How to effectively organize volunteers when thousands can sign up for unexpectedly at once? The Finnish Red Cross regularly encounters this positive but challenging dilemma. Significant help came from a project with Digia, which combined service design and data utilisation. Now the Red Cross can guide and develop volunteering with data, and more and more people are getting the help they need faster.
In autumn 2015, the Finnish Red Cross faced a challenging situation that revealed a need for a new kind of digital development work. More than 30,000 asylum seekers came to Finland within a short space of time, and Red Cross volunteers helped to arrange the required aid. This led to a positive problem.
“In a short space of time, thousands of people told us they wanted to volunteer,” says Ilpo Kiiskinen, Communications Director at the Finnish Red Cross. Almost ten thousand registrations were received in the space of three months. There were so many offers of help that it was impossible to fully utilise them all.
The Red Cross is based on volunteer work that is carried out in about 450 departments all across Finland. Volunteers provide a wide range of services, such as paying friendly visits to elderly people, supporting young people in Homework Help clubs and Youth Shelters, helping immigrants to integrate, and providing first-aid.
Kiiskinen says that a lot of people in Finland want to help and many new volunteers will sign up when a particular need arises. How can these volunteers be quickly assigned to suitable and meaningful tasks? Since 2015, the Red Cross has been creating digital tools that will make volunteer work easier to organise. A project with Digia provided significant assistance in this effort.
We are extremely satisfied with the cooperation and results of its project with Digia. Effective data utilisation has paved the way for improvements that would not otherwise have been possible. We couldn’t have done this without help.
Tapani Tulkki, Head of the Organisational Development Unit, Finnish Red Cross
Combined tactics pave the way to more efficient operations
In September 2019, the Red Cross was chosen as the winner of the Digiarvoa 2019 competition. This competition, which was organised by Digia, was looking for digital projects with social impact. The winner was promised development assistance worth EUR 100,000 to help implement the project.
The Red Cross was seeking to develop its volunteer work through digital means. The initial goal was to gain an in-depth understanding of the kind of people who volunteer and how volunteer work could be organised as effectively as possible with the aid of data and information. Two different methods were selected for use: service design and data analysis.
Service design takes a human-centric approach through, for example, interviews and workshops. The ideas that arise are then quickly tested and piloted in practice. At this stage – that is, after qualitative personality grouping – volunteers were found to fit into four clearly distinct categories. These groups volunteer for slightly different reasons and in different ways.
The service design results were then validated and refined using data analysis. The first check was to ensure that the observations made through service design were also backed up by the data. Data analysis also provided much more accurate information about how many people were in each volunteer category, what kind of needs and expectations they had, and how they could take part in volunteer work.
The understanding gained through this data led to significant findings.
“We had previously thought that it would be difficult for people to engage in volunteer work during working hours on weekdays. However, we noticed that many younger and older people wanted to volunteer during the day in particular,” says Kiiskinen. He considers this to be a significant finding not only for the Red Cross but also for Finnish volunteer organisations in general.
Data analysis also changed previous assumptions about age groups. On the basis of the analysis, a surprisingly large number of young people would be happy to shoulder responsibility for organising and developing volunteer work. Another significant finding was that different times and situations mobilise different types of people. Monitoring this is important for organising volunteer work.
“These results are a good example of why we shouldn’t allow preconceived ideas to steer our activities to such a great extent. We should manage our activities with information instead,” says Kiiskinen.
Data utilisation leads to significant changes and improvements
According to Kiiskinen, it is the change in operating methods enabled by the project that has yielded the greatest benefits.
“Many practices can be turned on their heads when you have better information about the kind of people who are interested in volunteering. We no longer simply arrange courses and see whether anyone will sign up for them. Now we can see exactly what kind of people are interested in our activities, and can organise training and volunteer work to suit them,” he says.
When new volunteers register, the data immediately reveals what kind of help would most likely be the most interesting and suitable for them. Volunteers can be more effectively assigned to meaningful tasks, which in turn enables more people to receive help.
Data can also be used to automate and segment communications to volunteers, thereby providing them with better service as well. Kiiskinen says that communications and volunteer work can now be organised more effectively at a regional level as well.
The Finnish Red Cross is extremely satisfied with the results of its project with Digia. Tapani Tulkki, who heads up the Organisational Development Unit, says that effective data utilisation has paved the way for improvements that would not otherwise have been possible.
“We couldn’t have done this without help. No matter much how work we did ourselves, we would never have achieved the same results,” he says.
According to Kiiskinen, the project and its results launched a new phase in the Finnish Red Cross’s development efforts.
“Digia’s work isn’t a throwaway – we’re creating permanent operating methods with long-term impact,” says Kiiskinen.
He believes that the project could have wider social benefits.
“Volunteering plays an important social role in Finland. The impact of this project should not be restricted to the Red Cross – its benefits should be actively shared for the good of volunteer organisations in general.”
This will enable more people to get the help they need.