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Industrial Espionage

by Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc.

Normally, industrial spying is a criminal activity, though there will always be business people trying to learn the secrets of their competitors. On the positive side, it's important to know how other companies are serving their customers or developing updated products. That's a legitimate part of "market research."

How does this relate to volunteer management?

The Internet has given us the completely legal ability to peek into the activities of other organizations by examining their Web sites. If we do our Web browsing effectively, we can learn a great deal about the state-of-the-art of volunteer involvement in similar settings or in our local community. This knowledge can then help us to adapt and strengthen our own operations.

As I've so often suggested, recruit some "cyber deputy" volunteers who are willing to spend the time surfing the Web for you, giving you direct links to or even paper print-outs of useful information they may find. What should they look for? Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Do a search for settings anywhere in the world that do similar work to yours (children's hospitals, animal shelters, whatever). Go into those sites and see whether and how volunteers are included in each organization's work. Look for specific volunteer job descriptions for new ideas about ways to be of help. Also keep an eye out for good recruitment slogans or techniques, fresh recognition ideas, and other successful approaches that you might adapt. When a site seems especially valuable, make sure to get a name and e-mail address of the person in charge of volunteers. After all, your Web search isn't really "spying," it's an attempt find model programs and reach out to colleagues who might welcome exchanging ideas with you.

  2. Any time you are initiating a new project, do some Web research first to find out how others do it or something like it. In this case, don't limit yourself to similar settings. If you want to experiment with a family volunteer project, for example, the principles of working with a multi-generational group will apply to many situations. You can look for information related to the type of volunteer you are seeking (youth, seniors, Asian-Americams, etc.) or to the actual work to be done by volunteers (tutoring, telephone reassurance, etc.). Further, you can focus on models operating in big cities or in rural areas or any other variable.

  3. It can also be useful to know what else is going on in your community (for which a DOVIA or professional association of volunteer program managers can help, too). In other words: Who else is seeking volunteers and how do your opportunities measure up against these? Go to or to any other online registries of volunteer positions (in any country) and pretend to be someone seeking volunteer work (for a list of such sites go to Enter your organization's zip/postal code. See which other organizations have posted their openings. If you a prospective volunteer, how would reading your posting compare to reading these others?

Make it a habit to double check anything you do against what might already be found on the Internet. Designing a form? See if someone has one online that you can use as a prototype. Trying to word your manual or report? How have others said it?

Remember one thing. Learn from others but don't be limited by them. Just because you can't find an existing model for something you'd like to do doesn't mean you shouldn't do it! Go ahead and experiment. Maybe someday your pioneering effort will be discovered online by other colleagues and you'll become their inspiration.


About the Author: Susan J. Ellis is President of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism. She founded the Philadelphia-based company in 1977 and since that time has assisted clients throughout North America (48 states and 5 provinces), Europe (8 countries), Asia (3 countries), Latin America and Australia to create or strengthen their volunteer corps. The year 2002 marked Energize's 25th anniversary.

Susan is the author or co-author of eleven books, including From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success and The Volunteer Recruitment Book - several of which have been translated into Japanese, Taiwanese, French and Italian. All her books can be found in the online bookstore. From 1981 to 1987 she was Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Volunteer Administration. She has written more than 90 articles on volunteer management for dozens of publications and writes the national bi-monthly column, "On Volunteers," for The NonProfit Times.

Please visit Energize web site, a cornucopia of over 1000 pages of information especially for leaders of volunteers. Call for a FREE catalog of Energize materials: (800)395-9800 [in Philadelphia (215) 438-8342], or fax (215) 428-0434. Or write to Energize at: 5450 Wissahickon Ave, Box C-13, Philadelphia, PA 19144.

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