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#VTStrong: Vermont Developing Detailed Plan to Use Social Media to Leverage Volunteers

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Twenty Vermont emergency managers and their extended partners participated in a day-long session managed by consultants from IBM Interactive.

On September 23rd, the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (DEMHS) in Waterbury hosted an IBM “Strategies for Social Media” workshop for Vermont’s emergency managers and their extended partners. The purpose of the workshop was for the IBM consultants to gain inputs needed to assist Vermont in creating a road map for using social media to leverage volunteers in the event of another disaster. The workshop is part of the IBM Service Grants program and was donated to the Vermont Council on Rural Development as part of the matching funds for the Vermont Digital Economy Project.

The twenty attendees in the day-long conference included leaders from DEMHS, SerVermont, the American Red Cross, the Vermont Foodbank, Vermont 2-1-1, Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, the Vermont Council on Rural Development, and Front Porch Forum, as well as Vermont regional and community leaders. Three IBM Interactive consultants led the team through social media fundamentals, an exercise which led to the creation of six different volunteer profiles or “personas,” as well as key social media strategies across multiple platforms.

Paul Costello, the Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), noted that “the goal is for these disparate groups to be able to pull together and be inventive in leveraging grassroots volunteerism by communicating together more seamlessly in the time of disaster.” Philip Kolling, Executive Director of SerVermont also explained that the major challenge is that all of the activity in disaster response is at the local level, while the management is at the state level. Another challenge is that the groups present are in different stages of using social media within their own organizations. For example, some of the Vermont State agencies barely use social media at all, while the Vermont Foodbank and the American Red Cross both are expressly leveraging social and other digital media to communicate to their fans, and have dedicated staff working on digital media.

Doug Bishop, the Director of Communications & External Relations for the American Red Cross of Vermont & the New Hampshire Upper Valley, explained that the Red Cross uses social media as its core communications focus for volunteer coordination in disaster response. “We would like IBM’s social media experts to help us determine which social platforms are better under blue skies and which are better under gray skies,” he said, referring to the difference between activities on a regular day (blue skies) and activities when disaster strikes (gray skies).

“Up to now, we have focused on using these communications to fundraise through our social media fans. With what we learn today, we hope to leverage social media to better harness volunteers,” said Michelle Barber, Digital Media Specialist at the Vermont Foodbank.

Among the several other participants was Michael Wood-Lewis, Founder & CEO of Front Porch Forum, which is a uniquely Vermont community-based social networking forum that is now available to every community in Vermont, thanks to VCRD and the Vermont Digital Economy Project. After Irene, communities used FPF to organize volunteers and assist each other. “We see even greater potential in having all Vermont communities on the same social media platform,” said Wood-Lewis.

In addition to understanding the state of social media usage of each of the participating organizations and explaining the pros and cons of the various types of social media platforms, the team also created specific profiles of volunteers based on the Tropical Storm Irene experience, ranging from spontaneous volunteers, skilled and unskilled volunteers, and even virtual volunteers.

During the last part of the session, the team developed the priorities for the road map, including how to identify the universe of needs, efficiently capture and distribute all volunteers, reduce the duplication of effort through a coordinated system of communication, and develop measurements for success performance.

The IBM Interactive consultant team will use all of these various inputs to craft a detailed roadmap to enable Vermont’s emergency planners to better harness the power of social media to match-up volunteers with those in need. The road map will be presented in about one month and the team is planning a follow-up workshop in the spring of 2014 to assess progress on and to evolve the road map.

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