Volunteerism research should include virtual volunteering!

The NCVO UK Civil Society Almanac , published by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), maps the the size and scope of the voluntary sector in the United Kingdom.

The Independent Sector does the same for the USA, as well as promoting the oh-so-dreadful dollar value of volunteer time (which does so much to reinforce the idea that volunteers are a great way to save money and replace paid staff). The Volunteering and Civic Life in America report from the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship also provides stats on volunteering in the USA.

You can find statistics online for volunteerism in Australia.

Through these and other research organizations, you can find out about how many organizations are involving volunteers, or the demographics of volunteers in certain countries.

But here’s what you can’t find out:

  • how many organizations are using the Internet to recruit, screen and/or support volunteers
  • how many people are using the Internet as a part of their volunteering service
  • the demographics of people using the Internet as a part of their volunteering service
  • etc.

Why? Because, even in 2013, these organizations and other researchers are STILL not asking these questions as a part of their studies / data collection regarding volunteering.

Virtual volunteering – including microvolunteering – has been practiced as long as there has been an Internet – making it a practice more than 30 years old. The Virtual Volunteering Project did the first research regarding virtual volunteering in the last 1990s. References to using the Internet as a part of volunteering service are now common place in trainings, books and articles. Yet… these research organizations continue to ignore online tools as a part of volunteering.

I am regularly asked for data regarding online volunteering – how many organizations are engaging people online, who is volunteering online, etc. And I cannot answer those questions with hard data because, since the expiration of the Virtual Volunteering Project, there is no one collecting the data!

And it’s worth noting: back in 2012, myself and Rob Jackson drafted and circulated a survey regarding software used to manage volunteer information. The purpose of the survey was to gather some basic data that might help organizations that involve volunteers to make better-informed decisions when choosing software, and to help software designers to understand the needs of those organizations. We published the results of the survey here (in PDF). But we learned some things that had nothing to do with software.

We asked a lot of questions that didn’t related directly to software, like about how many volunteers these organizations managed, as well as what volunteers did. We expected the percentage of volunteers that worked onsite to be huge. We were very surprised, and pleased, to find, instead, that so many organizations that responded to our survey involved volunteers that:

  • worked offsite, with no direct supervision by staff
  • worked directly with clients
  • worked directly with the general public
  • worked online from their home, work, school or other offsite computer or handheld device
    (virtual volunteering, including microvolunteering)
  • engaged in on-off activities, like a beach cleanup – otherwise known as episodic volunteering

You can see the breakdown for yourself here.

Wouldn’t it be great if NCVO, the Independent Sector, CNCS, the Points of Light Foundation, universities, and anyone researching anything to do with volunteering anywhere would start asking questions related to online tools? Wouldn’t it be great if finally, in 2013, they finally understood that virtual volunteering is an established, widespread practice and is worthy of inclusion in all discussions and research about volunteering?

I guess I’ll keep dreaming. Or move to Canada. Because, OF COURSE, the Canada report on volunteering in that country includes statistics on virtual volunteering.

2 thoughts on “Volunteerism research should include virtual volunteering!

  1. Mike Bright

    Hi Jayne
    I have started to document the location and quantity of microvolunteering platforms around the world. It’s based on my knowledge and my definition of what I consider to be a platform rather than an MV action. It’s a starter for ten, to display what’s out there, rather than tackling the questions you ask in your blog post above. You can view the map here:

    There has been some discussion recently between myself and Hannes Jahnert of Zivicloud to document online volunteering platforms. It’s ongoing, so watch this space!

  2. jcravens Post author

    That’s great, Mike. One thing though: MOST online volunteers, including those that engage in byte-sized or “microvolunteering” assignments, connect directly with nonprofit organizations/NGOs, rather than going through third-party sites. That isn’t at all to say that such sites aren’t important – they are! For some people they are the only way to find online volunteering work, and for a few organizations, they provide the best way to recruit online volunteers.

    Unfortunately for researchers, the people volunteering through these sites are a tiny percentage of the overall number of people who are volunteering online in some way. These sites are *definitely* worth looking at, and their users are definitely worth surveying – the same is true of a traditional volunteering center as well. But to get a sense of the depth of online volunteering – how wide spread it is, who is doing it, what organizations are creating online assignments, etc. — we’ve got to get these research bodies that measure traditional volunteering to start asking the right questions of the thousands of organizations they talk to directly.

    Thanks so much for keeping me in the loop – please keep it up. And I hope you will start posting more data to UKVPMs – and encouraging those that use your service to post about their experiences to UKVPMs as well. That would be a great way to create more awareness among charities and NGOs about just how widespread the practice of online volunteering, including microvolunteering, is.


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