I get these questions frequently:
How many virtual volunteering / digital volunteering or microvolunteering projects are there?
How many people are engaged in virtual volunteering?
The answer: NO ONE KNOWS.
No one can.
Why can’t those questions be answered? Because no one is tracking the number of projects nor the number of volunteers engaged in such. Why is no one tracking such? Because IT’S IMPOSSIBLE. Why is it impossible? Because:
- Most volunteering tasks – virtual or not – aren’t officially registered anywhere, maybe not even in the organization where they are happening. Individual organizations struggle to count how many volunteers actively engaged with them in any one year! You can’t even rely on web sites where organizations recruit volunteers, since not every organization use such sites – nonprofits and NGOs often use their own web sites and social media channels to recruit volunteers for online tasks, in addition to offline means – announcing the availability of online tasks at an onsite meeting, for instance. I can’t count how many times an organization tells me they aren’t involving online volunteers, and after I explain to them what virtual volunteering is, they realize, in fact, they ARE involving digital volunteers.
- Many, and maybe most, organizations involving volunteers virtually don’t think of themselves as involving online volunteers, and most people that become volunteers online don’t think of themselves as online volunteers or digital volunteers. People volunteer, period. Organizations involve volunteers, period. Many, and maybe most, organizations don’t distinguish when a person is an onsite volunteer versus an online volunteer.
- No one can say how many group volunteering events have happened in any given area. Or family volunteering. Or teen volunteering. Or pro bono service. Again – none of these are officially, regularly registered anywhere, and are often not even tracked and recorded within the agency or department that organized such!
- The terms volunteer and volunteering are contested terms, in any language (not just English); there is not universal agreement on their definitions and they are not uniformly used the same way – if they are used at all by organizations (they often are not). There’s also not agreement on terms like virtual volunteering, micro volunteering, digital volunteering or cyber volunteering. When we aren’t all using the same words regarding online volunteers, how can we even begin to try to count such?
It was a huge challenge for me to do a research paper in 2013 regarding Internet-mediated Volunteering in the EU (virtual volunteering). I made it clear to the EU agency that hired me that I would NOT be finding every organization in Europe engaged in virtual volunteering – I wouldn’t even come close – because it would be impossible, for all the reasons I have already mentioned, plus because of the multitude of languages in Europe. In several weeks reviewing just online materials, with my limited language abilities and Google Translate, I found 60 organizations involving online volunteers – but imagine how many I would have found if I could have visited ever NGO umbrella organization in every country and explained what is meant by virtual volunteering – like so many people that attend my workshops, they would realize that they have been working with online volunteers for YEARS and didn’t know it.
It’s the same with hackathons. Knowbility, in Austin, Texas, has been doing hackathons since the 1990s, but they never called them that – the term didn’t become widely known and used until fairly recently. How many other nonprofits have been doing hackathons for years and haven’t known it?
So here’s what we can say:
- Virtual volunteering is happening on every country on Earth that has Internet access – both organizations engaging with volunteers online and people volunteering their time online.
- In fully-developed countries (the USA, Canada, Western Europe, etc.), transitional countries (such as those that were a part of the Soviet Union), and developing countries with a sizable population with Internet access (South Africa, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, etc.), there are more online volunteers / digital volunteers, and more projects that are involving volunteers, than can be counted. There are not dozens, not hundreds-there are thousands of digital volunteering projects, collectively, in all these countries.
- Virtual volunteering is a practice that’s more than 30 years old.
- The USA probably has the largest number of virtual volunteering-related projects and the largest number of online volunteers – but other virtual volunteering hot spots include Canada, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Ukraine, Brazil and India. In Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa are worthy of attention as well.