Online volunteer support

Hi all,

I am working on a new project for Family Lives and have been tasked with setting up systems for volunteers to support each other. As there is no budget for peer support it has been suggested that these activities take place online. The volunteers will be supporting families through befriending.

I was wondering if anyone had any experience with online peer support for volunteers? I have a few ideas about setting up a volunteer forum and maybe seeing if we can offer online email mentoring, but am not sure if these peer support models have been used before for volunteer support and if anyone has any ideas about how to moderate and monitor the work?

There are two models of volunteers supporting volunteers online – in a group setting and one-on-one.

The group setting is easiest to set up. Technically, it’s as easy as creating a group on YahooGroups or GoogleGroups. You want the settings such that you (or your designate) approves every person who wants to join the group, and messages can be viewed on the web only by members. What’s nice about YahooGroups is that each member can decide how they want to receive messages for themselves – one might want to receive messages via email while another might want to view messages on the web, while another wants one email a week with all the messages together.

For the group, you need to set the ground rules regarding what information is appropriate to share and what is not (can client names be used, for instance?). You need to be adamant that messages never be forwarded outside of the group and reiterate your current confidentiality policies.

The group will take a lot of facilitating – just as it would if you gathered all the volunteers together once a month for an onsite conversation.

You also need to emphasize to volunteers that their computers need to be password-protected, as they will be talking about clients – they need to prevent family and friends in the household from seeing this information.

A lot of organizations use this model – I can’t count how many I’ve been involved with, as a volunteer or as a volunteer manager. I’d be happy to talk more about what worked and what didn’t in these models.

One-on-one support is more difficult, because you have to be explicit about what the mentoring relationship is and is not. You have to decide if you want every message between volunteers tracked and recorded by you (meaning you will have to set up a communications system to allow this to happen) or if volunteers corresponding back and forth via their own email accounts is acceptable. Harder will be getting the volunteers to share regularly – one-on-one mentoring takes a LOT of cultivation and support, more than I can detail in this post.

Does that start to touch on some of your concerns?