Online volunteer engagement: through COVID-19 and beyond

Lowdham Flood Action Group (FLAG) share their experiences of communicating as a group, and with the community through COVID-19, while offering some of their key online volunteer engagement tips. 

At the height of the early stages of lockdown, when there was significant volunteer activity, communications were daily with volunteers. This was both direct through WhatsApp and through social media, including Facebook. This structure was appropriate for the situation and the volunteers appreciated it.  As the need for support diminished, so did the appetite for volunteers to receive communications.  As a consequence, we stopped the direct messaging and reduced the volume of social media posts too. We now use a WhatsApp group made up of all current volunteers to ask for help for very occasional tasks, normally involving transport to Covid jabs.  

We also provide a minimum of monthly updates on flood defence progress across village Facebook sites, as well as posting on wider issues such as climate change from time to time. The most popular posts on Facebook tend to be the ones about flooding in Lowdham, especially when flood risk is in the air. Requests for assistance usually get good responses with offers.

Think about your audiences, even imagine a typical character, and plan how they would like to receive communications.

After an earlier flood risk incident this year, we posted on our Facebook page regularly during the event and these posts were viewed by hundreds, with many appreciative comments. We’ve gained over a hundred members since January this year. We still get a few requests to join the Facebook group every month. Members really seemed to like the regular updates during events, and on the progress of flood defences and on maintenance/improvements.

In the build up to a possible flood event we’re very careful with communications in two ways. Firstly, we don’t want to repeatedly stand our volunteers up only to discover that we have overestimated the likelihood of them being needed. Secondly, we are very mindful of the psychological impact we have on those vulnerable to flooding with repeated warnings. This requires fine judgment, and we very much take a ‘team view’ about if and when to communicate.

Our online volunteer engagement tips

  • WhatsApp is a useful tool and has really helped bind our group together
  • Consider putting in place certain rules in a WhatsApp group. For example, we request no general ‘chat’ as this causes too many alerts on people’s phones. Not everyone is always ‘on social media’ and it’s important to be respectful of this while retaining the focus on responding to requests
  • Build an online presence (website, blog, social media) to reach more people and raise awareness in the community
  • Encouragement is key! When contacted by phone, our admin team encouraged potential volunteers to sign up online but also took their contact details so they could follow up if the link to sign up didn’t come through. The team also encouraged residents who “didn’t want to be a nuisance” to sign up so we had their details just in case. Most recipients are not online “fluent” or used to asking for help but do respond with gentle hand holding
  • Share some of your Facebook posts on local relevant pages. We’ve found this has increased the reach of our posts. We’re careful not to share too specialist or detailed posts, so the people who are ’just interested’ don’t get overburdened
  • Where there are specific projects (e.g., repairs in one part of the village) then a small email group creates greater involvement, traction and feeling of belonging (remember to use bcc though!)
  • Think about your audiences, even imagine a typical character, and plan how they would like to receive communications. Recognise that not all information will be current all the time. For example, it’s OK to have slightly out of date written information in a monthly Parish Magazine as long as it’s clearly dated

Thank you to Lowdham FLAG for sharing their insights into online volunteer engagement. Do you have any experiences as a group you’d like to share on our blog? Please get in touch.

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