A Global Approach to Virtual Volunteering

Chad Sansing

By Chad Sansing | April 22, 2021 | Mozilla Festival

A costumed cartoon fox raises its hands in celebration while surrounded by a group of MozFest Volunteers wearing MozHelp t-shirts.
Foxy the Mozilla mascot celebrates with Volunteers at MozFest. Credit: Photo by Erik Westra, CC BY.

Our first ever virtual MozFest was a smash! With over 9,800 participants organizing, facilitating, and attending over 400 sessions across 2 weeks, the event took a massive amount of community co-design and coordination to deliver.

Part of the magic at every MozFest is our fantastically engaged and supportive cohort of Volunteer Coordinators and Volunteers. This year was no different. Behind the scenes and across all the different “MozHelp” channels, this team of selfless helpers made sure that things went as smoothly as possible for MozFest participants and made connections between attendees in need and specialist support groups whenever they needed an assist to answer a question or resolve a lingering issue.

Below, you’ll find a brief narrative account of how we assembled and supported our Volunteers so they could support everyone else at the festival. You’ll also find a set of reflections and recommendations meant to help anyone interested in building a Volunteer program into their next virtual event.

Virtual Volunteering at MozFest: Behind The Scenes Planning

We began recruiting Volunteers for MozFest 2021 in mid-December, 2020, with this blog post. We waited to recruit until we knew that the festival would be entirely virtual and we had an idea of the kinds of roles we’d need Volunteers to fill and the number of Volunteers we’d need to staff all shifts across the festival. A series of internal conversations between staff and production houses helped us establish the baseline we wanted to recruit for ahead of MozFest. We followed-up on that blog post with several invitations on the #volunteer channel of the MozFest community Slack.

We decided on 3 roles for virtual volunteering at MozFest 2021:

  • Session support: These Volunteers joined specific sessions at the request of solo-Facilitators to help them manage the technical parts of their Zoom calls.
  • MozHelp: These Volunteers monitored Slack and Twitter for questions and then answered them or escalated them to the right specialist groups supporting participants.
  • Spatial Chat: These Volunteers staffed the “MozHelp Room” in our social space, helping participants with wayfinding there and general questions about the festival itself.

We left the applications open through the end of the year, and then recruited Volunteer Coordinators (VC) in January to help us refine our program design, draft documentation, and schedule Volunteers ahead of the festival. We recruited 9 VCs from our pool of Volunteer applications, all of whom had experience as in-person VCs or Volunteers at previous MozFests. While we recognized that this limited our pool of potential VC candidates, we wanted to include members of our past community in planning this new kind of event to make sure we could lean on their experience, but also learn from the questions they had about the different needs we’d face in planning for a virtual MozFest.

Gathering Our First Virtual Volunteering Cohort

Over 360 people applied to Volunteer at MozFest 2021, which was several hundred more people than we’d included in any Volunteer program in the past. We also attracted hundreds of Volunteers from around the world, greatly increasing the number of Volunteers from different countries supporting the festival. Virtual volunteering at MozFest in many ways epitomized the gains in accessibility and inclusion that an online festival brought to the event and our entire community.

Next, we began a series of weekly VC calls to plan the program, document necessary resources, and schedule Volunteers. We also sent a series of follow-up emails and forms to our applicants that:

  • Thanked them for their interest.
  • Surveyed their availability to participate by date and time zone.
  • Invited them to a series of Platform Training calls meant to make them feel comfortable and confident helping MozFest participants with the schedule, Zoom, Miro, and Spatial Chat.
  • Surveyed their interest in the different roles for Volunteers at MozFest.

Virtual Volunteer Training

We used 6 Platform Training calls in February and March (spread across different days of the week and times of day to cover lots of time zones globally) to screen applicants. These calls all followed the same agenda, and we made the audio recording, video recording, and transcript of one of those calls available by request to Volunteers who could not make a call. A Volunteer had to attend one of those calls (or review the recorded materials) to be assigned a shift at MozFest. We provided a link for Volunteers to use at the end of each call to confirm their completion of the training.

While those training calls happened, we worked with our VCs to create the documentation we’d need to support Volunteers and participants at MozFest 2021. Those documents included things like:

  • A main spreadsheet we used to track applicants, document their completion of training, and schedule them for shifts at MozFest. We also used this spreadsheet to schedule VCs and send comms to confirmed Volunteers via mailmerge.
  • A “Volunteer workflows” document full of flow-charts meant to make sure Volunteers knew when to escalate issues and questions they could not immediately address on their own to the right specialist group for the festival.
  • A Slack bot called “FAQbot” that Volunteers could use on Slack to invoke answers to commonly asked questions about things like ticketing, how to join a session, and how to find a session’s recording or access its documentation.
  • A VC log that our coordinators could use to track Volunteer attendance, confirm specific assignments, and document persistent issues from shift-to-shift.
  • A communications document where staff and VCs could share and edit all of the official comms we sent to Volunteers regarding their participation in MozFest 2021.

Over 120 Volunteers finished their training and became eligible for shifts at the festival.

With training complete and those documents in place, we scheduled our Volunteers for their shifts just ahead of MozFest and sent emails via our spreadsheet to notify people of their assignments.

Scheduling this year, especially, required a global approach to matching Volunteers’ availability, by time zone, with the shifts we needed to fill. While we did our best to assign Volunteers to shifts that fit their local daytime schedules, we are extremely grateful to those Volunteers who helped out at odd hours, as well. Considering the future, it will be important to find ways to include more Volunteers whose availability doesn’t match the festival schedule and to help them contribute in other ways.

Volunteers Responsibilities And Logistics During MozFest

MozFest 2021 ran from 8 March through 19 March 2021. We organized each day into three, 4-hour shifts and scheduled 2-3 VCs and 6-18 Volunteers for each shift. This let us assign at least 2 Volunteers to each role during each shift. We scheduled more Volunteers for especially bust shifts, such as those when 4-5 Facilitators all wanted Session Support help at once.

While everything ran fairly smoothly, there were times when Volunteers were unable to make their shifts, and we had to reassign Volunteers across different roles and shifts or ask folks who were not “on-duty” to pick up an extra shift. We never faced an overwhelming rush of questions or issues all at once, but we did have to continue tweaking our assignments and schedule throughout the festival. Staff and VCs handled this through individual email outreach to Volunteers, open calls for help on Slack, and documenting needs on our VC log.

We also quickly adopted a practice of sending nightly email reminders and Slack notices to Volunteers assigned to shifts the next day. This helped our attendance a lot - people knew exactly when to show up, but also more frequently let us know when they couldn’t make it, giving us time to reschedule other people as we went.

We used a simple system to mark questions as reviewed or answered on the #help channel on Slack using an eyeball emoji to mark a question as reviewed and a check-mark emoji to mark a question as answered. This worked well for us, though we could have also tried a more sophisticated logging system.

These are the channels and communications we used to continue coordinating the Volunteer program throughout MozFest 2021:

  • We sent email reminders to Volunteers through the mailmerge function on our main VC spreadsheet.
  • We answered participant questions on the public #help channel of our Slack.
  • We let other VCs and Volunteers know when we arrived for our shifts - and when we left them - on the public #volunteer channel on Slack. We also shared documentation here and invited Volunteers to our Zoom “production office” for briefings at the start of each shift and to hang out during quiet times. We also used this channel to share nightly reminders of the next day’s shifts and assignments.
  • Staff and VCs used private #volunteer-coordinator and #volunteer-schedule channels on Slack to help each other answer questions and deal with on-going scheduling needs.
  • We used a persistent Zoom call as a Volunteer “production office.” This is where we greeted one another voice-to-voice (and sometimes face-to-face), shared information about different shifts, roles, and responsibilities, and got to know one another better as Mozillians dedicated to a healthier internet, more trustworthy AI, and an awesome MozFest for all.

The production office in Zoom was an unanticipated joy throughout MozFest. Staff, VCs, and Volunteers got to learn so much about one another there. People showed off their indoor gardens, commiserated about the costs of higher education, and even hosted virtual tours of favorite places (like the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda).

By the end of MozFest, 75 Volunteers had contributed 1 or more shifts to support our Wranglers, Facilitators, and Participants in making the most of the festival.

Virtual Volunteer Program Post-Event Wrap Up

After the festival, we:

  • Gathered the VCs and Volunteers together for a celebration in SpatialChat, the festival’s social space.
  • Shared a link to a Volunteer-specific feedback form to invite Volunteers to let us know what worked, what didn’t work, what surprised them, and what they would change about the program for next year.
  • Followed-up with all Volunteers who completed 1 or more shifts at MozFest to make sure we could send them the traditional Volunteer tee-shirt in appreciation for their incredible work in virtual volunteering at MozFest 2021.

What We Learned From Our First Virtual Volunteer Program

Here are a few key takeaways from our experiences with virtual volunteering at MozFest 2021. We need to:

  • Preserve accessibility and inclusion for a global, MozFest Volunteer program. We needed both our experienced VCs and all of our new and returning Volunteer friends from around the world to make this year’s program a success. We would not have had the numbers or flexibility we needed to support the festival without global participation from our Volunteers. It was also such an enriching experience that we should find ways to replicate and improve it for MozFest 2022. We’re looking forward to that challenge.
  • Adopt a dedicated platform for managing Volunteer participation. While we managed to run this year’s program off a spreadsheet, several communications documents, and the ingenuity and good will of our VCs and Volunteers, we found that our approach was not reliable enough in terms of getting the right comms to the right people at the right time. We should adopt a documentation and scheduling platform (or platforms) that improves the ease, efficiency, and reliability of our communications. This would also help us more easily send a few more comms we discovered we needed this year. For example, we should have sent something to the Volunteers whom we did not schedule for a shift at MozFest because of their availability or because they could not complete training, but we lacked an efficient way to do that in the narrow window of time between the end of training and the start of the festival.
  • Schedule Volunteers earlier. Our scheduling worked for the most part, but came down to the wire due to a variety of factors. We would have had more time to confirm assignments and troubleshoot conflicts with an earlier start on scheduling. That also means that we should evaluate our entire timeline to make the kinds of adjustments we need in recruiting and training to finish scheduling earlier.
  • Continue community engagement with Volunteers throughout the year. The production office welcomed so many people into the volunteering community and started so many new relationships between Mozillians from around the world. We need to continue engaging our Volunteer community throughout the year and to continue supporting the Volunteer community’s own initiatives, like its monthly meet-ups and new Discord server for gaming and open-source projects.
  • Amplify Volunteers’ voices and contributions to MozFest. We’re so excited to begin sharing parts of our United Kingdom (UK) community’s “Volunteer cookbook” later this year right here on the foundation blog. We started this project after MozFest 2019 as a way to pass along our Volunteer community’s insights to new VCs and Volunteers in Amsterdam; then the pandemic happened, and MozFest went virtual. We should gather insights from our new, expanded, global community of Volunteers, as well, to pass along their wisdom for whatever virtual component we might include in 2022 and for other organizers planning virtual events in the meantime.

What’s Next For Mozilla Festival Volunteers

While we’re still wrapping up the debrief process for MozFest 2021, we are so excited for the future of the festival. The best way to keep up with the latest news about our next Volunteer program is to join the #volunteer channel on the MozFest community Slack.

You can also:

If you have questions about the Volunteer program at MozFest 2021 or would like to chat about designing a Volunteer program for a virtual event you’re planning, please reach out to MozFest program manager Chad Sansing by email (chad@mozillafoundation.org) or @chadsaning on Slack.

If you Volunteered at MozFest 2021 - or in London in the past - we hope you’ll join us again in 2022, and we’re committed to finding ways to continue the progress we’ve made in global accessibility and inclusion.

If MozFest 2021 was your first festival, or if you’ve attended in the past, and are wondering about how to become more involved with MozFest, we hope you’ll consider volunteering with us in 2022. We have a wonderful, incredibly kind and capable Volunteer community that is waiting to welcome you.

Thank you, exemplary and supremely generous VCs and Volunteers; we can’t wait to work with you again!

Chad-MozFest-80-80

Chad Sansing works on leadership and training, as well as facilitator and newcomer support, for MozFest. When he’s not at work, you can find him gaming, reading, or enjoying time with his family. Prior to joining Mozilla, he taught middle school for 14 years.

MozFest is part art, tech and society convening, part maker festival, and the premiere gathering for activists in diverse global movements fighting for a more humane digital world. To learn more, visit www.mozillafestival.org.

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