We like to think that most nonprofits are concerned about their reach toward individuals who might struggle to connect with their offerings, at least in the best of times. Not all leaders think that way, but organizations that value equity of access must consider the plights of those who might be systematically excluded from engagement efforts. If the pandemic forced us onto new and unfamiliar ground, now is the time to assess and balance how technologies have affected our reach, for better and for worse.

We wanted to know how technology use has changed in volunteer management, especially through the pandemic. So, we assembled a research team at Arizona State University and set off on an ambitious research project to survey and interview volunteer managers across the U.S. and Canada about their technology use. Although we did not start with a particular emphasis on equity and access, this theme came up regularly in our conversations with the field.

To be sure, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into ways that nonprofits have engaged their stakeholders over the past couple years. That wrench is key to the Big Theme and Conclusion of this article. In short, when we are forced into action, we do not always have time to be thoughtful and properly strategic. We can only hope that we later have the time, information, and bandwidth to make new, better decisions.

We have observed that even the most thoughtful nonprofits made knee-jerk decisions in the pandemic that connected better with some stakeholders than others. One person we spoke with described the sudden adjustments at her food bank:

We had never used a platform virtually before. We need hands on deck, so having to close our volunteer program was a challenge for us—emotionally, losing such a large part of our community—but we also had to find a way to keep them connected so that they would come back when our doors reopened. And so, we kind of scrambled to learn things like Zoom.

A volunteer resource manager at another human service nonprofit that we talked with noted the challenge that comes with the decision to suddenly embrace information and communication technologies. “I would say that we made the best use that we could of the tools that we had,” she said, “but I’d say about 10% of our volunteers are not tech savvy and so they got left behind.”

Talking with Volunteer Administrators

Volunteer programs are some of the most front-facing operations of nonprofit organizations. They solicit community members to volunteer, bring them into mission activities, and broadcast their work to the public. Volunteer operations were hard-hit in the pandemic, with many nonprofits shuttering contact with volunteers entirely. One CVA who organizes volunteers in the Dallas metro area lamented the impacts of COVID-19 on their operations. “Pre-COVID, we could have 10,000 volunteers across the entire city and all the different departments,” she said. “But now we are limping along. We’re open, but a lot of the volunteers just have not returned yet.”

Another CVA who spearheads volunteer operations for a big city civic engagement nonprofit told us that virtual tools have “totally changed the game,” and that “I don’t know that we will ever have a portfolio that won’t have virtual offerings again.” Information technologies and social media are here to stay.

Who are these people we talked with? In the spring and summer of 2021, with funding from AmeriCorps, our research team held focus groups with volunteer administrators about their technology use in the pandemic. More specifically, in a partnership with the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration, we talked with certified volunteer administrators, or “CVAs.” We held 33 virtual focus groups (via Zoom) with 181 CVAs in the United States and Canada. They had a lot to say, both positive and negative, about their technology adaptations in the pandemic. The quotes in this article all come from these focus group conversations.

We fed the many hours of conversation into an application called Dedoose, which helped us to sort and flag themes in the focus groups. A prominent theme, coming up over and over, was how engaging audiences remotely removes some barriers to access while creating others. This is not new, but it was on the minds of our volunteer managers, and in a big way. Here’s what they had to say.

On One Hand, Technology Promotes Access

We heard many stories detailing the aftermath of the abrupt transition to virtual work, or the shuttering of programs entirely, beginning in spring 2020. While volunteer administrators talked at length about the challenges that emerged, many also discussed how the switch to remote technologies promoted access to their mission work. In one case, volunteers who might normally have trouble traveling to work sites in person suddenly had new options to engage from their desktops and smartphones. In another case, information and communication technologies provided new inroads to young volunteers, who are difficult to engage in the best of times. So, on one hand, involuntary reliance on video platforms and social media paid new dividends in accessibility for volunteers and clients.

1. Geography and Transportation

“In-person engagement is great, but you only reach the people who are standing there with you.”

CVAs described how transitioning to virtual and remote service removed the barriers of distance and lack of transportation. With technology solutions, organizations were able to reach volunteers and clients who lived too far away or had other mobility issues. As one volunteer manager in a human services organization in Alabama put it, remote technology like social media gives you an “audience that doesn’t have limits.” A CVA with a medical organization in Manitoba saw similar benefits of remote technology in her work:

[Our volunteer] orientations are all online now and I don’t think I’ll ever go back… especially for their first kind of introduction. It’s a good way for me to be a little bit more accessible for people who live out of town before they commit.

Others shared their perspectives on reaching people further away—sometimes much further away. One volunteer manager at a medical organization in British Columbia said:

Even when we go back to in-person, the virtual programs are going to stay because one of the positives that came out of the shutdown and being virtual was that we were able to provide service to clients in remote communities. Before, when we were in-person, some of the clients were not able to access our programs because there was no transportation. The transit didn’t go there.

People who live in rural communities are traditionally isolated and unable to access services and in-person volunteer opportunities. However, even people who live near organizations do not always have the means to get there. A focus group participant with an LGBTQ+ youth organization said:

[Digital technology] is…really beneficial to reach out to the disabled community. Unfortunately, a lot of people who are disabled are not able to access our services in the same way because they either have a lack of mobility [or] lack of transportation.

A volunteer manager with a Special Olympics branch in New England echoed this sentiment, focusing on the silver lining of digital technologies: “We’ve found, in many ways, [technology has] also offered more accessibility and more inclusion for our athletes and our volunteers.”

Thanks to digital technology’s ability to reach people where they are by transcending issues of distance, mobility, and transportation, many of the volunteer managers said that they plan to keep virtual programming available for clients and volunteers after the pandemic recedes.

2. Reaching younger volunteers

“My daughters cannot begin a sentence except ‘I saw it on TikTok.’”

Remote technologies, especially social media, helped many organizations reach younger people with whom they were not previously connected. One CVA with a food bank in Missouri said, “Technology has been huge for connecting with youth that want to be a part of what we do right now.” Another volunteer manager in the American southwest described their efforts to reach their younger clients:

I think that the silver lining to this whole situation is that because we’ve become more digital, we’ve been able to reach out to youth in different parts of the state where we normally wouldn’t be able to, even through our satellite locations… That has been one really big benefit.

Going digital, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned out to be an effective way to reach younger crowds, the “digital natives.” The comfort level that younger generations have with technology is not lost on volunteer managers. As one CVA with a medical nonprofit explained:

Our volunteer workforce demographic is changing. There’s a lot of younger people who are interested in volunteering…because they’re using technology a lot more. For them it’s really easy to take a class on Zoom, shut that window down, open up another Zoom link, and volunteer.

Better access to the eyeballs of younger people is a benefit noted by other volunteer managers. Many of them were excited about the potential for the match of information technologies and those digital natives. A participant from Virginia working in education explained:

Because of COVID and the lockdown, our population of 18-to-24-year-olds exploded in the last six months….We’ve never had this many young adults in our program before. And…they know technology, so they’re also an asset to help teach other volunteers.

As younger generations continue to age into the civic sphere, reaching them will require organizations to enter digital spaces. Technology can help solve both geographic and age barriers to volunteerism and civic engagement.

On the Other Hand, Remote Technologies Can Reinforce Inequities

Not all of technology’s effects are so beneficial. In some ways, digital technologies can deepen divisions in volunteering and access to nonprofit services. A volunteer manager in British Columbia put it this way: “You know, technology has a way of connecting people, but technology also has a way of isolating people and excluding people.” CVAs lament how technology gaps can exclude some people in systematic ways. During the pandemic-induced quarantines, these gaps widened. This was part of the national conversation when schools pivoted to online classrooms, which catered to families with reliable internet, ample supply of modern devices, and space to use them. Relying too heavily on technology means that those who lack the resources, language skills, and savvy to use technology to its full potential are left behind.

1. Failure to engage the digital immigrants

“The changes in technology are more difficult for some of our older volunteers.”

While digital technology made it easier for volunteer managers to reach younger people, the flipside is that the quarantine challenged the efforts of civic organizations to connect with older people. Because they didn’t grow up with modern information technologies, digital immigrants may be less interested in or less facile with technology. As a volunteer administrator at an educational nonprofit in Oregon explained:

Our volunteer opportunities are usually during the school day, so we have a lot of retired people. A lot of them have older equipment, or they only have a phone or maybe a tablet, and so trying to figure out how to troubleshoot their technology issues across a wide range of devices has definitely been challenging.

Many volunteer managers echoed her concerns, with another participant in Colorado saying:

Because our volunteers are “55 and better” and low income, many of them do not have access to computers. So, our volunteers were pretty much using paper from the application process all the way to keeping timesheets because they are not able to access computers. Honestly, many of them don’t want to.

The abrupt transition to remote technologies in the pandemic left many older people behind.

2. The age-old socioeconomic status gap

“It’s not equitable and we can’t provide the resources that they need.”

One deeply entrenched problem that the pandemic laid bare was the difficulty for low-income individuals to access technology, or at least adequate technology. One CVA in a civic engagement nonprofit described the heightened difficulties of volunteering from home:

A lot of volunteers are competing [for technology at home]. Maybe they only have one or two devices in the house, and somebody is at school; somebody is at work. So, there isn’t that technology available to partake in anything that volunteer leaders would like to showcase with them.

The challenges of remote volunteering are front-of-mind for many volunteer managers. A library in Oregon had similar concerns about the accessibility of technology during the pandemic:

In order to volunteer with us right now, you basically have to have access to a device and the internet…which is not how it was in the past. If you didn’t have one, you could use it at the library, which you can’t use right now…I worry that it’s an equity issue for some volunteers not having the resources to be able to do that from home.

The issue of accessibility goes beyond simply having a computer and internet. A volunteer manager with a hospice in Washington state added some nuance to the conversation around technology and accessibility:

Thank you so much for bringing up the accessibility piece. I think, not only in terms of digital literacy…but some people don’t have laptops with cameras, or they only kind of know how to use their smartphone, or maybe they don’t have access to the physical hardware at all to do some of this stuff.

Many of the stories we heard describe access limitations that were either introduced or exacerbated by COVID-19. Yes, accessibility and equity in volunteering was a problem even before the pandemic, but as COVID swept across the globe, low-income communities bore the brunt of the consequences. Volunteer managers witnessed a microcosm of that huge and complex issue.

3. English as a second language

“Between language barriers and economic barriers…we’ve learned a lot about the inequities when it comes to the digital world these last months.”

In addition to deepening inequities for low-income people, modern technology has a way of isolating or segmenting people by language. Unfortunately, people who are not fluent in the dominant language are often also people in low socioeconomic situations, compounding and deepening access and equity issues. Sure, there are tools out there, Google Translate and the like, but they are not yet robust enough to replace human interpreters and translators. A volunteer manager at a library in Oregon explains why translation tools are not enough:

A couple years ago there was a Spanish language Facebook page for the library. But then, as the translation got better, the marketing manager was like, “Yeah let’s get rid of the Spanish one because people can just set their browser to whatever language.” But then, once the marketing manager left, our Spanish language staff were like, “Yeah, we actually want different content, not just translated content.

While some technology tools, like Facebook, incorporate different language pages, other technologies do not have options for non-English speakers. A volunteer manager with an animal services nonprofit in Ontario described the challenges she has with using Better Impact, a popular volunteer management software:

I do find that with the way that the world is going now there are certainly limitations on being inclusive. You know, with the Better Impact system, you fill out a profile on our website as a link, and then you move through the system. It’s all in English….It would be nice if it could be more diverse and more inclusive.

The isolation of the pandemic and our sudden dependence on digital technology meant that overcoming language barriers had new layers of complexity.

The Big Theme and Conclusion

Across the US and Canada, the pandemic forced technology adoption at breakneck speed. School districts scrambled to get Chromebooks to students. Parents worked from home while their kids were in online classes. Some people worked from hallways and bathrooms. Meetings were interrupted by barking dogs and crying toddlers. The most fortunate kept their jobs and their health. The transition to remote technology had to prioritize expediency over quality. As one volunteer manager in Florida explained, “We were rushing full steam ahead…and accessibility came afterward.” Almost two years since the pandemic sent us all shuffling into our homes, life is slowly returning to normal. Offices are reopening, in-person volunteering is resuming. This is a unique opportunity to slow down, take a breath, and ask ourselves: What went right?

The abrupt move to digital communication technologies and social media likely widened the equity gap associated with access. As we move back to in-person volunteering, we can be strategic about rebalancing our reliance on remote technology and rethinking the ways in which we reach the most unreachable people. This period of forced experimentation showed us who technology brings into the fold and who it excludes. Equipped with this knowledge, we can be mindful and strategic about how we use it. Many volunteer managers are already looking toward the future and thinking about what a post-COVID world might look like. One of our CVAs summed it up nicely:

One thing that I want to highlight: The necessity to keep several of these sorts of [virtual] programs going because we have been able to open the world to a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to use our services or volunteer with us. It won’t necessarily be easy to do both digital and in person, but [it’s] the best way we can actually move forward and work toward a better future.

A hybrid model of digital and in-person volunteering is a promising prospect, but one that asks a lot from volunteer managers who are already stretched thin. For those that work in organizations that are serious about equity in access, though, now is the time for introspection about how to take the best from technology and work around the variety of challenges that it inevitably poses.

To read more about our study, see the public brief at https://cvacert.org/teva/.