Consider features, budget and common pitfalls when choosing volunteer management software
If your organization works with only a few volunteers, you can probably store their contact information and schedules in a spreadsheet. But once your volunteer list swells to dozens or more at multiple sites, you'll quickly discover the need for more robust software or web-based tools. Easy access to volunteer data is a critical part of operations, from creating budgets to raising funds, measuring outcomes and publishing reports.
What are the most important features?
The authors of "A consumer's guide to software for volunteer management," published by TechSoup, suggest looking for the following features in volunteer management software:
- Volunteer profiles. A robust profile includes contact information and details on interests, skills, training, health screenings and background checks.
- Activity tracking. This includes dates, times and locations of volunteer work, reimbursable expenses, activities and measurable impacts, and rewards and other recognitions.
- Scheduling. Up-to-date information about volunteer availability is key.
- Email features. Imagine the benefits of broadcasting messages to hundreds or thousands of people with a few keystrokes.
- Print communication. Look for the ability to create mail-merges and mailing labels.
- Reporting and exporting. Summaries of volunteer outcomes are helpful, especially in formats you can present to donors and other stakeholders.
- Customization. You may need to create data fields beyond the defaults built into the software.
- Ease of use. An easy-to-use interface that makes sense to novices is critical.
In addition, look for software that allows users to enter qualitative data, such as comments on their volunteer experience. If you can also set up an online forum for volunteers, you'll gain a new way to create a sense of community.
What about data protection and privacy compliance?
If you're retaining personal information about volunteers, you're obligated to treat it with care. Make sure you're aware of what's expected and consider drawing up a data protection policy. Knowhow Nonprofit offers sample data protection policies, some available for free and others for purchase.
In the U.K., more information is available from the Information Commissioner's Office, which has a helpline and offers advisory visits to audit data protection practices.
What are the available solutions?
Before buying new volunteer management software, review the features of your current applications. Perhaps the software you already use to track donors or clients could be customized to handle volunteers as well. Keeping information about all of your constituents in one place eliminates the need to learn several applications — and keep them in sync.
As another option, smaller organizations might be able to manage volunteers with a database manager. If this doesn't meet your needs, consider standalone software for volunteer management.
What's the budget?
The cost of volunteer management software varies widely. Many software options are priced in tiers based on the number of records you keep and the number of staff members who use the software. Smaller nonprofits might get by with free software or software associated with a nominal monthly fee. Larger organizations could spend several thousand dollars up front for a software package, plus annual subscription fees after that.
How will the software fit into your business processes?
Choose software that allows volunteers to go online and update information about themselves. This could save your staff hours of tedious data entry.
To ensure that volunteers actually take advantage of this feature, you might:
- Require volunteers to sign in whenever they're on site for a meeting or work shift
- Prompt volunteers to update their contact information when using your organization's website
- Send occasional email reminders (including links to your volunteer management software) to update contact information and other details
What are the most common pitfalls?
Don't expect to find software that works flawlessly for your organization right out of the box. Plan to invest staff time in creating custom fields or installing plug-ins to add useful features. Also beware of software that doesn't include the word "volunteer" in its product description. Although various applications for donor management or customer relationship management may be able to accommodate volunteer information, don't assume this is always the case.
Before investing in volunteer management software, ask about:
- Frequency of software upgrades
- Cost of upgrades
- Any fees beyond initial installation
- Customer support, help lines and user forums
- Discounts for nonprofits
Whenever possible, go with software that you can use on a trial basis before you buy. You'll quickly discover what works for your organization today — and what to budget for in the future.
Coyote Communications: List of volunteer management software by Jayne Cravens (2015)
Coyote Communications: Keeping volunteer information up-to-date by Jayne Cravens (2013)
TechSoup: A consumer's guide to software for volunteer management by Laura S. Quinn, Kyle Henri Andrei, Chris Bernard and Jay Leslie (2011)
Knowhow Nonprofit: Data protection policies
Information Commissioner's Office: Advisory visits