Tag Archives: digital volunteers

Research needs re: virtual volunteering

I get contacted regularly by university students doing a Master’s degree research project that relates to virtual volunteering and, unfortunately, their research subject is almost always the same: the motivations of people to be online volunteers.

I’m blunt in my response to them: please don’t. This subject is not one that nonprofits or NGOs are asking for. In fact, it has become a joke among managers of volunteers: oh, look, *another* paper about people’s motivations for volunteering… ARGH!

This article by Susan Ellis and Rob Jackson well explains why the idea of yet another survey project about volunteer motivations is not something most nonprofits or NGOs are interested in. Read in particular the part called “A Preoccupation with the Motivations to Volunteer.”

What would NGOs and nonprofits love to know about virtual volunteering? What would be great, even ground-breaking research regarding virtual volunteering? Here are some digital volunteering research topics in dire need of exploration (and that really need to be undertaken by people that are NOT me):

  • factors for success in keeping online volunteers productive and engaged long-term at an organization or within a program
  • how online volunteers and/or those that involve them define a successful virtual volunteering experience, and exploring if these are in conflict
  • if online microvolunteering really does lead to longer-term virtual volunteering/higher responsibility roles at an organization, and/or if it leads to greater numbers of donors
  • expectations of people that sign up for online volunteer assignments before they begin versus the reality of the assignments/relationships/benefits
  • are the advantages that are promoted regarding virtual volunteering – that it allows for people to be more involved in an organization they already volunteer with onsite, that it allows for the participation of people as volunteers who might not be able to otherwise, that it can be a form of accommodation for people who have disabilities, that it frees up staff to undertake other activities, etc. – realized most of the time? some of the time? what factors are necessary for those benefits to be realized – or preventing them from becoming realities?
  • what causes people to quit volunteering online, and are the reasons similar or different than what causes people to quit traditional, onsite volunteering?
  • comparative case studies of online volunteer engagement and support for such at a variety of organizations, looking at factors for successful management, budgets for such, number of people working directly with the online volunteers, etc.
  • comparative case studies of screening of people that want to volunteer online at a variety of organizations, looking for factors that may lead to greater completion of tasks and longer-term commitments by online volunteers or may lead to greater drop out rates of accepted volunteers that receive assignments.
  • comparative case studies of organizations involving online volunteers, regarding what percentage of volunteers are using a laptop or desktop computer for completing assignments, versus those using smart phones and tablets. And is there a difference in the kinds of assignments being done on laptops and desktops versus smart phones and tablets? Is there a difference in the kinds of volunteers using laptops and desktops versus smart phones and tablets?
  • comparative case studies of online mentoring programs that involve online volunteers as mentors, regarding why some last more than two years and why others end early, or immediately after the pilot phase
  • comparative case of online mentoring programs that involve online volunteers as mentors, regarding their meeting of stated education, self-esteem, career exploration or other goals
  • comparative case of online mentoring programsthat involve online volunteers as mentors, on mentors or on participants five years after participation
  • how much does involving online volunteers cost for the host organization – a comparison of at least 20 organizations in the USA (or any one country, for that matter)
  • 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
  • what differences are there in the success of involving online volunteers in non-English-speaking countries in Europe or elsewhere 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?
  • how does satisfaction with volunteering among online volunteers compare to satisfaction with volunteering undertaking onsite administrative roles that do NOT involve interactions with clients (onsite volunteers that help with mailings, help with inventory, help prepare a room for an event later, file papers, provide IT support to staff, etc.). Do these two groups of volunteers feel similar isolation? Do any feelings of isolation or support relate to being online or is it because of lack of regular staff interaction, online or face-to-face? Or lack of access to seeing the impact of direct service with clients?

Tackle any of those research projects and I will promote your research everywhere online I possibly can. I may even dance in the streets.

Four cautions for researchers of virtual volunteering:

  • During your literature review, you will need to look at research articles and case studies that never use the word volunteers. or the term virtual volunteering. For instance, people that contribute their time and talent, online, to nonprofit open source projects may never be called volunteers. Those that contribute their time and knowledge to Wikipedia online are usually called Wikipedians rather than volunteers. Yet, research literature on these subjects is vital for informing any researcher wanting to do an academic stufy regarding virtual volunteering.
  • If you interview people, you will also not be able to use the phrase virtual volunteering without fully explaining it and ensuring people understand your definition; otherwise, you will find people saying they don’t volunteer online or do not involve volunteers online when, in fact, they do – they just didn’t understand the meaning so they said no.
  • Read this list of myths regarding virtual volunteering before you begin. If you start your research from an assumption that online volunteers are more isolated and less supported than onsite volunteers, for instance, or that virtual volunteering is great for people that don’t have time for onsite volunteering, or that people that volunteer online don’t do so onsite, face-to-face, then you are starting from a false premise that is not supported by any research to date. And if you want your research to test one of these myths, by all means, go for it!
  • You will be hard pressed to find anyone volunteering exclusively online; the vast majority of people that volunteer online ALSO volunteer onsite (and if you have research that says otherwise, let’s hear about it!). That’s why it’s impossible to measure things like if the health benefits associated with volunteering are exclusive for onsite volunteering.

All of the research I know related to virtual volunteering, by the way, is listed here on the virtual volunteering wiki. I try to update this list at least once a year. Note that, as of a few years ago, most of it is NOT by me! Hurrah!

Other blogs I’ve written on the subject of research and volunteering, including virtual volunteering, that should be helpful to anyone researching any aspect of virtual volunteering:

vvbooklittleWhy don’t I do at least some of the aforementioned research? Three reasons: One: I’m burnt out regarding virtual volunteering research. I poured so many years and effort into researching and writing The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, as well as managing various virtual volunteering initiatives since the 1990s, and I need a break. Two: I would really like to read research by OTHER PEOPLE. I think fresh eyes and fresh minds could bring to light things all of my many years researching this subject has made me blind to. I’m so ready to be enlightened on this subject by other people! Three: I don’t have the resources. I would need funding and I would want my research associated with a university, preferably in association with my obtaining a PhD.

So, those are the research needs regarding virtual volunteering, at least as far as I can see. What are YOUR ideas?

Online volunteers created a music festival in St. Louis

Everyone pictures virtual volunteering as remote volunteers that sit in front of a computer or tablet or smart phone, typing and clicking, interacting only online and undertaking mostly techie tasks. But something I learned early on when I started researching virtual volunteering back in 1996 is that it’s actually a very human thing, that often leads to very personal non-computer-related activities and connections.

twangfestMore than 20 years ago, some members of an online discussion group, Postcard2 or P2, an email-based gathering place for people to talk about a particular type of music – alternative country – decided to create their own nonprofit and host a weekend of concerts in St. Louis to feature bands performing the kind of music they love, which is rarely played on the radio. It became an annual event, called Twangfest. And in June 2016, Twangfest will host its 20th event milestone.

These founding members of this music festival were dispersed across the USA, and most saw each other face-to-face only once or twice a year. But they spent time together, online, every week, often every day, for a few years. They had become close friends who shared a passion, and they channeled that passion into an onsite event that’s one of my favorite examples of what virtual volunteering can lead to.

I was a part of the discussion group starting in 1996, just as a lurker, and sometimes, more than 100 messages would be posted in a single day. I wrote about Twangfest, and the community that spawned it, back in 2000 for the Virtual Volunteering Project. I got to go to the event in 1998 and 1999, and I still meet with people I met via P2 – many are still dear friends. Here’s part of the description of the discussion group from some point in its history:

This list began as an offshoot of Postcard, the Uncle Tupelo list, and was created for people who wanted to discuss a wider range of music, including (but not limited to) alt.country, country rock, hard country, bluegrass, honky-tonk, insurgent country, roots rock, and hillbilly music We also discuss a wider range of topics, including the music’s forerunners and historical background, the sociology of the music and its listeners, and contemporary business practices that make the music possible. Many of the 600+ subscribers to this list are ordinary folks who love this music. The list also includes musicians, writers, radio and record label folks, and others who work in the music business, who bring an interesting perspective to the subjects… Years of argument and agreement have created a sense of community on P2. List members meet up at musical or other venues in their home towns or as they travel. 

Note that it never says anything about virtual volunteering. The intention of this group was never to create a music festival and a nonprofit, and even with those creations, no member of the group was calling it virtual volunteering. Yet, that’s what it was. Some volunteers took leadership roles, becoming members of the board of directors, identifying places to advertise, recruiting volunteer designers, negotiating with venues, and approaching potential sponsors. Some volunteers took on micro tasks – like me: I was an on-call volunteer, ready to answer questions as needed about preparing nonprofit paperwork and coming up with phrasing for the web site and press releases to make sure people knew this wasn’t just a music festival, that it was a nonprofit organization working to preserve and promote the unique tradition and culture of Americana music. The nonprofit never divided people as online volunteers and traditional volunteers – all were just volunteers (and in this case, just means solely, not merely, so please, no hate mail).

I’m stunned that it’s been 20 years since Twangfest started! But, then again, virtual volunteering is a practice that’s more than 35 years old!

Also see:

Lessons on effective, valuable online communities – from the 1990s

Updated: research regarding virtual volunteering

vvbooklittleThe Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, a book decades in the making, by Susan J. Ellis and myself. Tools come and go, terms come and go, but certain community engagement principles never change, and our book can be used with the very latest digital engagement initiatives and “hot” new technologies meant to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version.

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

I am thrilled to have just discovered that some of my favorite resources for helping to keep volunteers safe, and keeping everyone safe with volunteers, are now available for FREE – just download them!

One is Kidding Around? Be Serious! A Commitment to Safe Service Opportunities for Young People. It discussed “risk relevant characteristics” of adolescents and children – knowledge that was especially helpful when I was creating and advising on online mentoring programs -, offers a realistic, effective risk management process for dealing with young people, and reviews how to approach different service scenarios involving young participants. If you have young volunteers working together in particular, this book is a MUST read.

Another resource that is now free to download is Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. There are explicit guidelines on interactions between individuals, detailed guidance on monitoring behavior, advice on training staff, volunteers and youth themselves about child sexual abuse prevention, and exactly how to respond to inappropriate behavior, breaches in policy, and allegations and suspicions of child sexual abuse. I really can’t say enough fantastic things about this book.

And still another resource is Safe to Compete: An Introduction to Sound Practices for Keeping Children Safer in Youth-Serving Organizations. This document from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, published in 2013, is a framework for youth-serving organizations to guide their development of a sexual abuse prevention program.

Combine these three books with Beyond Police Checks: The Definitive Volunteer & Employee Screening Guidebook by Linda Graff, available from Energize, Inc. (but not for free), and you’ve got a solid, more-than-basic understanding of risk management in volunteer engagement activities. I really can’t say enough fantastic things about Graff’s book. It completely changed my view of safety in volunteering programs, both for clients and for volunteers themselves – the over-reliance on police checks for safety continues, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Three of these resources are “old”, however, I have had no trouble whatsoever easily adapting their recommendations to online scenarios with volunteers (virtual volunteering). The “old” books were a wake-up call for me regarding the vulnerability of teens, women and people with disabilities, and I carried that new knowledge into my recommendations regarding virtual volunteering, starting in the 1990s and continuing to this day.

And if you are promoting virtual volunteering, digital volunteering, micro volunteering, whatever, these books are a MUST read before you utter another word!

Also see:

Snapchat’s Potential Power for Social Good – with REAL examples

snapchatThe vast majority of nonprofits, NGOs and community-minded government programs do not have the staff nor the expertise to use every social media tool out there, or even most of the most-popular tools, especially with so many funders refusing to fund “overhead.” That means these mission-based programs are often late adopters when it comes to social media tools – it’s a wait-and-see-if-this-will-stick-around attitude.

During workshops I’ve lead in the last 12 months, I have been getting asked a lot about SnapChat. If you don’t know, SnapChat is a phone-based app that uses photos or videos, with text, to create its messages to an account’s subscribers; you have a fleeting moment to captivate your audience, because 10 seconds after a user opens the message, it disappears. Nonprofits, government agencies and other mission-based folks have asked me if I think it’s worth their time to use to get a message out. My answer is always, “it depends.” IMO, it depends on if you have a program about which you really, really want and need to reach tech-savvy young people. But to work, the messages have to be specifically targeted to that audience and platform (just 12% of SnapChats millions of users in the U.S. are 35 to 54, though they company says that demographic is growing). In other words, you can’t just repurpose what you’re posting to Facebook or Twitter.

Starting in 2013, every few months, there’s an article touting the possibilities of Snapchat for nonprofits – the latest is this article on Snapchat’s “Power for Social Good”. IMO, most of the articles, even this latest one, are just hype – yes, I’m sure everyone is talking about SnapChat at the big Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this year. Yes, 90% of Snapchat followers are now consuming the content, but that was a similar number for Facebook or Twitter in the early days – it will plummet as more people use it, as more PARENTS use it, as people subscribe to more and more users, etc.

Still, given that Snapchat isn’t yet saturated with advertising (the company is still working on an ad model), and that it has an excellent viewer rate (around 90% of messages are viewed by subscribers), and that millions of young people are using it, the platform has promise, at least this year, and maybe for another year or two, as an effective outreach tool for people under 35 in particular.

Most articles about Snapchat use by mission-based entities are about its potential, not about how it’s actually being used by nonprofit, NGOs, government agencies, schools, etc. So, let’s look at three REAL examples of mission-based organizations doing something with SnapChat that made it worth their time (and note, these actual examples were REALLY hard to find):

Tenovus, a Welsh charity helping people with cancer, used Snapchat to generate media coverage for Volunteers’ Week in the UK. The charity teamed up with WalesOnline and asked supporters to take a #selflessie – a selfie of them doing something selfless – and send it to the charity and WalesOnline via Snapchat. The response was, apparently, excellent – but it would be interesting to know how many of these young people had perceptions changed about cancer, how many became volunteers for the cause, etc.

DoSomething.org is one of the largest nonprofits for teens and young adults in the USA, connecting 13-to-25 year olds to a wide variety of social causes and ideas of how to get involved. SnapChat users fall almost exactly within that age demographic. So, for instance, the organization ran a campaign in February called Love Letters, to encourage young people to make Valentine’s Day cards for homebound seniors, and to create excitement for the campaign, a staff member dressed up as Cupid and made a Snapchat story, using a series of photos with text, explaining that he was going to go out onto the streets of New York City and deliver Valentine’s Day cards, and he encouraged SnapChat followers to vote via text if he should deliver the cards by bike, ice skates or on foot in Central Park. The idea was that, if young people laughed at the photos and voted, they were more likely to make cards for seniors – though there’s no data on how many actually did so.

Save the Children has been using SnapChat since 2015. According to a thread I found on Facebook, “We have found we are getting HUGE engagement vs. other platforms (50% of our audience viewing our stories). We’ve used it for events like UNGA and our Gala, but find the best stories are those from the field where we are showing the children and families helped by our programs.” Save the Children exported their messages for their SnapChat photos that created a story about live in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp for Syrian refugees, so the messages wouldn’t disappear, and you can see this SnapChat campaign via Facebook. Unknown: were minds changed about refugees? Was there an increase in donations from young people because of this Snapchat use?

I still say “it depends” on whether or not a nonprofit should use Snapchat, but I will say that every nonprofit should be encouraging volunteers to use their social media channels, including Snapchat, if they are on it, to talk about and/or send pictures of themselves in action supporting a non-profit’s mission, like preparing food, cleaning up a trail, sitting at their computer while engaged in virtual volunteering, etc. But the organization needs to provide repeated guidance on this: volunteers need to always adhere to your organization’s social media policies regarding sharing photos online, they need to provide info on how their friends could also participate or get more information, etc.

A great way to involve young volunteers might be to invite them onsite to talk about how the nonprofit  might use Snapchat to promote a specific message, and how those young people could actually undertake the activities for this to happen; this isn’t so that the nonprofit doesn’t have to get paid staff to do it but, rather, because these volunteers actually might be the best people to lead this activity, better than paid staff, because the organization can involve young people in a very memorable way and in a leadership capacity, and in a way that might become a story in-and-of-itself for the media. Just be sure that screen-capturing is a part of the campaign, so you can preserve and review messages long after those messages disappear on Snapchat!

Even if SnapChat loses its shine in a year or two, your use of it won’t be time wasted; we live in an era where we must be much more nimble in crafting our messages for different online platforms. What you learn using SnapChat is going to help you use whatever takes its place as the shiny new popular kid in a year or two.

Update March 25: justgiving.com has an article called 7 charities that totally get Snapchat (no publication date given) and it highlights Do Something Snapchat activities (see above), as well as:

The organization Penny Appeal and World Champion Boxer Amir Khan’s Snapchat story of welcoming Syrian refugees as they landed on the Greek island of Lesbos, to create awareness about their plight.

Young Enterprise NI in the U.K., which uses Snapchat to provide young people with “bite-size” business tips and advice.

Royal National Lifeboat Institution, also in the U.K., which uses it to “have conversations with our supporters… to raise awareness of our lifesaving work.” The RNLI has used it to organize competitions, share coastal safety advice and tell stories of their volunteer lifeboat crew.

MuslimAid, a charity in the U.K. that says it uses it “as a key volunteer recruitment tool and as a hassle-free way of bringing their events to life.”

Brazilian environmental NGO OndAzul, which shared 10 second Nature Snapfacts with their followers. “Teens who opened their Snap would catch a fleeting glimpse of natural beauty being destroyed by man made hazards.”

The Danish branch of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) used Snapchat to emphasize the speed at which endangered species disappear. Each ad featured one of five endangered animals with the tagline ‘Don’t let this be my #LastSelfie’.

Update April 5: Beth Kanter has a new blog that adds a few more examples and links to some tutorials.

vvbooklittleI’ve read a lot about SnapChat, and the suggested practices talked about in the aforementioned case studies yet again confirms what Susan Ellis and I promote in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. Tools come and go, but certain community engagement principles never change, and our book can be used with the very latest digital engagement initiatives and “hot” new technologies meant to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference.

UNV announces Online Volunteering Award 2015

UNLogoToday – 30 November 2015 – the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program announced winners of the UNV Online Volunteering Award 2015, celebrating both volunteers and volunteer hosting organizations on the UN’s Online Volunteering Service, and launched a global voting campaign for the public’s favorite, to be announced on December 5.

Profiles of the five organizations chosen for the award, and their online volunteers, are here (and this is where you vote as well). The organizations are Association des Agriculteurs Professionels du Cameroun (AGRIPO), Fundación de Comunidades Vulnerables de Colombia (FUNCOVULC), Hunger Reduction International, Seeds Performing Arts Theatre Group in Papua New Guinea, and a digital media campaign run by UN Women. Each effort also has a tag regarding which sustainable development goals it supports.

If you know me, then you know which one of the winners immediately jumped out at me and what I voted for: Seeds Performing Arts Theatre Group in Papua New Guinea. The group uses live theatre performance to raise awareness on issues affecting the local rural population, including violence against women, and to inspire and implement social change. Seeds teamed up with a group of online volunteers via the UN’s Online Volunteering service to develop a screenplay for a video about the specific gender-based violence associated with witch hunting. The traditional belief in sorcery is used to justify violence against women in Papua New Guinea, and inhumane treatment of innocent women accused of sorcery is common in rural parts of the island as sorcery is thought to account for unexplained deaths or misfortunes in a family or village.

After voting, you are encouraged to copy the following message to your profile on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn or whatever social media channel you use:

Just voted for my favourite Online #VolunteeringAward winner. You can, too! https://goo.gl/CTGVfS #ActionCounts #GlobalGoals” and encourage others to recognize the true value and worth of online volunteers!

In 2014, according to UNV, more than 11,000 online volunteers undertook more than 17,000 online volunteering assignments through the service, and 60 percent of these online volunteers come from developing countries. I had the pleasure of directing the service at UNV for four years, from February 2001 to February 2014, successfully moving the platform from NetAid to UNV entirely, engaging in various activities that made the service the first link when searching the term online volunteering on Google (I also made it #1 when searching the term virtual volunteering, but that’s no longer true), vastly increasing the number of online opportunities available for organizations on the platform and authoring materials to support organizations engaging online volunteers that are still used by UNV. I still promote the site to any organizations working in or for regions in the developing world as the best way to recruit online volunteers.

Also see:

The Virtual Volunteering Wiki

The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

My research on Theater as a Tool for Development/Theatre as a Tool for Development

Reddit controversy is a lesson in working with volunteers

redditReddit is a very high-profile online community that has been in the news a lot lately. It’s in the style of an old-fashioned online bulletin board – a very popular, simple, low-graphics platform on the early days of the Internet that I miss very much. On Reddit, members can submit content, such as text posts or direct links, and can vote submissions up or down – voting determines the position of posts on the site’s pages. Content entries are organized by areas of interest called subreddits.

The community membership has created a strong, outspoken, high-intelligent culture that can be, at times, aggressive regarding its belief in free speech, and there are very few rules about the types of content that may be posted. This has led to the creation of several subreddits that have been perceived as offensive, including forums dedicated to jailbait (since banned) and pictures of dead bodies. On the other hand, the Reddit community’s philanthropic efforts are some of my favorites to highlight in my workshops.

Reddit employee Victoria Taylor helped organize citizen-led interviews on Reddit with famous people on the very popular “Ask me Anything” (AMA) subreddit, including interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch (sigh), USA President Obama, Bill Nye, Madonna, and Eric Idle –  and these sessions often ended up landing on the news for some especially funny or outlandish answer given. She was very popular with the volunteer online moderators. But recently, Taylor was fired. Reddit moderators have said they were “blindsided” by Taylor’s firing and that she was “an essential lifeline” for them and Reddit employees. Many Reddit users have demanded answers from Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao regarding why Taylor was dismissed. In protest of her dismissal, moderators on several of the site’s largest subreddits locked users out. Pao is now scrambling to calm hostilities, and says it’s all just a result of miscommunication.

This mutiny by the online moderators is actually an all-too-common problem for organizations that involve large numbers of very dedicated volunteers, online or onsite. Reddit forgot that its volunteers aren’t just free labor; they feel personally invested in this organization, they feel ownership, and while those characteristics make them excellent moderators, it also means that, if they feel taken advantage of or that they aren’t being listened to, they will rebel, very publicly.

Reddit leadership needs to immediately read America Online volunteers : Lessons from an early co-production community, by Hector Postigo, in the International Journal of Cultural Studies 2009. This article analyzes the case of America Online (AOL) volunteers, specifically when company changes resulted in the rise of a labor consciousness among many volunteers, which in turn made the “free distributed workforce” impossible to sustain – and invited intervention by the US Department of Labor. They also need to each buy a copy of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and READ IT. And maybe hire Susan Ellis and I to help them fix this mess…

Update, July 7: the Wall Street Journal has also blogged about this issue from a volunteer management perspective. I’ve added a comment on it.

The future of virtual volunteering? Deeper relationships, higher impact

book coverIn May 2015, the book Volunteer Engagement 2.0 will be published by Wiley. The brainchild of VolunteerMatch, the book is meant to be a “what’s next” regarding volunteering, and features 35 different chapter contributors, including me.

I was asked to contribute a chapter on virtual volunteering and, initially, I said no. I said no at first for two reasons:

  1. Because, as Susan Ellis and I note in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, virtual volunteering should not be a separate topic amid discussions about volunteer engagement and management. Instead, virtual volunteering needs to be fully integrated into all such discussions and trainings. No more segregation at the end of the book or workshop! If a book talks about recruiting volunteers, for instance, it needs to include how the Internet plays a role in this. If a workshop explores ways to recognize volunteers, it needs to include how to leverage online tools for this.
  2. Because virtual volunteering is NOT “what’s next” in volunteering: it is NOW. It’s a practice that’s more than 30-years-old. There were already so many organizations involving online volunteers back in the late 1990s I quit trying to count them!

I ultimately agreed, instead, to write a chapter on what I think is “what’s next” regarding virtual volunteering. And, as usual, I went against the grain: while everyone seems to be saying that microvolunteering is what most volunteers really want, I think there are a growing number of people that, instead, want more meaningful, high-responsibility, high-impact roles in virtual volunteering.

I focused my chapter on direct service virtual volunteering. Using a variety of asynchronous and synchronous Internet tools, this type of virtual volunteering includes:

  • Electronic visiting with someone who is home-bound, in a hospital or assisted living facility
  • Online mentoring and instruction, such as helping young students with homework questions or supporting adults learning a skill or finding a job
  • Teaching people to use a particular technology tool
  • One counseling by volunteers, such as staffing online crisis support lines
  • Facilitating online discussion groups for people with specific questions or needs, on childcare, organic gardening, travel to a particular area, or most any subject humans are capable of discussion
  • Offering legal, medical, business, or other expertise to clients
  • Working on a project together with clients and other volunteers as a part of meeting the organization’s mission, such as writing about the news of their neighborhood, school, or special interest group

When volunteers interact with clients directly, it’s a highly personal activity, no matter the mission of the organization. These volunteer roles involve building and maintaining trust and cultivating relationships – not just getting a task done. It takes many hours and a real commitment – it can’t be done just when the volunteer might have some extra time. And altogether, that means that, unlike microvolunteering, these direct service virtual volunteering roles aren’t available to absolutely anyone with a networked device, Internet access and a good heart. These roles discriminate: if you don’t have the skills and the time, you don’t get to do them. And, believe it or not, the very high bar for participation is very appealing to a growing number of people that want to volunteer.

Of course, I’m not opposed to microvolunteering – online tasks that take just a few minutes or hours for a volunteer to complete, require little or not training of the online volunteer, and require no ongoing commitment. I’ve been writing about microvolunteering before it was called that – I gave it the name byte-sized volunteering back in the 1990s, but the name didn’t stick. I think, if you want to give lots of people a taste of your organization or program, with an eye to cultivating those people into longer-term volunteers, and/or donors, and you have the time to create microvolunteering assignments, great, go for it!

But I am hearing and seeing a growing number of comments from people, especially young people, saying they want more than just a “quickie” volunteering experience. They want more than number-of-hours volunteering. They want more than a list of tasks that need done. They want something high-impact. They want to feel like they have really made a difference. They want to make a real connection with the organization and those, or the mission, it serves. They want a deep volunteering experience. I fear that, in the rush to embrace the microvolunteering buzz, we’re ignoring those people that want something more. My chapter in Volunteer Engagement 2.0 is my plea to not ignore those potential volunteers.

vvbooklittleHow to create both online microvolunteering tasks and high-responsibility online roles, including direct service with clients, and everything in between, as well as how to recruit and support volunteers for those roles, is fully explored, in great detail and with a lot of examples, in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.



My favorite virtual volunteering event originates in… Poland

ewolontariat logoThe Discover E-Volunteering competition by E-Wolontariat (E-Volunteering Poland) is the best showcase of new virtual volunteering initiatives on the planet. I’m a HUGE fan of this event – and governments and corporations in Europe should be too. Here’s why:

  • this is the first and only competition of its kind in the world. And it started in Europe – not the USA. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to scoop the USA re: something tech-related?
  • by making this a competition, the event ends up drawing out and then showcasing some of the most innovative initiatives in Europe that are blending technology with helping people, the environment, and other causes.
  • the competition grows every year, in terms of participants, applications and attention from both traditional and non-traditional media.
  • just about any person – people who are unemployed, people working at corporations, young people, retired people – can become online volunteers with many of the initiatives showcased in this competition. So virtually anyone can be a part of this event in some way.
  • the competition doesn’t just benefit the “winners”; E-Wolontariat shares much of what it learns from ALL applicants. via its web site and via its trainings, so that ANY NGO can benefit. That means, with more widespread promotion of the event, the event could build capacities at NGOs not just in Europe but worldwide, allowing those NGOs to involve even more volunteers.
  • governments and others are talking about encouraging young people to volunteer, how its so important, to help young people build skills for the workplace, to increase their civic engagement, to cultivate empathy and caring, and more. But there’s not much action to back up that talk. This event is actually helping to expand options for those young people to volunteer.
  • by helping organizations expand their involvement of online volunteers, this event is very likely helping them to expand their involvement of ALL volunteers, including traditional onsite volunteers, by helping them to improve recruitment and support of all volunteers.
  • by helping organizations expand their involvement of volunteers, this event is helping more people, including unemployed people and people who are often socially-excluded (the unemployed, immigrants, the disabled, etc.) to become better connected to society. And we keep hearing that we need to increase opportunities for socially-excluded people to connect with society…

Why tech companies, telecommunications companies, banks, and other multi-national corporations aren’t fighting each other to fund this event, I’ll never understand.

As I said in my last blog, there are so many corporate folks chastising nonprofits and NGOs, saying mission-based initiatives need to be more innovative, saying they need to embrace the latest network technologies and revolutionary management styles and on and on. Yet these same corporations demanding nonprofit innovation aren’t funding virtual volunteering-related initiatives. The Discover E-Volunteering competition would be a GREAT one to start with!

And media, you should be covering not only this competition, and not only the individual applicants to this event, but also all sorts of great virtual volunteering activities happening in the world.

More info about virtual volunteering, a widespread practice that’s more than 35 years old:

hey, corporations: time to put your money where your mouth is re: nonprofits & innovation

logoI started talking about virtual volunteering – without knowing it was called that – as early as 1994, more than 30 years ago. Soon after I started babbling about it, I directed The Virtual Volunteering Project, based at the University of Texas, back in the late 1990s. Back then, I thought that, by now, well into the 21st century, there would be corporations clamoring to sponsor virtual volunteering activities and events. I could see back in the 1990s that this wasn’t just a fun idea – it was an effective one for nonprofits, NGOs, and volunteers themselves – and that it would become a widespread practice. I just knew corporations would want to be seen as leaders in the movement and, therefore, fund it.

Yet, 30 years later, while thousands of nonprofits all over the world have embraced using the Internet to support and involve volunteers, corporations remain largely silent in their involvement and support. I am frequently contacted by nonprofits and NGOs looking to expand their involvement of online volunteers, or that want to do something particularly interesting or innovative regarding virtual volunteering, but they need funding, and they want to know if I can help. And I can’t. Because corporations clamoring to be a part of virtual volunteering just hasn’t happened.

It’s not true of all corporations: the international telecommunications company Orange seems to get it, to a degree: Fundacja Orange (the Polish branch) partially funds the ground-breaking Discover E-Volunteering competition, the best showcase of new virtual volunteering initiatives on the planet. But, sadly, the UK branch of Orange seems to have already discontinued its Do Some Good smart phone app to help people volunteer through their mobile phone, launched in 2012 – less than three years ago. Hewlett-Packard used to have a pioneering e-mentoring program, bringing together their employees, as mentors, with high school students, and the program is frequently referenced in academic literature 20 years ago about the promise of e-mentoring – but that program is long gone, and I can’t find any association between HP and virtual volunteering anymore. Rolex seemed somewhat interested in microvolunteering, a version of virtual volunteering that engages online volunteers in micro tasks, but that initial interest seems to have quickly, completely waned. Cisco was a key financial and in-kind supporter of NetAid, a part of which became the UN’s Online Volunteering service, but that support ended in 2001.1

You’ve heard it and read it so many times: corporate folks chastising nonprofits and NGOs, saying those mission-based initiatives need to be more innovative, saying they need to embrace the latest network technologies and revolutionary management styles and on and on. Yet these same corporations demanding nonprofit innovation aren’t funding virtual volunteering-related initiatives.

Time to put your money where your mouth is, corporations: there are some terrific virtual volunteering activities out there. There are outstanding innovations happening at nonprofits and NGOs all over the world. You say you want more risk-taking, more innovations, more tech-use by mission-based organizations – okay, they stand ready to do it. All they need is the investment. Are YOU ready to put your money where your mouth is?

vvbooklittleAnd also… why haven’t you bought The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook?


1: The last sentence of this paragraph, regarding Cisco and NetAid, was added on July 24, 2015

Nov. 11, 2015 update:  Nonprofit leaders are not focusing enough attention on innovation, measuring the impact of their efforts, and creating funding structures that encourage risk-taking, according to a new report from Independent Sector. Great – who is going to FUND THOSE ACTIVITIES?!

Blogs & articles re: virtual volunteering NOT by me

Why no, I’m *not* the only person who talks about Virtual Volunteering / e-volunteering / digital volunteering, etc.

In addition to research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, that is tracked on the Virtual Volunteering Wiki, which has been put together as a supplement to The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, there are also various other web sites, blogs, publications and initiatives focused on virtual volunteering, often under different names (digital volunteering, online volunteering, microvolunteering, etc.).

It’s impossible to create a comprehensive list of such – just as it would be impossible to make a list of all web sites, blogs and other non-research related to volunteering, in general. But I have made a list gives an overview of the different ways various people and organizations are talking about virtual volunteering, especially internationally. There are links to information about virtual volunteering in Spanish, Catalan, German, Polish, Ukrainian, and a wee bit in French.

Also see this page tracking news articles, blog posts, and other updates on virtual volunteering and this page lists RSS feeds that automatically link to the latest web pages, blogs, and other online materials that use terms that relate to virtual volunteering.

And, of course, check out The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.