A nonprofit guide to organizing volunteers

Scale your base with these tactics and tools

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A visionary nonprofit needs people.

For the ambitious organizations we work with, volunteers are a critical base. And it’s not just about having extra hands. Investing in and nurturing your volunteers is crucial for growth, as each one of them will strengthen your mission.

Now, of course, organizing people can be very challenging. Many small nonprofits struggle to find, train, and manage volunteers in a sustainable way, leaving volunteers feeling disconnected, disengaged, or unappreciated. Systems might work for a while, only to become obsolete and impossible to maintain the next quarter. As you probably know, technology can help streamline operations, but researching and choosing the right tools can be quite the rabbit hole.

Thinking through the volunteer journey

To help structure volunteer operations, we’ll be breaking it down into three areas, each requiring specific functions and features.
  1. Signing up and managing volunteers
  2. Training new people and upskilling existing volunteers
  3. Communicating with your base
We’ll explore solutions for each, as well as software options that offer an all-in-one approach.

For each of these three areas, you’ll need to start with your goals and processes—which should be fueled by a deep understanding of the volunteer experience at your organization. So before you jump into new tools, take the time to establish volunteer practices that center empathy.

To move a bold mission forward, you need a deep understanding of your base.
One way to achieve this is by mapping the volunteer journey at your organization. You can use interviews or current data, investigate the details of the volunteer experience, and pay close attention to what’s working—and what’s not. Here are some of the questions you should try to answer:
  • Who are your volunteers?
  • What’s it like for them to train at your organization?
  • How do they communicate with you and with each other?
  • When do they feel most engaged?

  • Once you gather the answers to these questions, you can identify clear points of tension or moments of disengagement in your processes. These are where tech tools can help.

    For example, we did a deep dive on We Watch’s volunteer journey in order to help them find the right tools for scaling up operations. Read the full case study here.

The tech tools landscape

When should you investigate new tools?
  • When the technology you’re currently using is a bit outdated or not secure.
  • When you’re ready to scale up a specific part of your volunteer operations.
  • When you’re just juggling one too many spreadsheets!
It’s time to get organized! There are many benefits of using tech tools to support your volunteer operations, such as allowing you to:
  • Signing people up
  • Deepen your understanding of volunteers and reach them easily
  • Train more people and train them faster
  • Keep information secure and accurate
  • Give your staff valuable time back to tackle other problems
  • Ensure the scalability of your volunteer operations
In our collaboration with nonprofits, we’ve researched, tested, and re-tested many technology solutions. Through research, recommendations from our network, and real-life trials with nonprofit groups, and across a large range of technologies from specialized apps to one-stop-shops, we came to a shortlist of the best tools.

How to evaluate tech tools for volunteer management

We work directly with small and medium nonprofits in Southeast Asia, who made it clear that they prioritize (1) price and (2) ease of use. Our tech experts on the ground also wanted to ensure that (3) local support and (4) security ranked high in our evaluations.

Price: is it affordable and scalable?
We focused on lo-fi tech picks that are free or low-cost—options that might not be fancy or complex, but can be functional and flexible for many organizations.

Ease of use: is the interface simple to learn for volunteers and staff?
We picked tools that can be adopted quickly and prioritized software that plays nice with other tools.

International support: will this tool work in my region?
We looked at the company’s headquarter country and investigated the localization options.

Security: is this solution open-source and securely hosted?
We assessed whether each tool was hosted in the cloud (less secure) or locally (most secure). We prioritized solutions designed by companies that were a couple of years old, to ensure they would be around for a while.
To learn more about operational security for nonprofits, check out our handy guide →

Our recommended tools

Let’s dive into the three areas of volunteer management, and our tech recommendations for each.

Heads up: we’re not paid by any of these software companies. These recommendations come from our own research and expertise.

Signing up and managing volunteers

Important features that we looked for:
  • A central database to securely store, sort, and segment volunteer information
  • Customizable sign-up forms that link directly to your database and include useful volunteer details (skills, languages, interests, etc.)
  • Ability to see volunteer engagement, training progress, and attendance
  • Event registration and management
The easiest way to organize all of your volunteers in one place is by using Airtable in combination with Google Workspace. Airtable is like a big table (similar to Excel or Google Sheets), but with powerful features built into every cell. You can easily add new volunteers, and then sort, track, and organize them in useful ways. Staff can use it to build a simple business workflow and it provides a central platform for project management. It’s also a great pair with Google Workspace (formerly G Suite), which offers good baseline apps for collaboration and business that work for many kinds of organizations. With Airtable and Google Workspace in tandem, you can create basic automations, like sending an email after a volunteer signs up or linking a form to generate new volunteer records.

We found Airtable relatively easy to use. With templates, use-case examples, and user-generated videos on Youtube, it’s pretty simple for anyone to set up different functions and get inspiration for more possibilities. However, it requires some technical skills to set up advanced workflows or file structures. In addition, it would store sensitive information such as name and address, so your organization will need a policy to ensure guidelines for adding and modifying data.

Airtable offers many apps you can add to easily make reports about your volunteer base over time, send automated emails, and more. They release useful features often, so as your organization grows, Airtable will be able to keep up.

An honorable mention:

CiviCRM, an all-in-one customer relationship management (CRM) software for nonprofits. It has comprehensive features for volunteer and donor management, including sending and tracking email interactions with volunteers and organizing events. We also liked the extensive database options for report creation and sorting and segmenting volunteers. However, having complex features also means that it’s harder to use. CiviCRM requires technical skills for implementation and deployment, and supporting resources are limited.
Airtable
Airtable
Airtable
Price $10/month per user for nonprofits. (You only need a handful of people with paid administrator access.) Free Free/no monthly cost. Requires an initial technical support fee.
Ease-of-use Easy to medium.

Very user-friendly, advanced workflow automation requires technical skills.
Easy.

Many nonprofits are already using it, and it integrates with most tools.
Medium.

Requires technical skills for setup and support resources are limited.
International Support App is only available in English, with English customer service available by email. Has dedicated country-specific customer service teams and language localization options. No dedicated customer service team, since it’s an open source platform. Offers language localization support.
Security Medium. Cloud-based, supports standard security protocols. Medium. Cloud-based, supports standard security protocols. High. Self-hosted solution, so access can be controlled by firewall.
Signup form integration
Airtable
Airtable
Airtable
One-stop shop
Airtable
Airtable
Airtable
Sort and search a database
Airtable
Airtable
Airtable

Training and onboarding volunteers

Important features that we looked for:
  • Tools for creating engaging virtual trainings, with shared presentations, discussions, Q&As, and breakout groups.
  • Easy ways to keep volunteers engaged and level up their skills with continued education.
We really liked Zoom in combination with Google Workspace for running interactive trainings. Zoom is the go-to tool for video conferencing these days, and many nonprofits already use it. Breakout rooms can separate people automatically or in pre-set groups so that volunteers can have mini-discussions or do activities in intimate settings. Zoom chat features mimic a live training experience, so volunteers can engage without interrupting. We found it easy to use Google Workspace apps to create educational materials, and then utilize those through Zoom’s screen sharing feature and Google add-ons.

The cons: it’s more expensive, and requires a high-speed network for smooth streaming. To help with cost, you could look into Techsoup — the signup process takes some time, but it offers a wide catalog of discounts on software for nonprofits, including special pricing for Zoom.

An honorable mention:

Google Classroom is a good central hub for hosting educational materials and developing multiple levels of training. The structure allows for an easy introduction to training, live video sessions, and follow-up activities like quizzes and reading material. And, of course, it seamlessly integrates with the rest of Google Workspace to manage materials and files.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t support video conferencing for interactive training, so it’s not the best substitute for the intimacy of in-person training. Since this is a more complex software, it’s a good option if you’re aiming to build a robust training program with several tiers of education.

The good news: both of these tech options are good. You could choose based on how much experience your organization has with either technology, or whether they prefer interactive training.
Zoom
Google Classroom Logo
Google Classroom Logo
Price $15/month for Pro account to host calls Free Free/no monthly cost. Requires an initial technical support fee.
Ease-of-use Easy.

Extensive support and widely used already.
Easy.

Many nonprofits are already using it, and it integrates with most tools.
Medium.

Requires technical skills for setup and support resources are limited.
International support Supports 11 languages. 24/7 access to online customer service in English, with limited options for phone support in other languages. Has dedicated country-specific customer service teams and language localization options. No dedicated customer service team, since it’s an open source platform. Offers language localization support.
Security Medium.

Cloud-based, supports standard security protocols.
Medium. Cloud-based, supports standard security protocols. High. Self-hosted solution, so access can be controlled by firewall.
Tools to create a training
Airtable
Airtable
Airtable
Video conferencing for interactivity
Airtable
Airtable
Airtable
Easily save educational materials
Airtable
Airtable
Airtable

Communicating with volunteers

Important features that we looked for:
  • Features to regularly talk with your volunteers, in groups or individually
  • Ability to make announcements to a large network
  • Organization and search functions to find communication by topics, needs, or small groups.
Our recommendation? Use what your base uses! Adoption is really important with communication tools, so pay attention to the apps that your volunteers and staff already use.

Bootstrap Reccommend Tool

For example, one youth organization we work with in Thailand creates regional group chats through the free messaging software Line, because that’s where their users are already most comfortable.

Bootstrap Reccommend Tool

If you’re part of a nonprofit or civil society organization working under increased threat and scrutiny, we recommend using a secure platform like Signal, which offers small group chats with end-to-end encryption.

Bootstrap Reccommend Tool

For email tools, Mailchimp can be a good option for news updates and mass announcements. It’s free if you’re importing and sending emails to less than 2000 contacts. However, we know that email has low open rates in some countries—something to consider when you’re investigating how and where your volunteers communicate.


One-stop-shop tools

If you just need to organize your volunteer base, you can keep it simple with our recommendations above. On the other hand, large nonprofits may need to fold in donor relations, fundraising tracking, accounting, and more to meet their software needs.

If that sounds like you, consider some of these larger tech players that big organizations use. Remember that larger, more complex tools often have smart features, but can be costly. These are just a few of the tradeoffs we consider when evaluating tools.

For organizations that also need to run email donation campaigns: NeonPay

For a generic, free CRM tool: Hubspot

For a generic CRM tool that costs a bit more: Pipedrive

For robust CRM features, customization, localization, and reporting: Salesforce for nonprofits

For a less expensive all-in-one option that is built for nonprofits: CiviCRM

For a quick-start solution that costs a bit more: Salsa

What's next?

Managing volunteers can be a challenge, but it’s also a huge opportunity to connect with the people in your community and engage them in your mission. We think these strategies and tools will help streamline the operations so you can move farther, faster with your work.

What tools does your organization use? What did we miss? We’d love to hear what works for your nonprofit.

Illustrations in this article were designed by Nadia Bormotova

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