, I worked with volunteers. And I loved it. But, I struggled with data and I know many organizations still do.

In college, my non-profit internship had me managing my program in a three ring binder. Useful for me, but not so useful for other staff members of the small office who might benefit from the information I gleaned. And my bad hand-writing, use of acronyms, and cryptic notes might not have made that much sense to my colleagues or future volunteer coordinators.

As my career progressed, so did the role of technology in my volunteer management and tracking. I went from binders, to excel, to access, to creating custom fields in database programs. And it helped, the writing was cleaner, the types of information we gathered was more streamlined. I could finally figure out quickly and easily who had actually shown up before to phone bank, so I could start with that list to fill up the slots when urgent legislative action called for mobilization.

However, a large problem remained even as my data solutions improved—the data was always sitting in a silo. And I’m not talking about the kind of silos you find on a farm. Even in an office of 5, the person in charge of asking for donations didn’t always know who had volunteered. Or the volunteer coordinator didn’t know that the person signed up to table at the county fair was also a board member.

Organizations large and small could benefit from sharing volunteer information. One of the primary barriers to integrating volunteer data with other important organizational data was showing the potential value that volunteers bring across the organization. There are many “outside the box activities” that volunteers can be involved in, which points to the need for your volunteer information to live and be accessible in the same place as your other important constituents.

Here are a few ideas of how other departments, programs or teams could collaborate with you to make the most of your volunteer base.

1. Volunteers as Donors:  I wish it was more widely known and accepted, but volunteers are current or future donors and should always be treated as such. While it may be true that some volunteers may never donate and some donors may never volunteer, those who do both will likely give you a lot more money.  In fact, a 2009 study indicated that on average, volunteers donate 10 times more money to charity than people who don’t volunteer.

2. Volunteers as Spokespeople: Volunteers can help you write letters to the editor, produce heartwarming videos about the work your organization does, submit quotes for your newsletter or mailing and more.

3. Volunteers as Media Resources: Volunteers can tweet, comment on your blog, post to your blog, and even connect you with their friend who happens to write for the local paper, blog or other media outlet.

4. Volunteers as Government Relations Resources: Volunteers may want to participate in a lobby day or lead a portion of a lobby day training for their peer activists. They may also have a compelling story to share with an elected official on lobby visit.

When all is said and done, your volunteers will feel ever more valuable to your organization and you will have more resources at your disposal. Just don’t forget the most important thing – thank your volunteers early and often!