Recruit and manage digital volunteers to deliver data analysis projects

Plantlife International is a wild plant and fungi conservation charity. It’s four-year project Building Resilience in South West Woodlands (2018-2022) raised awareness of Atlantic woodlands across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, as well as undertaking important management works to ensure the conservation of these habitats. As part of this project hundreds of 360-degree (fisheye) photographs were taken across several project sites. Digital volunteers were recruited to undertake the data analysis work in order for these photographs to be analysed.  This resource shares Plantlife’s journey in recruiting and managing these volunteers and their data work.

Red topped mushroom in woodland
Photo by Geranimo on Unsplash

Recruit and manage digital volunteers to deliver data analysis projects

This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.

1. Project background

Building Resilience in South West Woodlands was a four-year Plantlife project (2018 – 2022), to raise awareness of Atlantic woodlands across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, whilst implementing important management works to ensure the conservation of these habitats. Some rare lower plants (lichens and bryophytes) need specific levels of light, which needs to be carefully managed through woodland management practices.

During the Building Resilience project, hundreds of 360-degree (fish-eye) photographs were taken across several project sites. In order to better understand the woodland management that was needed at each site, these photographs needed to be analysed. Digital volunteers were recruited to fulfil this role. As participation would not be limited by a volunteer’s proximity to the project location volunteers could work remotely and flexibly.


2. Recruitment

We didn’t specifically target any groups or categories of volunteers, however as an organisation, and the wider sector, we often work with those of an older generation and retired from work. We hoped to engage with a younger audience through this opportunity, especially with the flexibility allowed by the nature of the task, reducing the limitations to appealing with those that were not in study or work.

We initially thought that the roles may need to be advertised via a specific digital volunteering platform, however advertising on conservation sector job sites proved was sufficient. The roles were advertised online for free via, which is aimed at individuals who are primarily pursuing a career in conservation, and also on Countryside Jobs Service. The candidates then applied via a link to register on Better Impact, a volunteering management system.

The adverts were well received with a total of 18 applications. The majority of applicants were highly skilled individuals with a passion to work in the conservation sector. Most were aged from approximately 18 – 30, all digitally skilled and most with experience or passion for the natural environment.


3. Volunteer support

Initially the Digital Volunteer Manager was the first contact via email. Then emails with the Building Resilience Community Scientist. All information including documents (spreadsheet and images) were sent using WeTransfer. Email communications were kept open throughout the duration of their time with the project. An initial zoom meeting was set up as a welcome, that was optional. We had 6 attend out of 14. These volunteers have also been invited to another two digital volunteer drop-in sessions. They were included in all digital volunteering communications including newsletters, training opportunities and the celebration event. One of the volunteers also asked if their time volunteering with us could count towards their college placement, we agreed and filled in the associated paperwork. They have gone onto volunteer in person with parts of the project.


4. Digital technology and tools

Digital volunteers applied for the role via a registration link on Better Impact. Digital volunteers communicated with the project team through Zoom and email. They downloaded the 360 degree images using WeTransfer. They edited the images using Image J, a software they downloaded for free online. They analysed the results using Excel. They were trained using Articulate 360 that took them through each step.


  • Better Impact – Volunteer management system – already in place before start of project and in process of moving on from this system to Donorfy.  – Better Impact approx. £864 per year.
  • Zoom – using Plantlifes existing zoom license. Normally an annual license costs £1,600.
  • WeTransfer – free to use.
  • Image J – free to download and use.
  • Excel – used their own versions of excel.
  • Articulate 360 – Annual license of £800 per license holder (we have two at a cost of £1600).


5. Project Stages

1. Assessment of need
Digital volunteer manager sent out organisation wide communication to assess the needs of staff and where opportunities could be aligned.

2. Development of role Working directly with the staff member to develop and agree a digital role that would be both attractive and lead to best possible outcomes.

3. Create induction and training
Before recruitment could start, suitable online self-led induction and training needed to be in place. The specific task-based training was needed as the role involved specific software and methods.

4. Recruitment and review
The decision was to advertise via traditional sector methods initially, but then find specific digital volunteering platforms if needed. This was found not to be necessary as the traditional method was more than satisfactory.

5. Digital volunteer management
Regular emails and updates, zoom meetings and dealing with individual enquiries via email. Allowing for re-recruiting extra volunteers to replace those that decided not to continue.

6. Request for work completed
Monitoring progress and requesting final images and spreadsheets when they had been completed.

7. Evaluation and feedback
Upon completion of the task, volunteers were given updates on the final report. They were then sent the results and asked to complete a feedback questionnaire.


6. Key learnings

Do not assume that volunteers do not have expertise

The volunteers recruited for the data task were highly skilled and efficient in performing data analysis tasks and added to the overall robustness of the data set.

Volunteer self-led online training save staff time

Using self-led online training methods saves staff time and allows for these opportunities to be taken up across the organisation. These could be recorded webinars, videos or use an authoring content tool. Managing and training volunteers can sometimes be a time consuming endeavour, resulting in staff unable to utilise volunteer opportunities. The flexibility of digital volunteering and the online training means that very little time is needed and more staff want to take up the opportunity. All volunteers engaged with the self-led training, and reported how it was interesting and easy it to use.

Ensure that the task specific management is done by the staff member overseeing that task

The recruitment and role development is suited to an overseeing volunteer manager role, but they are not in the best place to advise and manage the volunteers on a daily basis when referring to task specific queries.


7. Key challenges

Contingency plans for volunteer dropouts

The flexibility of digital volunteering data analysis roles attracts numerous candidates; however, you can get a high number of people dropping out. It is, therefore, worth retaining contact with any good candidates that do not get the position so that they can fill the role when the need arises.

Volunteers using their own IT systems

Ensure you have considered the implications of volunteers using their own IT systems. A robust IT induction (preferably an online self-led course) is desirable, so that your IT infrastructure is protected.

Volunteer isolation

Volunteers can feel isolated, yet it is difficult to engage any large number to attend online sessions. Volunteers who meet in-person, naturally chat and make connections, this is much harder to achieve with digital volunteering and some volunteers may feel the effects of this. Offering one-to-one Zoom sessions can help to keep the volunteers feeling engaged and valued.


8. Useful links


More help here

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Published: 2023

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Recruit and manage digital volunteers to deliver data analysis projects (2023) by Plantlife International supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


More help here

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