Digital Volunteering in 2020

Thomas Romanis, AAIA Volunteer Manager, had to pivot to digital volunteering in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He tells us how it was done.

My initial responsibilities as Volunteer Manager for the Australian Archaeological Institute of Athens’ Zagora project during early 2020 were very straightforward: coordinate with Dr Kristen Mann the recruitment and placement of new volunteers, placing them with senior volunteers for training; and to oversee the overall activities of the volunteers in the program. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.


Located on the Greek island of Andros, Zagora has been the focus of extensive fieldwork and archaeological research since the 1960s. Under the direction of the late Professor Alexander Cambitoglou (who would later go on to found the AAIA), the first excavation season took place in 1967. Excavations revealed a well-preserved Iron Age settlement which had been occupied in the 9th and 8th centuries BC. The abandonment of the site at the end of the 8th century, and the lack of any subsequent occupation, offers a rare view of life in an Iron Age Greek community.

The AAIA has been responsible for the curation and study of Zagora, and the extensive site archives since the inception of the AAIA in 1980. Two volumes, Zagora and Zagora 2 have been published and a third volume is currently in preparation. This final publication of the original excavations also heralds the full digitization of the legacy archives, and their presentation via a multi-media website to be launched in tandem with the printed work. The AAIA Volunteer Program plays a vital role in the creation, organisation and curation the Zagora digital archives, and volunteers gain critical, transferrable skills as part of their archaeological training. Our volunteers scan archival documents, photographs, plans and drawings of the excavations in progress, the architecture and finds as recovered, and documents and images generated during analyses by the researchers in the field and in the museum. The volunteers input data and create relationship links for these archives in the Heurist database tailored specifically for Zagora by the University of Sydney’s arts eResearch team. They are also learning to map excavation data in GIS and ensure that the quality and accuracy of the data is maintained in the digitised original documents, the Heurist database, and the ArcGIS geodatabase.

Volunteer Manager: A Changing Role

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic rendered many of the traditional volunteer tasks impractical and nearly impossible to complete as they had been in the pre-Covid era. Onsite activities were banned to prevent the spread of the virus. The GIS training we were to begin to complete that critical work was cancelled. Volunteers were no longer able to fulfil their roles or socialise with each other. The morale of our existing volunteers, which had been stellar, was starting to crumble. Team communication was reduced to mass emails to pass on essential information and engage with the cohort. Suffice to say, the AAIA volunteer structure needed to be changed in order to continue running.

The original Zagora Project volunteer training session

The recruitment and training process for new volunteers was wholly disrupted by the ban on onsite activities. Face to face contact has traditionally formed a major part of the volunteer experience as they got to know each other at an induction day held within the CANESSA boardroom, and then develop a team dynamic while working alongside each other in the AAIA offices. We needed to consider innovative ways of inducting and training new volunteers whilst providing them with necessary support. There needed to be a method of fostering a valuable volunteer program without a physical presence at the Institute.

So, what did we do?

Reshaping the Volunteer System

The first issue that needed to be resolved was to understand which roles could continue externally, and what onsite activities could be converted from on site to remote access.

Going digital: A Pivot to Data Entry

The AAIA volunteer system benefitted enormously from the fact that many of its roles already heavily involved digital applications before COVID-19 began. The AAIA had previously placed a strong emphasis on digitising thousands of archaeological records, reports, photos and other materials held within their archives. An advantage of this was that volunteers did not need to rely on accessing the physical journals to continue data entry as they had remote access to digital copies of scanned pages.

Many of our volunteers already had duties that focussed on data entry and the digital input of these materials into a Heurist database. Roles such as the physical task of scanning photos and records, and streamlining the existing database content were also common prior to the pandemic. All of this provided volunteers with considerable resource materials which they could engage with remotely. This meant that if the volunteers had access to the database, with access enough primary digitised content they could continue to consistently complete further data entry or analysis roles. The Open Science Framework (OSF), an online platform for collaborative research and cloud-sharing, had also been employed as a resource for volunteers to gain access to numerous texts, catalogues and reports related to the project, and work on shared work-flow and data management documents. This provided them with a strong set of supplementary materials to aid in their duties. A pivot in focus to these elements would provide the basis for the majority of future volunteer roles in a COVID-19 environment.

An example of some of the digital records AAIA volunteers use in their work.

One major drawback of this digital focus was that roles that relied on physical attendance to complete, such as reorganising the library archives or continuing to scan more materials, had to be indefinitely suspended. Further challenges existed in relying solely on the digital format. If the quality of the image was poor or faded, it became difficult to see and log the details of information held within the image. There was also a problem in that not all records and materials had been scanned. This meant if a volunteer wished to cross-reference something but needed access to physical material to do so, they could not. This limited the scope of resources they could use to further their research and supplement their work.

Taking Volunteer Induction Online with Zoom

The use of Zoom, software designed for video and audio conferencing for distance and remote users, greatly eased accessibility issues. This software enabled interviews for the new recruits to be conducted online without creating any unnecessary anxiety that may have been caused by asking them to attend a physical interview in the midst of a global pandemic. It also allowed for the orientation day to be run via hosting several volunteers in a shared meeting.

Zoom’s homepage

The screen-sharing option allowed Kristen and I to showcase pre-prepared Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. This provided an engaging experience for the volunteers and one that fostered interaction and conversation with the content being shown to them. The use of Zoom was not without its logistical problems, however.

The most consistent issue for both the induction day and the training of new recruits was conflicting availability for the recruits, team leaders, Kristen and myself. We are a volunteer program, to which students and colleagues give generously of their free time. Work and study requirements, as well as personal commitments, severely limited which days and which hours each individual was able to attend a shared orientation day. The length of the orientation session, roughly over two hours, also needed to be taken into consideration as it was a long time period for the volunteers to commit to. Mutually agreeable days, let alone hours, were few and far between. We were reluctant to run multiple introduction sessions as the social interaction was a vital component of the sessions. Induction was a chance to introduce the new team to each other and to their leaders. Hence, we stressed the need to find a single time when everyone was available to meet. Each person was emailed and asked to submit their available hours to Kristen and I and we compared these to estimate an approximate period that could be close, if not in, everyone’s availability. A second email was sent to each attendee to confirm if this was a suitable time or if it needed to be adjusted further. Thankfully, the selected time was good for all parties and the introduction session ran smoothly.      

Training the Volunteers using Zoom 

The next issue that needed to be resolved was that of team training in lieu of being able to physically show them their roles. Traditionally, the orientation day would act as a brief overview of general volunteer roles and how to use the database, find archival records, interpret archaeological reports and similar activities. After this, new volunteers would be taught more specific elements of their duties by AAIA members who could supervise them and answer questions until the newcomer gained confidence. This was physically implausible given new circumstances. Many AAIA staff members had to quickly reorganise their workloads to continue research and project development with a lack of access to onsite resources. This limited the amount of time they could allocate to training to new volunteers. Consequently, volunteer training needed to be heavily restructured in order to create effective learning experiences.

Kristen suggested forming volunteer teams led by a senior volunteer, who would teach and oversee the newer team members on how to access and use the database and analyse archaeological reports. Three members with strong volunteering experience and knowledge of the archaeological materials were invited to lead a team. Kristen emphasised selecting individuals who had already displayed an interest in teaching new volunteers so that it would be a rewarding experience for all parties and not felt as a hindrance to the senior members. The students who put up their hands for this role were then given specific training in leadership skills, such as communication and listening, navigating conflict or personality differences, and how to recognise the strengths of different people in the team and adapt accordingly. They were also given guidance in different ways to approach the work of both training new volunteers and completing the task-based work each team was assigned. But in large part, these teams were envisioned and trained to be self-autonomous, to be able to organise the times when they would work together on the data, and to plan how best to proceed with the work according to the different needs, skills and availability of each team. Zoom was again employed to provide visual and audio communication between the teams and to allow the leaders to share their screens to provide vital demonstrations on how to perform technical tasks.

The team leaders showed considerable ability to teach the newcomers, evident in the successful training of the new recruits whilst relying exclusively on digital platforms. The newcomers were effectively taught the required methodologies and insight needed to work efficiently, and to understand the supplementary materials that were available to them. Within two weeks, volunteer inputs from the newcomers were being logged and a level of consistency was returning to the AAIA volunteer program.

Team sessions, where the groups would Zoom in and complete their volunteer tasks together, were established as a weekly occurrence. A feeling of confidence was also developing, and many of the team leaders noted few, if any, problems learning and engaging with the material. Several volunteers even expressed interest in further responsibilities and opportunities, such as writing blogs documenting their experiences and interests. Overall, the restructuring of volunteer training into team-orientated practices yielded considerable and sustainable results.     

Morale and Communication

Team morale remained a challenge, relying on the most basic lines of communication in the disorder of COVID-19. Yet, there was a strong sense of comradery developing amongst the volunteers as they were eager to form connections with fellow peers with similar interests and backgrounds. In a poll that was later undertaken on the current morale of the volunteers, every participant noted the prospect of socialising was a central component of wanting to physically return to the library where the volunteers usually worked. In this sense, the program served a very strong social purpose for the volunteers. For this reason, it was felt that there needed to be a way to maintain social ties between members.

Kristen and I engaged with Yvonne (who manages the AAIA social media accounts) and proposed the formation of a social media page on Facebook to solve these issues. The Group page facilitated conversations about both the AAIA and personal interests, the sharing of images, videos and polls, and recent updates about the AAIA that the volunteers needed to be informed about. The only entry requirements were that a volunteer had a Facebook account and that they opt to join the closed group. In the case where someone lacked an account or interest in the page, I would continue to email them updates or to otherwise communicate with them. I set up the page and added several photo galleries of previous AAIA excavations so those who had not actually seen the site could gain a sense of perspective. Emails were sent to each member inviting them to join the page and within three days, half of the listed AAIA volunteers were added. The group page has proven to be a very effective way of spreading information easily and fostering a new type of team communication and camaraderie that is embedded in the digital. Because of this, the social element of the program has been able to continue and further develop unity amongst the volunteers.

The first post of the Zagora volunteer social media page, the AAIA Legends

Never Waste a Crisis

This brief summary details some of the problems the COVID-19 pandemic produced for the AAIA volunteer program and lists several methods of overcoming these issues. While the virus presented a severe hindrance, it also allowed for new opportunities to explore and experiment with different forms of volunteering. It also provided a useful example of how volunteering no longer needs to rely on physical, internal participation and that participants can feel fulfilment through the completion of engaging online tasks. If you are also seeking to develop an online method of volunteering or to transfer physical roles into digital based ones in the wake of COVID-19 or another issue, consider the following:

  • What roles can be transferred to online or external positions and what roles need to be minimised because that can’t be achieved?
  • How are you going to handle issues such as training new members or maintaining consistency? Is there conferencing software or shared document databases that could aid this?
  • How are you going to develop clear and efficient lines of communication? Have you investigated a social media site or app for possible use?
  • Will the social element of your program be negatively impacted by converting it to online? Have options such as social media or online conferences been used to restore a level of social interaction?
  • What are ways to make sure the roles and engagement methods are sustainable?
  • Do you have enough digital materials and resources to ensure long-term activities for the volunteers?

Thomas Romanis is a second year Master of Museum and Heritage Studies student at the University of Sydney and has been assisting as volunteer manager and web consultant since early 2019. He has a strong interest in digital applications within the museum and heritage industry, having completed his Master’s dissertation on changing technologies and their impact on museum audience engagement.

Related post:

Emma Jones, “Covid 19 and Archaeology: A Lesson in Making Things Work”


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
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