Spreadsheets: Great for Crunching Numbers, Not So Much for Coordinating Volunteers

Excel spreadsheets are excellent at organizing data and making complex calculations. When it comes to managing a team of volunteers, however, spreadsheets aren’t cut out for the task.

Whether its facilitating volunteer communication or gaining insight into yearly donations, many nonprofits rely on Excel for tasks it isn’t designed for.

Here’s how spreadsheets can eat away at your time and money — and how a volunteer team management tool can help you get that time back.

Managing People Is Very Different From Managing Data

Think about what basic information you need to know about each of your volunteers: Names, contact information, where they live, what times they’re available. None of that data plugs into a formula; you can’t sum or average that info. It’s all information made for human eyes.

And, as someone with human eyes, you know how hard it can be to read a big, dense spreadsheet in a glance. You end up merging cells, drawing boxes and using 12 different highlight colors just to make your Excel sheets visually navigable.

Now, let’s add more people to this house of cards. Imagine you have to share that multicolored sheet with your colleagues to accommodate your organization’s everyday workflows. That person adds a column and clicks “Save As…” at some point because they need the sheet for their own records, and all of a sudden there are multiple versions of your spreadsheet flying around.

At this point, you’ve lost control of the very thing you were trying to manage. “It’s too easy for any contributor to insert rows or columns, change a formula or delete a field,” says IBM’s Stephanie Freyer. “It’s common for users to accidentally modify calculations. This can lead to either a painful correction process or introducing new errors. Not to mention that the process of aggregating inputs from multiple users can take weeks.”

Such errors can even creep into collaborative spreadsheets, like the kind available in Google Docs. It’s still too easy for someone to change or delete important data by mistake.

Spreadsheets Aren’t That Secure

Over-reliance on spreadsheets can also lead to security breaches, as tech journalist Mary Branscombe points out. She uses the example of a business sending databases-as-Excel-files full of customer information to developers, which can put important data at risk. In nonprofit organizations, it’s important to keep the sensitive information of donors, staff and volunteers safe and secure. Don’t let the passing of spreadsheets become a security breach.

The only real security offered by Excel is that spreadsheets can be password-protected, marketer Shabnam Kakar writes. But password protection complicates sharing. If you need volunteers to access donor information for marketing purposes, you’ll have to either share the data with them or copy and paste the relevant information into a different spreadsheet. Neither of these options is secure.

Having a task management tool that’s specifically designed to allocate roles and permissions is a much safer and efficient way to enable volunteers to do their work without compromising donor information.

Clunky, Error-Prone Sheets Are Costing You Valuable Time

Spreadsheets can be a time drain on project coordinators. “Relying on spreadsheets for tracking information often leads to more work double-checking numbers and manually updating information,” the team at accounting and ERP software company Blue Link writes. They’re making a point about tracking inventory, but really this applies to any trackable project task. “One small mistake in a formula can drastically affect the rest of the numbers across multiple worksheets.”

Moreover, Excel sheets are static, meaning they’re not updated in real-time. This creates one of two scenarios: One person is tasked with updating the spreadsheet daily, or multiple people keep tabs on their own versions. The first option leads to inefficient time use by team members. The second leads to multiple versioning, which is always a recipe for confusion.

There’s also little regulation around how spreadsheets should be used in an organization. “The spreadsheet development process is usually informal, with little planning, and no quality assurance,” Forbes contributor Meta S. Brown writes.

Brown adds that there’s rarely any user documentation in spreadsheets. In other words, it’s hard to see who made what changes, and when. This means if something goes wrong, it can be hard to pinpoint the source or determine who is in charge of remedying the problem.

It’s Hard to See the Big Picture With Spreadsheets

The siloed nature of spreadsheet data makes it difficult for nonprofits to get a bird’s-eye view of their organizations.

When you have detailed information spread across multiple cells and sheets, it’s nearly impossible to easily gain insight into trends and changes. Spreadsheets don’t provide the high-level dashboard that’s critical for effective decision-making, the team at Achieveit writes.

Spreadsheets aren’t very good at analyzing historical data, either, which is something many nonprofits need. Version updates and the risks inherent with shared documents expose historical data to risks like accidental deletion, Janet Williams at Prompt Cloud writes.

This is especially pertinent in volunteer management because coordinators need to see at a glance who volunteered on what task at what time. And at a more strategic level, this kind of historical data helps organizations gauge the measurable impacts of their hard-working volunteers. After all, one of the best ways to appeal to volunteers, donors and other supporters is to show a track record of success.

Coordinating Volunteers Means Collaboration and Communication

Volunteer organizations need to enable quick, efficient collaboration at all hours of the day. And while many people use Excel spreadsheets for communication and collaboration, they simply aren’t designed for this task. Rather, Excel sheets are designed to be managed by one person at a time, explains Kasper Nymand, who works in marketing at Forecast.

Having too many people in a spreadsheet at once doesn’t lead to efficient communication; it leads to confusion.

Spreadsheets also create communication challenges. Whether its a meeting for volunteers or a public event for donors, it’s important that nonprofits can easily create and share events. The ability to send out invites to contact lists is one of the most important parts of planning a successful meeting, says Ravi Chalaka, CMO of the meeting scheduling software company Jifflenow.

“Spreadsheets are great for collecting a large pool of static data about potential attendees, but they can’t do much else,” he writes. “They can’t send out invitations and aren’t equipped for keeping an updated list of responses or schedule changes.”

In contrast to the challenges above, a dedicated team-management tool can make work much more efficient by:

  • allowing volunteer coordinators to easily assign tasks,
  • walling off sensitive information from collaborative workflows,
  • opening up clear lines of communication,
  • and tracking the achievements of individual volunteers so everyone can see what kind of impact their efforts have.

You have important work to do, and you don’t need to lose valuable time battling with the limitations of an Excel sheet. That’s why we built Zelos in the first place. Click here to learn more about how Zelos helps volunteer coordinators organize and empower their teams.

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