What I learned from researching virtual volunteering in Europe

As I’ve blogged about 7 times already (and now, 8!): Since early April 2013, I’ve been researching Internet-mediated volunteering (virtual volunteering, online volunteering, microvolunteering, online mentoring, etc.) in European Union (EU) countries. This research is for the ICT4EMPL Future Work project being undertaken by the Information Society Unit of the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. As part of this project, I created a wiki of all of the various resources I used for my research, and it includes a list of online volunteering-related recruitment or matching web sites that are either focused on or allow for the recruitment of online volunteers from EU-countries, and a list of more than 60 organisations in EU countries that involve online volunteers in some way, either through a formal virtual volunteering or microvolunteering program, or just as a part of their volunteer engagement, without calling it virtual volunteering or any other associated name.

The research and analysis for this project is pretty much done. The overall ICT4EMPL project is focused on employability and social inclusion, so all of my analysis in the narrative for the EU ties back to those goals. The final paper should be available before the end of the year from the Information Society Unit of the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, and may be published in a journal by the University of Hertfordshire.

But here’s some analysis about what I found in my research that either aren’t in the paper I’ve submitted, but I think they should be out in public for discussion, or, that are in the paper, but I wanted to highlight them in particular for discussion:

  • Virtual volunteering is happening all over Europe. It’s not a new practice in Europe, just as it isn’t in North America. There are thousands of people in Europe that are engaged in virtual volunteering – and as I found 60 organizations involving online volunteers in a very short time, I image there are far, far more that I didn’t find, just because of my lack of skills in languages other than English. True, virtual volunteering still isn’t as widespread in Europe as it is in the USA, but its well-established and seems to be growing.
  • Traditional volunteer centers in Europe are ignoring virtual volunteering. The web sites of volunteer centers in European capitals, as well as most national web sites focused on volunteering in Europe by Europeans, were of little help in this research – they rarely mentioned online volunteers, virtual volunteering, microvolunteering, etc. Also, many of their online search engines for volunteering opportunities offer no way to list virtual opportunities. What is it going to take for this to change?
  • Spain is the European leader regarding virtual volunteering. Organizations involving online volunteers and web sites talking about voluntarios virtualesvoluntarios en línea, voluntarios digitales, voluntarios en red, microvoluntariosvoluntariat virtual, voluntaris digitals, voluntariat virtual abound in Spain. I could have done this report JUST on Spanish virtual volunteering and had 50 pages of narrative! Fundación Hazloposible, an NGO established in 1999 in Spain, launched HacesFalta.org the following year, an online portal for the promotion of volunteerism, including virtual volunteering, and its been growing ever since. Academic articles about this and other online efforts are plentiful. But why did Spain embrace virtual volunteering so early, and why did it spread so quickly, compared to other European countries? I would love to hear your thoughts as to why.
  • Lack of French virtual volunteering efforts. French is spoken by 74 million people, including in 31 francophone countries of Africa. It’s one of the official working languages of the United Nations. And, yet, information about virtual volunteering in French is sparse; even when the France-based France Bénévolat, talks about it, they just mention the phrase and then link to Canadian materials. Why the lack of information in French – and the apparent lack of interest in France regarding virtual volunteering, compared to Spain and England in particular?
  • Where are the online discussion groups for managers of volunteers in European countries? The United Kingdom has the wonderful UKVPMs, which brings together hundreds of people that work with volunteers, regularly discussing everything from legislation to day-to-day challenges in working with volunteers. There’s E-Voluntasun canal para compartir experiencias de intervención e investigación sobre voluntariado. But where are the discussion groups in French, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, German, Czech, Polish, Estonian, Swedish and on and on? In fact, where are the associations of managers of volunteers in these countries – not the volunteer centres, that promote volunteerism, but the associations that talk about effective management and support of volunteers? I found nothing on the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) site nor on the European Volunteer Centre (CEV) about such groups. Without such associations/communities of practice, there’s little chance of volunteering be elevated to the level of importance many of us believe it deserves, far beyond “feel good” activities. What will it take to change this?
  • Where are materials in languages other than English to help organizations involve online volunteers? I don’t mean just the Guía de voluntariado virtual, the translation of the Virtual Volunteering Guidebook I co-authored with Susan Ellis back in the 1990s, or translations of web materials I’ve written. I don’t mean just the UN’s Online Volunteering service English materials translated into French. I mean advice written in Spanish about Spanish experiences for a Spanish audience, or advice written in French about Francophone African experiences for a Francophone African audience, regarding how to identify tasks that might be undertaken by online volunteers, how to screen online candidates for volunteering, how to keep online volunteers motivated, how to supervise and support online volunteers, how to create an online mentoring program, how to create microvolunteering opportunities how to work with virtual teams of online volunteers, and on and on? I am so hungry to read a non-USA perspective about how to create online volunteering tasks, how to support online volunteers, the benefits of such engagement for organizations (not just the volunteers), etc. Are these out there and I’ve missed them? And I am ready to write an impassioned endorsement for anyone who wants to undertake such an endeavor for his or her respective country/region.
  • There are far, far, far more efforts in Europe to promote virtual volunteering, including microvolunteering, to potential volunteers than to volunteer hosting organizations. I found lots of material geared towards potential online volunteers, or talking about online volunteers and how they benefit, but scant information about why organizations in Europe involve volunteers, and why they should. Without focusing much, much more on hosting organizations, Europe is in danger of creating many thousands of disappointed people – people that wanted to volunteer online but couldn’t find tasks to do.

Those are some the findings I think might be of most interest to those that work with volunteers. Would love to hear your thoughts about these findings. 

8 thoughts on “What I learned from researching virtual volunteering in Europe

  1. Hannes Jähnert (@foulder)

    Dear Jayne

    Thanks for this line up of your findings and questions after your research project. I am really looking forward to the paper you’re going to publish.

    It is very interessting for me that Spain should be the leader in terms of Online-Volunteering in Europe. Sometimes I heard from spanish projects as well as polish and brittish projects but in my view it wasn’t that much. Perhaps this is a result of the plurality of languages in Europe. Even if you speak two or three languages and use all the webtools out there it’s never enough to keep up to date.

    What you’re writing about traditional organizations is mainly true. But I know shining examples in Germany e.g. the young Caritas projects I wrote about to you via mail and the ‘traditional’ Online-Volunteering in German nature reserves (such as photographing nice images for the website). How to spread that good examples is a good question. I think we have to collect more experience in managing Online-Volunteers. Its not only the sphere of ‘traditional organizations’ that mainly ignore new ways of volunteering such als Online- and Micro-Volunteering it’s also the sphere of volunteer managers that are following (not discussing) a wide spread model of volunteer management in that Online-Volunteering has no space by now. (I try to fix that with my concept of the New Volunteer Management)

    So, in Germany there are materials and publications about Online-Volunteering and its Management. Unfortunately mostly written by my own. But since 2008, when I began to work in this field, ther’re more and more volunteer managers out there that are interessted in how to work with Online-Volunteers, how to use Social Media while volunteer management and so on — that’s the progress in Germany since 2008


  2. jcravens Post author

    There’s certainly a fair share of online volunteering in the UK and in Germany, but, indeed, the leadership on this in Europe has to go to Spain!

  3. Claudio

    Dear Jayne,

    my name is Claudio Tocchi and I am member of the Centre for Iniziative Europe (www.ciepiemonte.it), an Italian association mainly working on the fields of European integration, citizenship and migration. In the last weeks we started running (together with other NGO and associations) a section of a blog (http://blogvol.ideasolidale.org/) focusing on volunteering in Italy and throughout Europe.

    I read with much interest your post and I were interested in asking you a few questions, maybe interviewing you for one of the next entries. Would it be possible? In case, please contact me on my email, claudiotocchi85@gmail.com

    Many thanks,


  4. jcravens Post author

    Hello, Claudio! I’ve written you an email, and am happy to answer any questions you have via email or Skype or the phone – whatever you prefer. And I’m checking out your web site now – thanks so much!

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  6. Mike Bright

    Re: Traditional volunteer centers in Europe are ignoring virtual volunteering.
    In the past, I’ve approached all the volunteer centres in the UK to promote microvolunteering. You can see which centres have promoted it either on a one-off or ongoing basis via the map at the bottom of this page http://helpfromhome.org/campaigns/volunteer-centres However, UK volunteer centres still fall far short of listing microvolunteering + virtual opportunities on their websites. IMHO, they’re going to have embrace it at some point, as they can’t keep on ignoring the increasing rise of smartphone, tablet usage and their ability to enable people to virtually volunteer on the go. I believe it’s a matter of continually drumming home the message to UK volunteer managers that such opportunities exist out there. I also believe the lead needs to come from UK national volunteering databases. I hear on the grapevine that UK’s Do-it.org website may embrace virtual / microvolunteering opps on their database next year. If they do, then that could act as a springboard for UK volunteer centres to follow suit.

    Re: Where are materials in languages other than English to help organizations involve online volunteers?
    Help From Home http://helpfromhome.org/ is currently having part of it’s website translated into Spanish, which will mean our guides on how to microvolunteer / create microvolunteering actions will be available to the Spanish speaking world. Projected release for this is likely to occur in Jan / Feb 2014.

    Hope that helps

  7. jcravens Post author

    Thanks so much for responding! Great that your site will be translated into Spanish, Mike. Definitely will be helpful. But just to be clear – what I mean are materials developed in Spanish, developed in French, etc. I’d really like to read more original materials from other countries, not just English materials translated into other languages.

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