IN 2011, WHEN JENNIFER RYAN left her job of 12 years as chief executive officer of the East Alabama Chapter of the American Red Cross, it wasn't an easy decision. She loved the job—the thrill of moving swiftly into action when emergency struck, the gratification of helping people in urgent need—but she now had a young son at home, which made it harder to make last-minute deployments to crisis sites. Meanwhile, the Red Cross, like so many nonprofits, was facing tough budget cuts with several of her colleagues having already been let go.
Still, she had mixed feelings about leaving the post. She was very excited about her new challenge as branch manager at Regions Bank in Auburn, Ala., but she still felt she wanted to be able help in some meaningful way when disasters occurred. “I kind of felt like I didn’t want it to be the end for me in terms of being able to serve in that way,” she says. “It was sad to think that all those years of disaster training experience might not be utilized.“
So when the national organization of the Red Cross announced the creation of a Disaster Digital Volunteer program, it was a perfect opportunity for Jennifer to stay involved with a mission she cared so deeply about and could continue to use her valuable skills in crisis-response communications.
Digital volunteers work from home or anywhere they have online access, providing invaluable support by updating local Red Cross chapters’ pages on Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media sites, watching out for calls for emergency assistance, directing people toward help, and answering the public's questions about how they can provide relief to disaster victims.
“When they approached me about doing this, I thought, what a great option because I can still do what I’m trained to do but in a more flexible way,” Jennifer says.
All Red Cross digital volunteers take part in special training through the national organization and then go through a formal application and acceptance process. But Chris Osborne, the organization’s local communications director, notes that in many ways, digital volunteering is just a way to put the same social-media skills people use every day in their personal lives to work for a greater purpose.
“We use a variety of platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and several different ways to post things; and if you’re already familiar, then it’s pretty much just a hands-on learning process to apply those social media platforms to this context,” he explains.
“Our digital volunteers provide a service by helping to be our eyes, ears, and voices. They are able to tell stories about ways we are working in the community, dispel misconceptions they find online, and provide information that helps accomplish the mission of the Red Cross.”
The help they provide extends beyond large-scale, news-making events. The Red Cross responds to some 70,000 disasters annually, and the overwhelming majority are smaller events like home fires.
“Obviously those are not the magnitude of a Superstorm Sandy in terms of numbers, but for anyone who loses their home, it’s a disaster for them personally,” he says. “So one of our primary functions is to make sure those families are taken care of. Those are also great stories to disseminate through social media to remind people who we are and what we do.”
Suzanne Horsley, a professor at the University of Alabama, has been a Red Cross volunteer since 2005 and signed onto the digital volunteer program as soon as it was introduced. Like Jennifer, she touts the benefit of being able to log in for a volunteer shift anytime or anywhere that’s convenient—during a lunch break at work, at home at night, or on weekends. She estimates that she performs more volunteer hours now as a digital volunteer than she ever did before.
There’s another benefit, as well: “With social media, you get to meet people you never would have met,” Suzanne, says. “I meet and converse with people all over the world—it’s as simple as somebody having a problem and me being there to help them out.”
The program places a premium on accurate messaging by instructing volunteers never to engage in blind speculation or try to answer questions that are outside the organization’s scope. However, when they don't have an answer, they do try to direct people to the appropriate resource.
Volunteers are also trained to always represent the Red Cross in a way that reinforces the organization’s values and reputation. At the same time, though, Jennifer says volunteers try to put a human face on their virtual interactions wherever possible.
“One thing that has impacted me greatly is just being able to give emotional support online," she says. "I've had so many people respond that just knowing someone was out there listening to them and caring really helped."
JENNIFER RYAN is a Regions associate in Auburn, Ala.
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