By Joan Meris (Philippines)

Nine individuals from extreme environments (literally from -27°C in Russia to 32°C in Indonesia and with Greece somewhere in the middle) dove deep into questions most volunteer coordinators are struggling with in one way or another. In a 2-day sparring session, they exchanged ideas, opinions and ways of working forward.

Offline to Online or Offline & Online

What the hell is the difference? A lot, apparently. Globally, there are huge conversations about the relationship between online and offline work.There are conversations on how to merge engagements in these (for some people) two different dimensions of mobilisation. And for others who suddenly find themselves in an integrated model where digital and grassroots are placed in the same spot, you have no choice but to work/play with each other nicely.

Offline to Online” is about developing offline content (activities, project, photo opportunity, etc.) that may be useful to our online platforms (web, social networking sites, etc.).  Online is treated either as repository of information or an archive of activities. More importantly, online is also seen as a distribution channel for communications (livestreaming, #tag, blogs, etc.).

On the flipside, you have “Online to Offline” where mobilization exists in the cyber-arena. Simply put, you mobilize your online network to participate in an offline action. It can be through creation of downloadable kits for local groups and networks to participate in concerted actions. It can also be forming skill-based networks like bloggers, visual artists, which can never meet in real life because of all sorts of reasons.

More often than not, the disconnect between the two is rooted on an imaginary wall that assumes they are different when in fact the two are always interacting.

Thus, putting into the discussion “offline and online” rather than “offline to online (vice versa).” It is about changing perspectives than changing departments or units in the organization. For some offices, digital and grassroots may not sit in the same room but they work together to create engagement strategies. Offline and online are simply a place where you mobilize and organize your constituencies, the tricks and tactics are almost the same. And the key element to remember: it’s all about people.

Office-driven versus Volunteer-driven

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As coordinators, we often find ourselves in conflict on whether or not an office-driven management and coordination style should be the way to handle volunteers and networks or just leave it up to them to figure out how they want things happening and just provide them support as necessary. Most of us find ourselves at the far-end of the spectrum where we control, micro-manage and direct our volunteers in every step of their involvement with the organization. Raise your hand if you think you’re somewhere there. There are some who envision a volunteer network that is committed, self-organizing and autonomous where we, as coordinators, have minimal coordination work and support. Who dreams of the same thing?

In reality, there is no perfect spot in this spectrum. We have to find the right balance between office-driven and volunteer-driven, apply it to our context and try (operative term) to make it work. Here are some pros and cons to both models:

Office-Driven

Pro

Con

  • Low security risk as you know what happens where
  • Strategies and tactics that are within Greenpeace “standards”
  • Make work faster as you simply delegate tasks
  • Have your way (dictatorship! :D)
  • No distinctive quality
  • Too strict that the volunteers will lose interest
  • No space for innovation as most ideas come from the same people
  • Resource-intensive i.e. staff, finance
  • Minimal development for volunteers
  • Can be perceived as no trust

Volunteer-Driven

Pro

Con

  • It is within the interest of the volunteers, which makes most activities successful
  • It comes from diverse individuals, so no hold’s bar in ideas
  • Within the scope of skills and knowledge
  • Sense of ownership
  • No control
  • Possibility of “damaging” the brand
  • Higher security risk as you sometimes don’t know what they plan for
  • May take longer time for planning and implementation

Structure & Vision

Maybe you have found your right mix of office-driven coordination and volunteer-driven work. You now know how to work with volunteers and most likely you have a structure that supports it. That’s good!

But does your team or the office have the same vision as you do? Vision, in this context, simply means envisioning a volunteer community that is engaged, effective and impactful. As coordinators, we are expected to have that vision, believe that vision and live that vision. And it is true to most of us, if not all. However, we do not live in a world that there are just us and the volunteers (how you wish!).

We do take  ownership of managing and coordinating volunteers but at the same time we teach people around us (our teammates, our colleagues) to do the same. They are Greenpeace volunteers to start with, not just your volunteers!

As most groups or organization, vision is a key element that drives you. And it is important that within your team and the organization that you drive towards the same direction. It is not a perfect straight line, oftentimes full of humps and sometimes even a different road, but the crucial thing is, you move.

So how now do you make sure that you have the same vision? Ask around. You have to level off with your colleagues on how you see volunteering works for the organization. It is the only way you can gauge your colleagues perception on how volunteering affects their work and vice versa. It is also the only way you would know the relevance and weight of organizing individuals and networks for Greenpeace. Next is planning together.

Planning with volunteers or having volunteers plan for their group is all well and good. But you also need to plan with the office on the strategic directions on volunteering. Go away from the usual tactics-based volunteering to a more strategic and longer-term engagement. It is planning with the ambition of growing leaders and multipliers.

Volunteer Coordinators Unite!

As we build communities within, around or alongside Greenpeace, we also need to strengthen our alliances, camaraderie and networks amongst offline coordinators. We maybe worlds apart, literally, with geographical distances and language barriers, but we still can find inspiration amongst ourselves.  Here are some comforting words from the participants, especially when you find yourself in the dark corners of your office, mumbling to yourself:

  • If you find yourself confused or lost in your work, your answer is one volunteer coordinator away. You can also join our Facebook Group or dial in the next VolCoord call and share it with the team.
  • We all have implemented at least one initiative, struggled with one, possibly abandoned one and excelled at something. Don’t worry, you are not alone!
  • Stay positive and do not give up! The work you do is valuable. Challenges and obstacles may take some toll but keep fighting. That’s what we’re here for.
  • Your best practices are good to hear but your worst practices maybe inspiring to others as well. As one would say, don’t kill yourself just to find that creative element in your work, sometimes the best or worst things comes from each other’s experiences. So pay attention to details (this is me looking at those who will attend skillshares soon), you will never know when you will hear that ONE BIG EUREKA!
  • When you are in your worst and you feel that nobody loves you, always remember these words:

    YOU ARE HONESTLY TALENTED. YOU HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE THE WORLD. BEHIND YOU ARE HUNDREDS OF VOLUNTEERS READY TO HELP. YOU ARE AWESOME. AND YOU ARE LOVE.

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Thanks Denys (Greece), Philippe (Senegal), Roman (Russia), Maria (Slovakia), Istem (Turkey), Norika (Indonesia), Ruth (India,) Kaew (Thailand) and the rest of the Vol Lab Team (Richard, Nicole and Vanessa) for a cold yet fuzzy 2-day skillshare in the Greenpeace Netherlands office.

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