Monthly Archives: March 2014

greater good – online

I’ve become fascinated with The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, a research center devoted to the scientific understanding of individual happiness, compassion, strong social bonding, and altruistic behavior.

Some of their research involves online activities, and they frequently link to studies by others:

whether or not technology makes us lonely — Highlighting three studies that “paint a surprisingly complicated picture of the role of mobile devices in our social lives—and suggest steps we can take to make the most of technology.”

Are Some Social Ties Better Than Others? — Compares online networks with offline social networks, professional friends and others, linking to research to make its point.

How Your Teen Can Thrive Online — Compares two new books look at how the Internet is affecting teens—and what adults can do to help foster a healthy online life for kids.

Can Science Make Facebook More Compassionate? — Facebook is confronting cyberbullying and online conflict. Can a team of researchers help boost kindness among the site’s 900 million users?

Three Ways to Find Happiness on Facebook — According to some interesting research, social media arguably can make us feel more connected and less lonely.

They also link to research about volunteering.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if they would have a look at The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and start doing research on virtual volunteering?

Oh, and look, they involve volunteers! I wonder if any are online volunteers…

Advice for hackathons / one-day tech events looking for projects to hack

In a conversation with a friend participating in Myanmar’s first-ever hackathon to benefit causes or nonprofits, as well as reviewing recent, similar hackathons all over the world, and other one-day tech events for good like edit-a-thons, it seems to me that the easy elements of putting together these events is securing a space for the event and getting skilled volunteers for such, but the much harder part is identifying projects for these volunteers to work on.

I’m also wondering if any of these projects get evaluated six months or a year down the road, to see if the organization or cause that had an app or web site or database or whatever developed has benefited from the development. For instance – are these apps that are developed actually used six months later?

My favorite hackathon is Knowbility’s Accessibility Internet Rally, which brings together web developers, as volunteers to both learn accessible design techniques and then apply those techniques to building web sites for nonprofit organizations. It’s my favorite because the event is always so much fun, the volunteer web designers take the skills and knowledge they learn from the hackathon back to their workplaces, and the nonprofits still love their web sites many months later.

But it’s pretty easy to sell the idea to nonprofits of volunteer web designers re-creating their web sites. My review of hackathons and edit-a-thons shows that identifying other projects, like apps development, is MUCH more difficult. If you walk into a nonprofit and say, “Do you want an app to help you in your work?” most nonprofits won’t have an answer. Same if you say to most nonprofits, “What wikipedia pages do you wish had better info related to your organization’s mission?”

So I’ve been thinking: how can hackathon or edit-a-thon organizers identify projects or causes for the event? Here are some of my initial ideas. Please add more!

  1. Research nonprofits in your community, and get a sense of how many they are. If you are in a small town, you may want to make a list of every nonprofit in your town (which you can find on Guidestar) and then do some research to see which are active (do they have a web site? does the org’s name come up in a Google or Bing search? Can you find an email address for the org?). If you are in a large city, don’t be under the illusion that you can reach every one of them – even big cities with nonprofit associations cannot say that every nonprofit is a member.
  2. Ask organizers what nonprofits they work with in any way – as a volunteer, as the spouse of a volunteer, as an event participant, etc. In short, look for nonprofits where someone involved in your event already has a personnel connection.
  3. Review what apps previous hackathons elsewhere have created for nonprofits, or what edit-a-thon efforts have benefited nonprofits. Also see this very long list of apps that have been developed for specific nonprofits. Would such app development be appropriate for any nonprofits in your community, at least in theory?
  4. Meet with nonprofits more than once, and with as many different staff members as possible. Just sending an email announcing the event won’t be enough to get nonprofits interested in participating. Sit down with nonprofit representatives face-to-face and speak in non-tech language as much as possible. And remember that different staff members will have different ideas for needs – for instance, here is a list of apps I envisioned that managers of volunteers might want/need.
  5. Don’t meet with any nonprofit that you haven’t gotten to know via its web site – you want to already have an idea of what the nonprofit does, whom it serves, its mission, etc. You may want to do a mapping exercise with the nonprofit regarding how it reaches and serves clients, to identify ways an app or database might help. When asking them what their biggest challenges are, you might want to add “except for fundraising” because fundraising will almost always be the #1 challenge for every nonprofit, and most participants in hackathons want to work on projects related to nonprofit missions/programs, rather than fundraising (at least that’s my experience).
  6. Have a list, in writing, of what a nonprofit would be committing to if they decide to participate. What are the dates and times nonprofit staff would need to meet with organizers and to be onsite at the event? How many hours do you estimate their participation will require? What are your expectations of the nonprofit after the event in terms of evaluating whatever is developed as a result of your event?
  7. If you want to create a smart phone app, have data to show nonprofits that demonstrates that a significant number of potential volunteers, potential clients, and current volunteers and clients, have smart phones. If you cannot prove this, most nonprofits are not going to be interested in investing in smart phone app development.

Those are some of my ideas. What are yours? Share them in the comments here on my blog, or on this thread on TechSoup.

Someone else blogging about my volunteering

I often blog about my experience as a volunteer, even if I don’t say, explicitly, in the blog that the inspiration was from my own volunteering.

And as it turns out, sometimes, other people blog about me as a volunteer.

A conversation with Susan Ellis about some informal volunteering I do lead to her March 2014 hot topic about me and how I tried to make this volunteering more formal. Have a read, and add a comment on her blog!

how volunteers are managed & supported must be flexible

In association with The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook being published in January, co-author Susan Ellis and I started an online discussion group on LinkedIn, about virtual volunteering, in all its forms, including online mentoring, micro volunteering, crowdsourcing etc.

Recently, Susan started a thread about citizen science initiatives, where remote volunteers gather data and submit such – about the weather, about birds, about craters on the moon, and on and on – as part of a nonprofit or government initiative. Two of the best known citizen scientist initiatives are the National Audubon Society’s Great Backyard Bird Count and Christmas Bird Count. Wikipedia maintains a good list of citizen science projects.

But one person on the group took issue with the use of the term “Citizen Scientists” for crowdsourced volunteering. She said that “Citizen Scientists” are “trained volunteers who help gather biological data for the park system etc. by monitoring and inventorying the natural areas of parks” and that, unlike the virtual volunteering/crowdsourcing, what she was talking about was “Real volunteers, real contributions.”

It’s a reaction that is becoming increasingly rare but does still happen: virtual volunteering isn’t real volunteering. I hear it about other forms of unpaid, donated service as well:

unpaid internships at nonprofits aren’t really volunteering

people getting class credit for unpaid work at nonprofits aren’t really volunteers

people doing community service because of a court order aren’t really volunteers

and on and on.

I’ve already pointed out why Susan and I called our book The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook – because we’re tired of virtual volunteering being segregated out from discussions about volunteering, as a separate workshop, a separate book, a separate training, a separate chapter. That blog provides an answer to people who want the definition of volunteering to be oh-so-narrow.

But Heather Baumohl wrote a fantastic response on the LinkedIn group that I think is also a great response to all those who have such a narrow definition of volunteering. I’m sharing it here, with permission:

What’s interesting to me is that there are so many ways of engaging people to take part in something from the micro to the macro. Different volunteer opportunities have been taking place for many years but suddenly someone gives a ‘new’ name to an established volunteer activity and uses developing technology to make it easier for people to engage. This ‘new’ activity then influences the way volunteering is perceived and delivered until another ‘new’ activity is named and given profile. Some of the people taking part would not even know that they are volunteering. They engage because they are interested or passionate about animals; plants; climate change. Are there new ways of volunteering or is it all in a name and practice?

The volunteering landscape is flexible and needs to move and develop with technology and what is happening in the world. The opportunities are exciting and endless. So the way volunteers are managed and supported needs to be flexible too. 

And, yes, I get the irony that, despite our preaching about no more segregation, we’ve created a LinkedIn group to talk about virtual volunteering, specifically. But that’s because, currently, there’s no online community for the discussion of the management and support of volunteers that is open to all countries and that welcomes this kind of discussion. If there was, believe me, we’d be making sure virtual volunteering was included in those online discussions!

More information about The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

EU Aid Volunteers will include virtual volunteering

It’s official! In February 2014, members of the European Parliament, by a margin of 600 to 30, endorsed the European Union Aid Volunteers (EUAV) initiative that will facilitate more than 18,000 EU citizens, NGO employees and third country nationals over 18 to take part in humanitarian work worldwide in the next seven years.

This article, New EU aid volunteers program to make a ‘concrete, positive difference, notes that, “from 2014-2020, the European Commission expects to facilitate the deployment of more than 3,950 EU citizens to disaster-affected countries. An additional 1,990 humanitarian apprenticeships will be offered within the European Union, and some 10,000 home-based ‘online volunteers’ will be responsible for tasks ranging from graphic design and translation to providing advice and support. It is also expected that more than 4,400 people from local organizations in non-EU, disaster-affected countries will also benefit from the chance to undertake training and job shadowing within European humanitarian organizations.”

This official press release from Brussels, EU Aid Volunteers: the initiative takes shape, provides more details about this initiative, envisaged by the Treaty of Lisbon that created the EU. “Trained volunteers will have a variety of options: from performing online tasks from home, through work at the offices of humanitarian organisation inside the European Union, to deployment to EU-funded humanitarian operations around the world.”

In fact, onsite, in-the-field placements for EU Aid Volunteers are already being recruited.

More info:

It’s been my pleasure to be a part of putting together the online volunteering strategy for the EU Aid Volunteers initiative. That means providing:

  • Background on virtual volunteering – what it means in the EU context, what best practices have long been established, etc.
  • Details on the infrastructure and capacity that will be needed by host organizations and online volunteers in order to participate, including policies and procedures and how to address issues around confidentiality and safety
  • Possibilities for how online volunteering in support of the EU Aid Volunteers initiative might look, in terms of applications, screening, assignment creation, volunteer matching and supporting
  • How to integrate returned volunteer alumni networks and peer-to-peer online mentoring into the scheme
  • How to evaluate the online volunteering component of the EU Aid Volunteers initiative
  • How the contributions of online volunteers might be recognized
  • Recruitment of online volunteers to support EU Aid Volunteers and volunteer sending organizations
  • How to address potential risks and challenges, like protection of personal data, protection of confidential data of organizations, fear of negative behavior online, lack of understanding of and support for volunteer management among some agencies, labour concerns that can arise with volunteer engagement, and what to call online volunteers that support the EU Aid Volunteer initiative.

What I’ve loved most about this assignment is that it combines BOTH my background in international aid and development and my background regarding volunteer engagement, particularly virtual volunteering. I don’t often get to combine them!

This is my second European-related project in the last 12 months. The other involved researching “Internet-mediated volunteering” in the EU, to map how prevalent it is and how it might be further cultivated, as well as its potential relation to employability & social inclusion. There’s more information bout that project at this wiki. The final research is not yet published, but I did write this blog about “What I learned from researching virtual volunteering in Europe.”

More about me and my work, and my consulting services, including subjects on which I train.

Research on USA volunteerism excludes virtual volunteering

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that USA volunteerism rates declined by 1.1 percentage points to 25.4% in a year ending September 2013. BUT, the survey apparently had wording that left out virtual volunteering, which makes me question the validity of these numbers.

Here’s how BLS identified volunteering activities:

  • Coach, referee or supervise sports teams
  • Tutor or teach
  • Mentor youth
  • Be an usher, greeter, or minister
  • Collect, prepare, distribute or serve food
  • Collect, make or distribute clothing, crafts or good other than food
  • Fundraise or sell items to raise money
  • Provide counseling, medical care, fire/EMS or protective services
  • Provide professional or management assistance, including serving on a board or committee
  • Engage in music, performance, or other artistic activities
  • Engage in general labor, supply transportation to people

It’s 2014 and this is how BLS defines volunteering activities?! In these definitions, where do these typical virtual volunteering activities go?

  • Managing an online discussion group
  • Facilitating an online video chat/event
  • Translating a brochure from English to Spanish
  • researching subjects
  • creating web pages (designing the pages or writing the content)
  • editing or writing proposals, press releases, newsletter articles, video scripts, etc.
  • developing curricula
  • transcribing scanned documents
  • designing a database
  • monitoring the news to look for specific subjects
  • managing social media activities
  • tagging photos and files

Heck, where do volunteering activities like hackathons and wikipedia edit-a-thons go in BLS’s volunteering activity categories?!

How do we get the Bureau of Labor Statistics and others that research volunteering activities, like the Pew Research Center, to change their survey methods so that virtual volunteering activities and new forms of volunteering, like hackathons, get included in research about volunteering? Perhaps someone at each organization should buy, and read, The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook?

Also see this blog of suggestions for research about virtual volunteering, specifically.

Why did we call it the LAST guidebook?


In hearing about The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, you may have noticed two things:

    • My co-author, Susan Ellis, and I don’t talk about the guidebook as a revision of The Virtual Volunteering Guidebook that we wrote back in the 1990s. That’s because this new book was written from the ground up – we didn’t merely update that previous guidebook. While I think most of what we wrote in that first book remains valid, in terms of still being helpful advice to work with online volunteers, this new book provides substantially more information and reflects just how integrated the Internet is in our lives now versus back in the 1990s.
  • That standout word in the title: Last.

What do we mean by this being  The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook?

What we don’t mean is that there will or should never be a further need to write or talk about the latest developments in engaging volunteers online.

What we do mean is that, from this moment on, we hope that talk about virtual volunteering won’t be segregated to a separate book or separate chapter at the end of a book about volunteer management. Our dream is that this is a turning point regarding talk and training about volunteer engagement, and

    • any book about volunteer management, whether it’s a book about basic principals in general, group volunteering, episodic volunteering, skills-based volunteering, teen volunteering, whatever, has advice about using the Internet to support and involve volunteers integrated throughout the material. For instance, episodic volunteering, online, is called micro volunteering, yet workshops and other resources regarding episodic volunteering rarely talk about it – we hope that exclusion stops NOW.
  • any workshop about some aspect of volunteer management, whether it’s about the fundamentals of volunteer management, recruitment, risk management, adults working with children, whatever, fully integrates advice about using the Internet as a part of those activities.

In short, NO MORE SEGREGATION OF INTERNET-MEDIATED VOLUNTEERING. Virtual volunteering should not be an “add on” – not only in a book or training about volunteer engagement, but also, not in any volunteer engagement scheme at any organization. In fact, our dream is that we no longer hear about onsite volunteers as one group and online volunteers as another, separate group – how about we talk about volunteers, period?

Involving volunteers online is a practice that’s more than 35 years old. There are at least several thousand organizations using the Internet to support and involve volunteers. Actually, Susan and I believe virtual volunteering has, in some way, shape or form, been adopted by a majority of nonprofits and NGOs, whether they know it or not – we base this on the research that’s been done by others, our own research, and our observations in our extensive work with nonprofits. It’s even reflected in this discussion group regarding virtual volunteering on LinkedIn. And it’s based on this reality that we’re calling for full integration of virtual volunteering into any book or training about any aspect of volunteering.

Order information for The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

Also see our virtual volunteering wiki. Whereas the guidebook is written in a timeless manner as much as possible, focusing on suggested practices that the authors believe do not change, for the most part, this wiki will continually evolve as tracking and networking tech tools change, as new research is conducted, and as substantial news about virtual volunteering is announced.

If you read the book, I would so appreciate it if you could write and post a review of it on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble web sites (you can write the same review on both sites).

Me in Philadelphia; want to meet April 9, 10 or 11?

I’ll be in the Philadelphia area to present at a conference on April 8. In the week after the conference, I would really like to meet with nonprofits in the area – and whose work is focused on nonprofits in some way. It’s so rare that I’m in Philly, so I want to use this opportunity to meet with as many folks as possible. I may blog about the experience here.

I’d like any meetings to be super informal – no slide shows or what not on anyone’s part. I would just like to see a bit of what an organization or program does, sit around a table (possibly with pizza?) and talk. One of the subjects I’m particularly interested in is what you are hearing from nonprofits regarding how they involve volunteers – or want to, and the challenges they face in involving volunteers, etc.

Best days for me to meet are April 9th, 10th or 11th.

Give me a shout in the comments section if you are interested. Just tell me a little about your organization or program or the focus of your research work.


Penn Social Impact Doctoral Fellows Program

The University of Pennsylvania’s Nonprofit Leadership (NPL) Program invites doctoral student researchers to apply for the 2014 Penn Social Impact Doctoral Fellows Program.

Facilitated by Peter Frumkin, Director of the NPL Program, the program will explore emerging issues in the world of nonprofit organizations, voluntary action, philanthropy and international civil society. The program is June 7 – July 1, 2014 at The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Students are expected to submit a draft research paper that they would like to refine and prepare for publication during the program. Housing near the Penn campus and $3,000 stipends are provided to all 2014 Summer Fellows.

Eligibility: Graduate students currently enrolled in PhD programs at degree-granting institutions

Submission deadline: Friday, March 14, 2014

Submission requirements: A resume, draft research paper (unpublished) on a topic related to the nonprofit sector, and an abstract. Send to by March 14, 2014.

rampant misinformation online re: Mumbai (from the archives)

This blog originally appeared on a different blog host on 28 November 2008. If any URL does not work, type it into to see if there is an archived version there. For more information about why I am republishing these old blogs, scroll down to the bottom of this blog entry.

I’m intensely interested in how rumors and myth derail humanitarian efforts — or affect our understanding of various events, both current and historical. So yesterday, as I watched CNN reporters trumpet again and again how easy it was for “ordinary people” to find and disseminate information regarding the Mumbai attacks via various Internet tools such as blogs and Twitter, as well as cell phone text messaging, I wondered how long it would be before CNN started reporting unverified items from these Internet sources and ended up repeating things that would turn out not at all to be true.

I think it took approximately 15 minutes after that thought before a reporter started retracting some of the things being reported online that CNN had repeated. Suddenly, cyberspace wasn’t such a great example of “citizen journalism” after all.

In CNN’s own story about this online phenomenon today, they admit that a vast number of the posts on Twitter amounted to unsubstantiated rumors and wild inaccuracies. As blogger Tim Mallon put it, “far from being a crowd-sourced version of the news it (Twitter) was actually an incoherent, rumour-fueled mob operating in a mad echo chamber of tweets, re-tweets and re-re-tweets… During the hour or so I followed on Twitter there were wildly differing estimates of the numbers killed and injured – ranging up to 1,000.”

Amy Gahran has posted Responsible Tweeting: Mumbai Provides Teachable Moment that includes four excellent tips for people who want to micro-blog the news as it happens. It emphasizes checking sources and correcting information that you have found out is incorrect, and cautions journalists to remember that everything you read on the Internet or your cell phone isn’t necessarily true (how sad that they even have to be reminded…)

Sometimes misinformation is bad, or even worse, than no information at all. As with any communications tool, when it comes to instant networking tools like blogs, Twitter, and cell phones, use with caution. And TV journalists — please re-read your journalism 101 text books.

Why I’ve republished this old blog:

I have long been passionate about debunking urban legends, and that I’m very concerned at how easy online and phone-based tools, from email to Twitter, are making it to promote rumors and myths. Five to 10 years ago, I was blogging on this subject regularly. The web host where I published these blogs is long gone, and I’m now trying to find my many blogs on the subject of how folklore, rumors (or rumours) and urban myths Interfere with development work, aid/relief efforts and community health initiatives, so I can republish them here. I’ll be publishing one or two of these every Saturday until they are all back online.