From Technophobe to True Believer…My Journey to Using Technology to Bridge Inequality Gaps

Guest post by Denise Howell, VolunteerMatch CFO

This post is part of Blog Action Day 2014.

How technology inspires giving and addresses inequality.I remember listening to Mari Kuraishi, President of Global Giving, at the Independent Sector a few years ago. She spoke about how we can find the greatest richness in our careers when we aren’t looking or have not factored it into our life plans.

I think back now to her message she shared, and how true it has been for me. I would never have expected, almost 4 years ago, to embark on a very different frontier in nonprofit work. I am not a technology person. I appreciate all that it has to offer, but it has generally stopped there. I have tended to focus on the downside of technology – folks seemingly disconnected from others by tuning into their music, iPad, smart phone etc. no matter where the setting. Technology can make our lives easier in certain respects, but can also cut us off, if we’re not careful, by limiting our focus and experiences.

My start in the nonprofit sector began when I was in banking. I worked with a board to address the lack of opportunity for very talented individuals with disabilities in engaging n meaningful job opportunities. It grew from there.

I’ve spent a good number of years in social services and foundation grantmaking, both highly complex structurally, and from that work, I thought I had seen everything about nonprofits and their significant work toward addressing inequality, including homelessness and low income housing, food insecurity, education, child development, immigration assistance, employment assistance, healthcare, literacy, and environmental sustainability. This is the work and the passion that drives all of us in the nonprofit sector every day: addressing inequality, imbalance, needs not yet addressed or addressed inadequately, lifting each other up when we need help.

So what compelled me to join an organization with technology at its core? I had certainly heard of VolunteerMatch, but I didn’t fully “get it.” When an opportunity to work here presented itself, I was intrigued. I came to my work here believing that I had seen all aspects of philanthropy. But this work has completely changed my world view and showed me a powerful aspect of philanthropy I had never seen.

Nonprofits with technology at their operational cores have created such a powerful contribution to societal needs. VolunteerMatch, DonorsChoose.org, Global Giving, and Kiva, to name some of the best and most successful, have broken the barriers for all of us to be a part of the solution toward creating a world where inequality can be eliminated. So, Ms. Kuraishi was right. It has been a very rich and rewarding journey. Not just for me, but for the millions of lives we have touched.

What is really at the essence of how we go about achieving success toward alleviating inequality in its many forms? It’s largely through giving – philanthropic support. Giving of ourselves and our time is one of the most powerful ways that we can work toward addressing social needs.

Remember that line Oprah Winfrey always used in her editorials? It was “what I know for sure.” Well, what I know for sure is that people love to give. During these past several years, I’ve come to know how technology can create opportunities for us to give in more ways than I ever thought possible. Before joining VolunteerMatch, I viewed philanthropy as immune to technology – social media, websites, all of it. I thought giving was too personal and that people need to be close to, and actually see the programs they are giving to before offering support. But technology, surprisingly, brings us closer to people and issues which may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from where we live, but still close to us – because we care and we know now more than ever that something that happens far away can affect us in our own communities, too.

Technology-based nonprofits such as ours at VolunteerMatch make the giving so easy. I’ve learned that giving doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Knowing that the time and money we give can be very manageable and affordable is even more empowering.

VolunteerMatch has tracked millions of connections, hours and impact of individuals and groups giving incrementally to successfully address so many challenges. VolunteerMatch has also reconnected me with to the truer, broader meaning of philanthropy. I, like many of us, have previously associated philanthropy as inaccessible and intimidating for all but affluent individuals. But philanthropy includes giving of ourselves and our time, knowledge and experience too. Both financial and nonfinancial giving are critically important and valuable.

Volunteering can be quick, or recurring and long term. Whatever we do, it is making a difference and it is good enough to give what you can. And nonprofits can find the best volunteers and engage in our educational resources. It is a welcoming experience – even for a technophobe! I have learned that technology can be just the opposite of what I initially experienced.

My faith in technology has been transformed through our work, as well as the work of some of our amazing peer organizations. Each organization is literally connecting millions of people locally and throughout the world, meeting needs and bridging inequality with the use of technology. And even better, these organizations allow all of us to participate with small investments of money and time. The results are tangible.

Our mission here at VolunteerMatch is to make it easier for good people and good causes to connect. I’m very proud of our success at achieving that mission, and it is visible to me every day. Everyone visiting our office is greeted with the giant live map in our lobby with our real-time tracking of people making connections to volunteer all across America.

In our office, we walk the talk, too. We volunteer together and we have amazing volunteers come to us with so much talent to share. We have had many come through our office, and I still see their faces and remember their projects. I am richer for knowing them, even if only briefly.

When I stop to think about the world without our technology-powered nonprofits, I am blown away by what a difference technology can make in addressing the inequalities that exist in our world. We can each do something. I work for an organization that makes that possible, and I am truly fortunate for the experience.

I welcome all of you to explore how technology-driven nonprofits can help you bridge the inequality gap to make your work, and your lives, rich and full. We can be a powerful partner to you in your great work. You, like me, will be transformed by the difference we can make.

People Make the Difference: The Joys of Discovery

Each day, people discover ways they can make a difference. And as the VolunteerMatch network grows, so does our impact.You may have noticed lately that we’ve been highlighting the data and stats in our 2013 Annual Impact Report. And these numbers are exciting, don’t get me wrong. We’re data nerds with the best of them.

But data isn’t the whole picture, especially when we’re talking about social impact. The truth is, there’s no substitute for the stories behind those numbers. These are what show us that each one of us – staff member, employee, volunteer, company, nonprofit – can make a difference. Hearing about real-life stuff going on in the network is what inspires us to take action.

So as you browse the Impact Report, take a look at some of these great micro stories that showcase the amazing work happening in the VolunteerMatch network. You’ll see how technology, and your organization’s use of it, creates real change in the community.

Each day, people discover ways they can make a difference. And as our network grows, so does our impact.

Keep up the great work!

Has VolunteerMatch made a difference for your nonprofit organization? Share it on social media using #vmstory, or submit the full story here!

Has VolunteerMatch made a difference for your company and employees? Share it on social media using #vmstory, or submit the full story here!

The Responsive Tech that Powers Your Volunteer Recruitment

Responsive Design on the VolunteerMatch HomepageHere’s a fun activity: Take out your smartphone, open a Web browser, and go to www.volunteermatch.org. Looks nice, right?

We just released a fully responsive version of our website. This means that when volunteers come to VolunteerMatch.org to search and sign up for your volunteer opportunities, it’s even easier and prettier. Special thanks to our mobile Innovation Sponsor, UnitedHealth Group, for making this exciting upgrade possible!

Why Does Responsive Design Matter for Volunteer Engagement?

That’s a fair question. Let’s start with the numbers: Over 25% of people coming to our website these days are doing so via a mobile phone (this doesn’t even count tablet users!) To give you an idea of magnitude, that’s been about 2 million people so far in 2014. That number is up about 60% since last year. So the mobile market is growing for volunteer engagement, too.

Now let’s get into the fuzzier stuff. We want to make sure everyone has the chance to make a difference. Mobile phones are a big way many people – including lower-income, and physically-challenged folks – are able to access the Internet. Now the experience on VolunteerMatch will be as seamless, beautiful, fun and easy for them as it is for someone on a desktop computer.

So the switch to responsive design makes it more likely that anyone on a mobile phone, whether they are on their couch, at work, at a bus stop, waiting during their kid’s violin lesson, or weaving along the sidewalk, will find and sign up for your volunteer opportunities.

Should Nonprofits Do Anything Different?

Responsive volunteer opportunity on VolunteerMatch.org.You certainly don’t have to. You volunteer opportunities will automatically be optimized to look beautiful no matter what device someone is using. However, we do have a few simple tips to make the content of your listings stand out for people while on the go:

  • Keep it short and simple. Make it easy for someone to quickly read about the opportunity while scrolling through with their fingers. Otherwise, chances are they won’t take the time, and they’ll miss important details or they’ll give up and not sign up at all. Bullet points, simple lists and short sentences all work great.
  • Make your title extra-special. While on-the-go, many people won’t click through to view an opportunity unless it looks especially fun and inviting, or exactly what they’re looking for. So make sure your opportunity title is very descriptive, and make it witty or even funny so it stands out from the rest of the search results.
  • Include skills. Busy folks on their mobile phones will be more attracted to volunteer opportunities that seem tailor-made for them, and this means their specific skills. Fortunately, VolunteerMatch has a Listing Wizard that helps you choose the right skills for your opportunity. (And don’t forget, these listings are then automatically sent to LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace, for even more exposure!)

So what are you waiting for? Post some mobile-friendly volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch now, and let us know what you think about the new, responsive version of the website!

Tell Us: How Has Technology Changed Volunteering?

We want to hear from you: How has technology changed volunteering?For many of us, technology has become such an integrated part of our daily lives, we barely even notice it. Can you remember life before cell phones? Before DVDs? And both of those things are already on their way out!

It’s hard to deny the impact technology has had on us, but what about on volunteering? How has it changed the way we volunteer, and the way we engage volunteers? Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? How can we, as modern-day, with-it nonprofit professionals make sure we’re leveraging technology in the right way to see the maximum benefit for our cause and community?

What, we have to give you ALL the answers?

We want to hear from YOU! Let us know what you think – you can add your thoughts here in the blog comments, or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. Then we’ll aggregate everything so we can all share the knowledge.

Below are some initial ideas to get the juices flowing:

  • The Internet – and especially social media – have made us all easily able to see what each of us are doing and share with others. What people like and share online becomes a part of their identities, and how they want others to view them. How does volunteering fit into this?
  • Are we busier now because of technology? How does this impact volunteering and volunteer engagement?
  • Technology has enabled the growth of virtual volunteering as a way to engage, and the rise of microvolunteering. Has this been a good thing overall, or a bad thing?
  • In today’s super-connected, globalized world, geographic boundaries don’t mean so much anymore. How does this apply to volunteering?
  • With new technology comes to new skills to use that technology, and new skills that can then be volunteered. What are the most valuable new technology-based skills that have arisen for your organization?
  • More of our technology is becoming small and…mobile. What does this mean for volunteer engagement?
  • How has technology impacted – for better or for worse – your ability to measure and track the impact of volunteering on your organization?
  • Finally, what does the future hold for volunteering, given all of this crazy technology that keeps popping up? What can we do now to make sure we’re prepared?

Answer one question or them all, but we want your two cents! Post them now in the comments below, or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. Can’t wait to see what you have to say!