This is an archived version of the Virtual Volunteering Project web site from January 2001.
The materials on the web site were written or compiled by Jayne Cravens.
The Virtual Volunteering Project has been discontinued.
The Virtual Volunteering Project web site IS NO LONGER UPDATED.
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For any URL that no longer works, type the URL into archive.org
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the dynamics of online culture & community

This information was last updated on November 6, 2000

Learning to communicate primarily via written text can be a challenge for volunteer and manager alike. Sometimes, a volunteer manager or group leader will have to interpret people's communication and assist them to be clear and effective online.

You will experience a wide variety of communicators as you work with online volunteers:

  • Some write e-mails exactly as they talk, using punctuation and "smileys" to show emotion or expression.

  • Some write formally.

  • Some write short and to the point.

  • Some write often.

  • Some interpret silence as approval, others as disapproval.

  • Some will e-mail you and then call, as they aren't absolutely certain of technology and need the approving voice.

  • On online discussion groups, some will post frequently, some will post occassionally, and many will just "lurk" and never post at all, or send questions or comments directly to you instead.

  • Some may misinterpret intent or tone based only on the way the e-mail is written, not what the e-mail actually says. This is true particularly of those who are new to the Internet or don't use e-mail frequently.
    (For instance, one-word answers to questions may be interpreted as "snippy." Other people interpret questions themselves as "attacks", or signs that the person asking the questions does not like them or trust them, .

  • Some write e-mails littered with punctuation, spelling and sentence structure errors, but are very articulate on the telephone and quite respected in their professional field.

  • Some are not completely aware of all of the functions on their e-mail software (setting line length, type size, having a signature, setting the default to reply to the sender rather than everyone, etc.)

  • Some "documenters" and some "snippers": Some feel it is necessary to keep the full reply even if it is the 6th message passed. Others like to respond in a concise manner, so much so that it can be hard to figure out what they are responding or referring to (this may not be a culture difference, as much as a difference in e-mail systems or the person's technical know how).

 
As is noted in Working Together Online, an excellent publication by Maureen James and Liz Rykert, in association with Web Networks, http://www.web.net, "Drawing out the human tone and feelings from online text can be tricky." Even silence can be misinterpreted. "One reason that silence occurs is that the person posting the message hasn't been clear about what kind of response they are looking for."

Working Together Online offers what the Virtual Volunteering Project feels is the some of the best advice regarding communicating with volunteers online:

One person who involves volunteers virtually told the VV Project Manager, "A few times when I 'etalked' with people for years as if they were undergrads, then found out they were department heads!!!"

The same has been true for the VV Project Manager, only in reverse: "A few times I have corresponded with an online volunteer for several weeks as if that person was a working professional, because of the tone of the person's e-mails and the quality of work. Later, I've realized, upon reviewing the original volunteer application, that the person is actually 14 or 15 years old!"

Written online exchanges can't tell us everything about a person, and can even be unintentionally misleading. Also, working with volunteers online, even those you have met face-to-face at some point, means you are unable to visually read a person's facial or voice "cues" about how they are feeling, their enthusiasm (or lack their of), etc.

Brenda Ruth of the Boulder Community Network has a lot of experience working with online volunteers, and says,

 
Penny Leisch of the Arizona Pioneers' Home Volunteers Association offers this advice for communicating with volunteers via e-mail:

 
Learning to communicate with volunteers primarily via e-mail is an ongoing process, and electronic communication isn't for everyone. John Bergeron of the Glaucoma Research Foundation adds,

 
Join an Online Discussion Group
A great way to learn about the nuances of communicating with people online is to become a part of an online discussion group.

Start by joining an online group specifically for volunteer managers. If you work with young people, you might consider joining a discussion group of a TV show that's popular with teens, and observe how the youth interact with each other. You can also join groups that interest you personally -- for a particular hobby, your favorite author, a sports team you follow, even a political issue.

As you observe (or "lurk") on these groups, notice the variety of ways people relate to each other via written communications, the differences in communication styles among people of different age groups, how someone may get upset about a message that they interpreted as "hostile" but that looked quite benign to you, and so forth. Look for ways that people make their e-mails as appealing as possible -- the way the introduce a topic, the way the sign their e-mails, the way they respond to others, and so forth. If you feel comfortable, you might want to post a message yourself and actively participate.

You can find online discussion groups for just about any subject you can think of at these web sites:

 
 
Thanks to Brenda Ruth of Boulder Community Network, Penny Leisch of Arizona Pioneers' Home Volunteers Association, John Bergeron of Glaucoma Research Foundation and Susan Ellis of Energize, Inc. for their input into this document.Complete information about the VV Project Affiliates and how they involve online volunteers is available on our web site

 
Orienting and evaluating new online volunteers via e-mail and the Web and Managing volunteers virtually are also discussed in detail on our site.

 
A related page is our suggestions for accommodations for online volunteers who have learning disabilities or emotional and anxiety disorders. Most of these suggestions are fundamental to the successful management of ANY volunteer via e-mail and the Web. This information also will help you address the various learning styles and working styles of online volunteers. Part of our suggestions for Working via the Internet with volunteers who have disabilities.

Another related page is Making e-mail communications more effective, a helpful article written by Susan Ellis, based on her own experience as part of a board of directors that communicated primarily online.

 
You may also want to refer your online volunteers (and all staff, actually) to these online Netiquette guides:

 
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If you find this or any other Virtual Volunteering Project information helpful, or would like to add information based on your own experience, please contact us.


 
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If you find this or any other Virtual Volunteering Project information helpful, or would like to add information based on your own experience, please contact us.

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This is an archived version of the Virtual Volunteering Project web site from January 2001.
The materials on the web site were written or compiled by Jayne Cravens.
The Virtual Volunteering Project has been discontinued.
The Virtual Volunteering Project web site IS NO LONGER UPDATED.
Email addresses associated with the Virtual Volunteering Project are no longer valid.
For any URL that no longer works, type the URL into archive.org
.
For new materials regarding online volunteering, see
Jayne Cravens' web site (the section on volunteerism-related resources).
 

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