How Can Volunteer Coordinators Help Their Organizations Become Networked Nonprofits? | Beth's Blog

How Can Volunteer Coordinators Help Their Organizations Become Networked Nonprofits?

Networked Nonprofit

Swedish-Lesson – (Photo: International Federation of Red Cross/Hakan Flank/VolunteerMatch)

Note from Beth: Last month, we did a Networked Nonprofit session at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service.  Robert J. Rosenthal, Director of Communications for VolunteerMatch was a participant.   He offered to write a guest post.

Recently I got my first full-on blast of the Networked Nonprofit at a session the authors presented at the 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service.  I left inspired, yet I also felt there is still a lot of work we need to do to help our peers in volunteer coordination put these ideas into practice.

There’s no doubt that social networks are allowing organizations to connect with and recruit non-traditional volunteers in new ways. At the same time, volunteer service organizations need to rethink how they work and what technology they use. The question is what can volunteer coordinators – those who are tasked with the work-a-day chores of volunteer engagement – do to help bring about this transformation?

The Free-Agent/Fortress Dilemma in Volunteer Coordination

At NCVS and Creekside Ranch, the audience was a good mix of traditional and non-traditional volunteer coordinators. Some were social change leaders who leverage volunteers; others were administrators who recruit volunteers as their sole function – often at a large nonprofits or national service organizations.

Many of this latter group of are veterans of what Extraordinaries’ Jacob Colker calls the “Command & Control Model” – programs that seek to control the relationship of the volunteer with the organization and/or cause.

Until recently Command & Control made sense. While a few highly-skilled volunteers stalked the boardroom, the rest was left to unskilled hands managed by coordinators fulfilling department orders. This is similar to the “Fortress” as described in the Networked Nonprofit book.

But as volunteers have begun to ask for more responsibility, and as running a social change organization has made it harder for organizations to staff all functions, Command & Control has started to break down.

The central question of the Networked Nonprofit is how organizations can embrace the change. Here are some examples:

Needs Assessment

Needs Assessment is about determining how volunteers can help and whether it’s feasible to support them. In a networked nonprofit, VCs might mine their personal and professional networks for ideation, best practices, and case studies to learn how organizations are engaging volunteers effectively.

Opportunity Design

Opportunity Design is the process of understanding the required skills and experience for a given volunteer role. Innovative VCs in a networked nonprofit might go beyond tradition to explore micro-volunteering, virtual volunteering, service-learning, national service, pro bono, or bringing corporate volunteer programs into the organization.


VCs need to work with communications folks to get their opportunities distributed, but a VC might also have her own Twitter feed or blog category to share new opportunities The VC could also use her own professional networks to target special skill sets (such as at LinkedIn). Sharing of opportunities among alumni and donors could be encouraged.


Filtering candidates to assess fit is a crucial step. As applications come in, the VC helps to narrow the pool, coordinate interviews, and run background checks.  In a networked nonprofit, VCs might also use Twitter to receive questions, LinkedIn to assess a candidate’s background, or to provide reviews from real volunteers, and Flickr and Youtube to inspire and inform volunteer prospects.


VCs are often asked to play the lead role in welcoming, training, and doing in-take for new volunteers. In a networked nonprofit, VCs could partner new volunteers with experienced volunteers to save time in orientation. Training could also be done virtually with videos or through shared docs on a wiki.

Supervised or supported service

Recruitment is just the start. Guiding volunteers to success is equally critical. Daily coordination with volunteers could be done through social media to bolster membership in the online communities and encourage interactions.  Collaboration could take place on virtual or crowd-sourced projects. VCs could help volunteers share milestones and accomplishments with badges, banners, or widgets that can be shared with the volunteer’s personal network.  And volunteers could have the opportunity to share the organization’s story through their personal networks.

Fear of Failure vs. Fear of the Unknown

During the session,  a young man introduced himself to mne. At hi s organization, he told me, the system blocked anything with the word “Facebook,” and online social networking was forbidden because the boss thought irrelevant for volunteer coordination.
As they explore in their new book, fear of failure holds many organizations back from a networked nonprofit approach. For those orgs, Beth and Allison advise individuals at nonprofits to go small, try simple stuff, not focus on ROI, be willing to fail, and leverage small successes.
Yet I think it’s another fear – fear of the unknown – that’s one of the biggest limits. When things are unknown, they can’t be envisioned at all. The earth remains flat, and it’s hard to eliminate the barriers that stand in the way of exploration.
As an NP Tech communicator, my takeaway from the session is just how important it is to share stories how organizations are using a Networked Nonprofit approach to transform volunteer coordination. Do you have one?  Share it in the comments.

About the Author

Robert Rosenthal is communications director for VolunteerMatch, the Web’s most popular volunteer network, and a regular presenter on topics relating to technology, the nonprofit sector, and media. Nonprofits can find free training resources for volunteer coordination at

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10 Responses

  1. Erica Dorn says:

    I was glad to learn through your blog that at we use volunteers in a networked way. We post opportuities through Twitter and FB, we recently ran a “Twitition” to have students compete for awareness- building about US microfinance on Twitter.
    This is all helpful advice!

  2. Erica Ellis says:

    I’ve been waiting for someone to write about this topic, so thank you! Volunteers are often the biggest advocates for your organization, so engaging with them online is critical (in my opinion) and the easier you make it for them to share your message, the better.

  3. Roger Carr says:


    I appreciate the challenge some organizations will have moving from a fortress model to a networked nonprofit model. Your suggestions will help take steps in the right direction.

    The only issue I have with your set of methods is they assume the nonprofit is going to define needs and then determine if each volunteer can help meet those needs. However, sometimes the volunteer has more experience than the VC and their nonprofit leaders. The volunteer might also have skills not considered, but would be a major contribution in forwarding the mission of the organization. When considering the more experienced volunteers, I believe the volunteer needs to be a part of defining the area of work and allowed some independence in supporting the nonprofit. Yes, this will scare organizations that want CONTROL. But if this is not done, the organization will be limiting the impact that is made.

  4. Great comments everyone – thank your for sharing and adding value here.

    Roger Carr – I totally agree, but a nonprofit can only assess needs it knows it has, right? When the right volunteer (or corporate group for that matter) walks in the door with a refreshing idea and a great skill-set, a networked nonprofit could be well situated to give the support they’ll need to truly contribute and succeed.

    Erica, Erica (two Ericas!) – Thank you! I plan to explore this further in coming months on the VolunteerMatch blog, Engaging Volunteers ( I feel like I’m just getting started. There’s lots more to talk about, especially in areas of retention and day-to-day collaboration.

  5. Roger Carr says:

    Yes, we are in agreement. Nonprofits need to be open to ideas that come from these experienced volunteers rather than trying to fit them into a role (that might not be as effective or that might not take advantage of available skills) just because the role was identified prior. The key is listening.

  6. First let me say that I am a big fan of Beth Kanter and Rob Rosenthal! I missed meeting Beth in NYC at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, but I was privileged to hang out with Rob and his team at the Target party.

    Beth asked me to expand on the comments I posted on the Realized Worth page (!/Realizedworth) when I linked to this article. My comment was this: “Rob’s article was good, especially his observation that observation that ‘fear’ of new ideas can easily cripple a nonprofit’s ability to network.”

    I also commented that there were a couple of points I disagreed with – which is why Beth asked for some clarification.

    Actually, if Rob and I were in a conversation, I’m not entirely sure that we would disagree at all. It’s hard to cover all the nuances that might be involved in topics via a quick blog. Roger Carr’s comment above regarding Rob’s first point (‘Needs Assessment’) is a perfect example. I agree with Roger. When nonprofits prioritize their needs over those of the volunteers, it’s easy to; 1) treat all volunteers the same; 2) use volunteers as a means to an end (short term), instead of seeing them as partners in achieving the nonprofit’s goals (long term); and 3) utilizing volunteers as ‘staff support’, which I think is exactly the opposite of what the structure should be.

    Here’s the thing; I know Beth agrees with that (right???) and so does Rob. In fact Rob clarifies his point in the above comments stating that nonprofits must begin the process with what they know they need. True enough. Yet, any volunteer coordinator worth his/her salt should also know why people volunteer with their organizations and seek to structure a program that addresses those needs as well – even before they walk through the door.

    So I think a ‘Needs Assessment’ should include 3 Horizons; a) community, b) nonprofit, and c) volunteers. Begin with the overlap between those three circles, and then create agreements to grow further. This is certainly what Beth alludes to in her vision of the Networked Nonprofit.

    Fundamentally, I think the ‘Screening’ step is a guaranteed bottleneck (at best) or an impregnable barrier (at worst). Although necessary and prudent for many organizations, I believe that requiring screening and orientation for newbie volunteers is a deterrent. Again, I think it’s due to our tendency (laziness?) to treat all volunteers the same. They are not the same. People showing up for the first time shouldn’t be placed within roles that require such risk management. They should be offered an experience and the opportunity to discover if this volunteering role is right for them. If nonprofits ever hope to achieve what Beth describes as organizations that are ‘easy for outsiders to get in and insiders to get out’ then this popular ‘Fortress’ attribute has to be utilized correctly.

    We encourage businesses and nonprofits alike to structure their programs with the understanding that volunteers move through 3 Stages Embracing this approach dismantles some of the most significant barriers facing would-be volunteers today, and meets everyone at ‘their highest level of contribution’.

    I want to emphasis again that I am a big fan of Beth’s and I think she’s out in front when it comes to shaping the next evolution of volunteerism. Rob’s work via VolunteerMatch is exceptional and one of the best tools available to mobilize people to volunteer.


  7. Roger Carr says:


    Wow! I agree that we are all likely in agreement as this discussion has transpired. I really like the 3-stages of a volunteer that you referenced. Thanks for your contribution.

    Note: It is interesting that Beth is encouraging the conversation from “behind the scenes.” I agree that Beth Kanter and VolunteerMatch rock!

  8. Justin says:

    The way that your focusing on the network of volunteers reminds me of refering to a volunteer as unpaid staff. As a person invested by the organization their network is readily available from the start. And your idea of a mentoring relationship with other volunteers really tightens up the loss of validation and the intrepidation of early success.

    My question is about utilizing other orginization as possible visitations. I find in my own volunteering; I feel great to visit another org. And then come home to the first org. It’s like finding your center for even further success. What are your thoughs?

  9. […] Read Robert’s post on Beth’s blog here! July 22nd, 2010 | Tags: Networking, Social Media | Category: Networking […]

  10. […] How Can Volunteer Coordinators Help Their Organizations Become Networked Nonprofits? – Guest post by Robert J. Rosenthal, Director of Communications for VolunteerMatch, on Beth Kanter’s blog […]

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