On the Volunteers & Technology forum at TechSoup, someone asked me what I thought the top five potential research areas are regarding online volunteering.
My answer is there, but I’ll put it here as well, with some additional info.
First, I should note that no institution is doing online research regarding online volunteering, and no one person is consistently doing it, including me — I do it when I can, as I have no funding to do such (and, actually, I haven’t been seeking any). I’ve done more in the last two years, for the revision of the Virtual Volunteering Guidebook (to be released early next year), than I’ve done in the 10 years before — but I was stunned at the lack of research by other people I could reference.
Studies regarding volunteering don’t include anything about online volunteering, despite the practice being more than 30 years old. I get an email about twice a year from some graduate student wanting to do a study about online volunteering, and I’m happy to help them, but their topic is always the same, and not at all what’s needed by the field: the motivation of online volunteers. Snooze.
For practitioners — as in nonprofit and government staff that want to be successful in engaging online volunteers — I think the priority research needs regarding online volunteering are the following, but not in any order of priority — any of them would be hugely welcomed by practitioners:
- What are the factors for success in an online volunteering completing a volunteering assignment.
- What are the factors that keep an online volunteer supporting an organization for at least a year.
For those first two, practitioners have been talking about this, and I’ve been talking to them about it, but I haven’t been researching it in a consistent way that would meet rigorous academic standards. For those who have been involving online volunteers themselves: we know the answers, for the most part, but the only actual academic research is from back in the 1990s. There really needs to be current research, and not by me. Such research would be an affirmation that’s really needed by practitioners in mobilizing resources to involve volunteers and, as there are a few people running around claiming loudly that no screening, no orientation, no prepping of online volunteers is needed at all, that online volunteers will magically complete their assignments without organizations being so “bureaucratic”, it means a lot of volunteer managers can get push back from senior management when asking for critically-needed resources to properly screen and support online volunteers.
Other research priorities, IMO:
- Are there management needs that are different for online volunteers representing different groups (by age, by geographic region, by profession, by education level, etc.) to complete assignments and to be inspired to continue supporting an organization over months rather than just days or weeks.
- How much does involving online volunteers cost – a comparison of at least 20 organizations in the USA (or any one country, for that matter).
- What differences are there in the success of involving online volunteers in non-English-speaking countries in Europe in comparison with North America?
- What differences are there in the success of involving online volunteers in developing or transitional countries where Internet access is available to large portions of the population (India, Nigeria, South Africa, Pakistan, Poland, etc.) in comparison with North America?
Okay, that was six instead of five. Those last two are needed hugely. Online volunteering is happening in other countries, whether the NGOs there admit it or not. I’ll never forget doing a training in Germany for about a dozen folks, and once I explained what online volunteering was, it turned out four organizations there were involving online volunteers — they hadn’t realized it, however. Spain is doing a LOT regarding online volunteering — but no one is tracking it/researching it (I’d say they are ahead of even the UK in terms of online volunteer engagement — they were as of 2001, anyway).
Now, what I didn’t say on the TechSoup forum: why aren’t academics, organizations and institutions including online volunteering in their studies regarding volunteering? Why do they continue to ignore a practice that’s more than 30 years old, and has been talked about widely — in newspapers, at conferences, in online discussion groups — since the late 1990s? Here is why I think that’s the case:
- Intellectual laziness on the part of of the organizations — and, in some cases, on the part of individual researchers.
- These organizations and institutions, and many academics, are simply not in touch with what is happening on the front lines of volunteer engagement. They don’t participate in online discussion groups about nonprofits, with practitioners, for instance. Their silence is deafening.
- They do not listen to others outside their immediate circle — and they let funders, even from the corporate world, define their research topics. Try writing, say, the Corporation for National Service or the Pew Research Center about online volunteering and the need for research or the need for it to be consistently included in volunteerism research, and see if they respond. Yes, I’ve tried, more than once. No, they never wrote back. I gave up.
- Traditional volunteer managers aren’t asking for online volunteering research. While there are thousands and thousands of organizations engaging with volunteers online, traditional volunteer-involving organizations continue to dominate the agenda of large volunteerism-focused conferences, and for them, online volunteering, a practice more than 30 years old, remains some radical new thing they fear.