now available for purchase as a paperback & an ebook from Energize, Inc.
Completely revised and updated!
Published January 2014.
There is warmth in IM (instant messaging). I feel closer to the person on the other end of the computer. I can get emotional, they can get emotional. It just feels so much more personal. It gives me the chance to be myself, even to be more creative online... Email is, to me, something formal. It's for long, official things. It's static. It has it's place, of course. But IM is informal. I use it with 'my' people in the field. I write them and, if they are available, they write back immediately. They may say, 'I can't write right now,' and that's fine, because it's an immediate response. I may email someone and not hear from them for days, and think, gee, are they ignoring me?It's now standard at many nonprofit organizations and non-governmental to use real-time communications, or synchronous conferencing -- chats, instant messaging, live audio or video conferencing, live tweeting -- to hold meetings with volunteers, to allow volunteers to interact with staff, clients, or each other, or to have live, online, real-time events, where volunteers listen or watch a featured speaker or guest, interact with a featured "Tweeter" and/or each other, etc.
- Alexandra Haglund-Petitbo, then of UNITeS/United Nations Volunteers, now of Sonrisas de Bombay
These forms of real-time, synchronous communications add a new dimension to relationships with volunteers:
Note: I don't talk about this in theory. I use many of these methods myself to interact with volunteers and staff I work with that aren't in the same geographic location as me.
VoIP stands for "Voice over Internet Protocol" and allows users to make phone calls over the Internet, often for much less money than a traditional phone call. It can be one-on-one or a group conversation. Three of the most popular VoIP platforms, because they are free among the users of the software, are GoogleTalk, Skype and iVisit. Most can be just audio, in case not everyone wants to be seen, or not everyone has a webcam.
There's also web conferencing software, allowing participants to view a slide show, ask questions of a presenter, even take a poll and see the results immediately (see Using Video to Support Online Volunteers/Remote Volunteers, also on my web site, for a list of these web conferencing / webinar tools).A chat or instant message is simply a "live" text-based conversation: a participant types a comment or question and it is immediately available for another person, or a group of people, to review; other participants respond, and these comments are immediately available for review as well. Chats can happen via instant messaging software, via a VOIP software (many users of Skype, for instance, use it mostly for text-based chats), via an online chat room reserved for just such an activity or via a live-blogging site like Twitter (messages on Twitter are called tweets).
Are chats private? It depends on how you have set up the chat. For instance, you can require members to be pre-approved before they can enter a chat room, or you can issue a unique password for access to only those you want to participate in your chats. By contrast, a live micro-blogging event via Twitter could be available to anyone who follows any participant or that uses a particular tag. More about using tweet chats here.
The culture of a chat is fast, with short comments coming in quickly and constant. It's much more like a face-to-face discussion than other written communications, and comments happen even faster than during video or telephone conferences. Sometimes, however, people write thoughts they might never say in-person (see the information on Online Culture.
VoIP calls, video conferencing or chats can be a special or regular online event -- a half-hour chat on a particular topic or featuring a special guest the first Monday of every month, for instance. The more your staff and volunteers are experienced in using these tools, the greater the chance of your online event using these tools will be successful.
Your topic for chats needs to stay simple; you cannot do anything that's too involved, like exploring ways to reduce violence against women, or dealing with teen pregnancy, or addressing long-time misunderstandings between two religious groups, etc. Your goals for such a chat event need to be simple.
These tools aren't used only with far-away remote staff and volunteers; some tools, such as chats, are used with a group to build support or consensus for a proposal before a decision is made or official, onsite vote is held. And many people on conference calls engage in simultaneous instant messaging with each other, creating an easy way for the call moderator to immediately see questions everyone may have, or trends in participant reactions.
These tools require participants to think and react immediately. Many people want, instead, time to reflect, consider, and craft a response carefully.
Some synchronous tools require that all users have the latest hardware and operating systems. Not everyone has these!
Real-time communications among a group often require a high-degree of facilitation to keep the conversation going or to keep it from spiraling out of control. A lot of planning is also often necessary to get all of the participants together at the same time, to set the agenda, to make sure everyone understands the agenda and protocol before the meeting, etc. This can be time-intensive, and many nonprofit organizations lack both the time and expertise to undertake these steps.
These tools require that participants have an good understanding of how the technology works, and a high comfort level in using it. If a volunteer has a bad experience trying to use one of these tools for the first time, he or she is going to be very reluctant to try it again in the future.
Email-based and web-based discussion groups often have a much higher percentage of lurkers (people who read but don't post) than real-time tools. Having 1000 people on an email-based group is usually not overwhelming, because only a small percentage of them may actually post frequently -- the rest will lurk or post infrequently -- and members won't all post at the same time. Having 1000 people on a chat, however, can quickly become overwhelming, because most of the participants will try to engage in conversation.
Also, onsite participants with laptops or hand held devices can become so engrossed in a simultaneous chat online that they don't interact with the people right next to them, nor ask questions of whomever is presenting.
Experiment with a synchronous communication tool in informal situations, again and again, before you launch an "official" event. Your goal is that a tool works for everyone, is inclusive, and is popular and pervasive among volunteers.
A successful real-time online interaction with a group takes more than participants -- you will also need people filling these roles:
If you are going to make any of these events regular, then the "owner" of the event must make incentives obvious and valuable to increase and maintain participants' motivation. The information and interaction provided via these events must be seen as valuable by participants. Some groups emphasize a sense of responsibility in members -- participation is part of their volunteer commitment -- to maintain participation in such events (but remember that not everyone can participate in such events, so be careful you aren't going to exclude several volunteers by making such a requirement for participation).
There are many more updated and
detailed suggestions about using real-time online communications with
online volunteers in The
Last Virtual Volunteering
Conferencing Terms and Definitions
The entry from Wikipedia that, last I checked, was pretty good.
A free online tool to help you know what meeting times look like for participants in different time zones. This is very helpful when trying to determine the best time to hold a live meeting with remote participants in different time zones.
The nonprofit TechSoup (formerly CompuMentor) has a web site that provides extensive resources and information regarding real-time technology tools. Frequently updated and forward-looking.
Wikipedia provides a frequently-updated list of VoIP provides and more details on what VoIP is and security considerations for using such.
The Moderator's Home Page: Resources for Moderators and Facilitators of Online Discussion. This is a set of resources, mostly scholarly, for moderators of online discussions, including chats, email-based and web-based groups and newsgroups. This is an extensive bibliography of netiquette guides, sample editorial policies, using online discussion groups in classrooms, tips for moderating, and information on teaching online.
Instant Messaging With Volunteers
UNITeS (www.unites.org), the ICT volunteering initiative of United Nations Volunteers, created this resource to help illustrate the advantages for using IM to work with volunteers, based on feedback from various online discussion groups, from its own staff experiences, and other resources.
Aided Facilitation Tips
An excellent list of tips for both those who will facilitate an online discussion group and the agency who will sponsor such. By Facilitate.com, a for-profit company and producer online conferencing tools.
A mega site of Facilitation
(Face-to-Face and Online) resources
This page of many, many resources relating to facilitation is compiled by Carter McNamara.
The Self-Help Sourcebook
Sponsored by Mental Health Net. If you are interested in starting or participating in an online or offline self-help group, this resource offers ideas for starting both online and offline groups, how to arrange online support group meetings on commercial networks, how to encourage participation in online support groups, a searchable database of hundreds of national and demonstrational model self-help support groups, and opportunities to link with others to develop needed new national or international groups.
Dr. John Grohol's guide to Starting a New Online Support Group is focused primarily on how to do the technical aspects of setting up a group via email, USENET, a commercial chat site or your own web site.
Preparations and guidelines for chatting online is a terrific
set of guidelines by Colin Gabriel Hatcher for SafetyEd International.
Unfortunately, this publication is no longer available at its original
URL. To view the resource, go to Archive.org
and paste this URL into the WayBack machine:
A great set of tools regarding online communities, from what they are to how to facilitate them to sample online community guidelines, rules and member agreements. This collection of helpful articles are by Full Circle Associates Nancy White, Sue Boettcher and Heather Duggan.
Online Chats in Lessons
This is on online lesson for teachers that gives suggestions for use of chats and guidelines for setting up chat sessions in support of curriculum activities, but the tips offered are excellent for anyone interested in setting up a chat, particularly those that may involve youth.
WELL Community Guidelines are an excellent example of rules for online communities and moderators. Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL) began in 1985, starting with a dialog between the writers and readers of the Whole Earth Review. The WELL is now a "cluster of electronic villages on the Internet." There are more than 260 Conferences open to WELL members, covering subject categories such as "Parenting," "The Future," or "Pop Culture." WELL members have founded advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and their experiences have been used to explore online culture and community (such as in Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community.
CSCW or "Computer-Supported Cooperative Work" is the study of how people work together using computer technology. Typical types of applications include email, awareness and notification systems, videoconferencing, chat systems, multi-player games, and real time shared applications (such as collaborative writing or drawing). Unfortunately, this publication is no longer available at its original URL. To view the resource, go to Archive.org and paste this URL into the WayBack machine:
I also have been experimenting with iVisit for audio conferencing (and, as soon as I get a webcam, video conferencing). Unlike many other VoIP tools out there, it allows for video conferences, audio calls, instant messages and collaboration across Windows & Mac Operating Systems and hardware -- including Mac OS 9 users. My iVisit ID is jcravens.4947; please contact me if you'd like to experiment with this tool with me (you will need to have already visited the site, downloaded the software, registered, and have a headset).
Return to my list of resources relating to online culture & communities of volunteers
Return to my volunteer-related resources
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