Tag Archives: impact

Online volunteers link communities with donors, trainers & partners

From February 2001 to February 2005, I had the pleasure of directing the United Nations Online Volunteering service, based on Bonn, Germany at the UN Volunteers program, part of UNDP. Originally launched as a part of NetAid, the service is a platform for UN agencies, UN volunteers, independent NGOs, government community programs and other mission-based initiatives working in or for the developing world to recruit and involve online volunteers. I continue to read all updates about the service, on the lookout for emerging trends, new challenges and suggested practices.

Below are links to updates from UNV’s OV service blog in 2015, 2016 and 2017 that are great examples of how virtual volunteering is about so much more than just completing tasks, and how the value of volunteers – online or onsite – isn’t the amount of hours they give, or a monetary value for those hours.

I have to admit that the story about the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) engaging online volunteers was a pleasant surprise, given how reluctant they were to engage with online volunteers back in 2001 or so. And it’s also worth noting that most of the blogs are written by online volunteers:

Online volunteers link a community in Africa with donors, trainers and partners
17 July 2017
Lake Nokoué is on the southern coast of Benin in West Africa. It is a community threatened by pollution and deforestation, and is also affected by congestion from sediments and the traditional acadja fish farming practice. Online volunteers played a substantive role in mobilizing a grant of USD 40,000 from the GEF Small Grants Programme for the Benin NGO “Association des Propriétaires d’Acadja de la Commune de Sô Ava” (APACSO). They also helped identify an expert in aquaculture to deliver an onsite ten-day training in fish farming for youth, women and low income fishermen, funded by an NGO from Belgium. APACSO also received three partnership requests from local organizations.

Fostering food security in Brazil
28 October 2016
The Chamber of Agriculture of the São Paulo State government in Brazil tasked online volunteers with supporting a participatory agro-ecological project in urban and peri-urban areas of the municipality Álvaro de Carvalho. The project aims to engage around 300 beneficiary families in vegetable farming in public spaces to enhance rural development and food security.

Online volunteers lend their voice to the UNDP 2013 China National Development Report
06 October 2016
Two UN Online Volunteers collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in China to record the audio version of the China National Human Development Report 2013,Sustainable and Liveable Cities: Toward Ecological Civilization. The report explores the current urban transformation in China from the perspective of human development, and discusses the recent history of China’s cities, key challenges and projections for the future, including measures that could guide urbanisation towards the goal of liveable, sustainable cities. The audio-book adaptation is among the first signature UN publications made available in digital audio media. It serves audiences with different reading and learning preferences, and has helped publicize the report for a wider impact.

Online volunteers research new trends and global best practices in ICT innovation
14 August 2016
ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICT). ITU promotes the collaboration of the public and private sectors to develop global ICT networks and services. From March until September 2015, ITU engaged a team of seven UN Online Volunteers to research new trends and global best practices in ICT innovation. In the conference’s planning phase, the UN Online Volunteers mapped over 700 relevant initiatives undertaken by governments, universities and the private sector to promote ICT innovation hubs, clusters and parks in 115 countries.

Online volunteers worked to strengthen critical databases
20 March 2016
13 online volunteers worked on strengthening the UN Evaluation Group’s (UNEG) database of evaluation reports to improve the quality and use of evaluation across the UN System. The volunteers helped prepare brief descriptions of reports gathered from all UNEG members including the specialized agencies, funds, programmes and affiliated organizations. Online volunteers also collected meta-information used to classify and tag each report to make it searchable. By helping strengthen the database to improve the quality and use of evaluations, volunteers will be ultimately improving the effectiveness, efficiency and relevance of the UN’s performance. Also, online volunteers assisted in the development of a database of training providers for the International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP). The volunteers researched and listed training opportunities relevant to the humanitarian sector, and provided input to the development of new functionality in order to enhance the database.

Online Volunteers support the NGO Centre for Batwa Minorities
06 February 2016
Together with the Centre for Batwa Minorities (CBM), an NGO based in Kampala, Uganda, online volunteers from around the world helped advocate for the rights of the Batwa people and worked to empower communities and individuals of this ethnic minority in Uganda. More than 30 online volunteers worked on projects ranging from researching the human rights situation of ethnic minorities in Uganda, developing successful campaign concepts to protect the Batwa community, drafting proposals, managing and translating CBM’s website, to using social media to promote the objectives of the organization.

Volunteers worked together online and on the ground for a survey in Bangladesh
02 February 2016
The United Nations Volunteers programme in Bangladesh involved a team of more than 50 online volunteers to reach out to Bangladeshi people and add their voices to the MY World survey. Online volunteers translated the survey’s ballot card and other texts into Bangla. Volunteers on the ground disseminated the survey in many different regions of Bangladesh and talked to people about their development priorities to collect the data. The MY World survey assignment also brought together people of different backgrounds and geographical locations.

Volunteering online for climate change mitigation
14 January 2016
For more than two years, 13 UN Online Volunteers supported the Fundacion Desarollo y Ambiente (FUNDA) on a research project that analyzes, categorizes and maps types of vegetation and landscape to predict the effects of climate change. The volunteers’ created a database for types of vegetation and topography in the Caribbean, Orinoco and Páramo regions of Colombia, verifyied the species’ botanical names, georeferenced the information using Excel and ArcGIS, and mapped the correlation of vegetation, climate, and geomorphological processes. After training the volunteers on the research approach, FUNDA set up working groups as well as weekly Skype meetings for tracking the team’s progress and assigning new tasks.

vvbooklittleMy experience at the UN working with both online volunteers and NGOs around the world who were also working with such, or wanted to, greatly influenced the writing of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. This book, co-written with Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document all of the best practices of working with online volunteers, from the more than three decades that virtual volunteering has been happening. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. 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).

Also see:

The Virtual Volunteering Wiki: a free resource featuring a curated list of news articles about virtual volunteering since 1996, an extensive list of examples of virtual volunteering activities, a list of myths about virtual volunteering, the history of virtual volunteering, a list of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, a ist of online mentoring programs, and links to web sites and lists of offline publications related to virtual volunteering in languages in other than English.

Our LinkedIn Group for the discussion of virtual volunteering.

Safety in virtual volunteering

Virtual volunteering: it’s oh-so-personal

Why Do So Few Women Edit Wikipedia? Insights into virtual volunteering

Even if all your volunteers are “traditional”, you need to explore virtual volunteering

EU Aid Volunteers on track to include virtual volunteering

The future of virtual volunteering? Deeper relationships, higher impact

My favorite virtual volunteering event originates in… Poland

Blogs & articles re: virtual volunteering NOT by me

Fans of celebrities & virtual volunteering

virtual volunteering is probably happening at your org!

Incorporating virtual volunteering into a corporate employee volunteer program

Internet-mediated Volunteering in the EU (virtual volunteering)

Research on USA volunteerism excludes virtual volunteering

Virtual volunteering: it’s oh-so-personal

logoThe 20th anniversary of the launch of the Virtual Volunteering Project is approaching! I count it as December 1, 1996, actually, though I could be off by a few days. It was probably summertime 20 years ago that the project was funded, actually.

All that was on my mind when I read that World Pulse, a global nonprofit organization, put out a call for stories that explore the role of technology in our lives and its potential to bring positive change:

At World Pulse, we see so many signs of the good. Every day, women and men creatively embrace tech tools to solve the pressing problems facing our communities and our world. From mobile apps designed to track incidents of violence against women to crowdfunding platforms that put money in the hands of social entrepreneurs, technology is making so much possible for women everywhere.

What technologies have the most potential to make a difference in your community? Do you have a story about using communication technology to form meaningful relationships or bridge a geographical divide? Maybe you are part of a group using technology to mobilize for change.

I submitted my own story for this challenge, noting:

I’ve been researching virtual volunteering for more than 20 years now, and the biggest shock for most people that aren’t familiar with the practice and hear me talk about it at length is just how close I feel to so many of the volunteers and volunteer-involving agencies all over the world. They are my friends and colleagues, just as real as people I work with onsite, face-to-face. These are all real people with hopes and fears and challenging ideas and humor and talents. So many of these online relationships, established through email and Twitter and online communities, are so very, very personal to me.

I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

By the time I left the Virtual Volunteering Project, I had worked with  more than 300 online volunteers. I could tell you so many things about many of them: their career goals, their music tastes, what they enjoyed doing as online volunteers, what they DIDN’T enjoy, and on and on. No, I didn’t know them all that intimately – not all of them wanted to be known that intimately, and there just isn’t enough time in the day to get to know 300 people that well, online or off. At least one of my online volunteers had mental disabilities, and his doctor was one of his references; I got to talk with that doctor once on the phone, and he told me what a huge impact virtual volunteering had had on this particular volunteer. I hung up the phone and cried – I’d had no idea.

I kept working with online volunteers when I took over the UN’s Online Volunteering service, then also a part of NetAid, in February 2001, and a year later, one of the online volunteers died that I had been working with since joining the UN Volunteers program headquarters. She was very young, killed in an accident. I was shattered. We had often IM’d each other, just chatting over this and that. She’d formed a nonprofit with other online volunteers she met through volunteering online with UNV. I was also heartened that, when I sent an email to the entire UNV organization announcing her death, something any program manager did for a volunteer killed in the field, the head of the organization then, Sharon Capeling-Alakija, immediately directed her staff to write the online volunteer’s parents a letter of condolence, just as UNV does when a UN Volunteer dies.

That’s why I get so weary of explaining over and over to people new to virtual volunteering, or skeptical of the practice without reading anything about it, that this volunteering is not impersonal. As I said in an email to someone that blogged disparagingly about virtual volunteering, saying that, as a result of it, “volunteering has the potential to lose its social and community-building benefits”:

Your blog assumes onsite volunteers work in groups and have lots of interaction. This is often not the case. MANY onsite volunteers work in isolation: they arrive, they receive an orientation and training, and then spend their time alone in a room stuffing envelopes, or sorting in-kind donations, or checking inventory, or cleaning something, etc. You cannot assume that onsite volunteering automatically means lots of personal interactions.

I’ve studied virtual volunteering since the mid 1990s, and what I’ve found is just as much or as little social and community-building benefits as any other volunteering. It all depends on the culture of management: is the manager of online volunteers one who provides lots of personal interactions, or one that gives a task and then interacts only at the request of the volunteer? Whether or not any kind of volunteering has social or community-building benefits depends on the manager and the culture of the organization, not necessarily the task being done onsite or online.

Working with virtual volunteering? It’s personal. At least it is for me.

vvbooklittleThere is lots more information about what it’s like to work with online volunteers in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. The advice is based on both extensive research of virtual volunteering practices at a variety of organizations all over the world and my own experience working with online volunteers – I’ve now worked with more than 1000, some of whom I’m still friends with online, some of whom have become friends offline as well. And if you are about to write about virtual volunteering, but you don’t want to read the guidebook, then PLEASE, at least, first read these Myths About Virtual Volunteering.

Valuing volunteer engagement: an imaginary case study


Imagine a nonprofit theater showing the value of its volunteer usher program by saying:

We involved 40 ushers in 2015, and they provided 100 hours of service, and since the Independent Sector says the value of a volunteer hour is $23.07, the value of our volunteer usher program in 2013 was $2,307.00.

Here’s what such a statement shows:
moneysigns

  • The value of volunteers is that the organization doesn’t have to pay them
  • Volunteers save money, because they do work for free.
  • Volunteer time, hour per hour, is more valuable than that of all the staff members that aren’t directors, because they are all paid far less than $23.07 an hour.
  • The organization could get even more value for its volunteer program if it could get more volunteers doing things it is currently paying staff to do.
  • The greater the number of volunteer hours, the greater the value of the volunteer engagement.

How would such a stated value of the volunteer usher program make the ushers feel? Make the receptionist feel? Make donors that are union members feel?

It’s an obviously awful idea. Yet, this is how so many consultants and organizations want nonprofits to state the value of volunteer engagement.

By contrast, I would find the value of a volunteer usher program through collecting data that could be measured against both the mission of the organization and the mission of the volunteer program. Let’s say the mission of the organization is “to provide theatrical works that entertain, enlighten, and have a transformative impact on our audiences, and build an appreciation of the arts in our community.” Yes, I just made that up. I have examples of mission statements for volunteer engagement programs here. Here’s how I would collect that data:

I would find out what impact being a volunteer at the theater had for the ushers. I would find this out through interviews and surveys, asking things like “Why did you want to be an usher at our organization?” and “What have you learned as an usher that you might not have known otherwise about our theater? Or about putting on theater productions?” I would also ask why they think volunteer ushers might be preferable for the theater to paying people to do the work.

I would survey new ushers before they began their volunteering, and then survey them after they had served a certain number of hours, asking them the same questions, to see if their perceptions about theater in general, and our theater, specifically, had changed.

I would ask audience members how ushers help their experience at our theater. I’d do this through surveys and interviews.

I would ask staff members how they believe hosting ushers benefits them, the audience, and the theater as a whole. I would also ask why they think volunteer ushers might be preferable to paying people to do the work.

I would look at the profiles of the ushers, and see what range of age groups were represented, what range of zip codes were represented (based on residencies), and if possible, look at the range of ethnicities represented, and other data, that could show how representative of our community the volunteer ushers are.

If I didn’t have time to do all of this data gathering and interviewing myself, I would talk to faculty members at area universities and colleges that teach classes in nonprofit management, sociology, psychology or sociology, to see if students in one of their classes could do the data collection as part of an assignment, or a PhD student who might want to oversee the project as part of his or her doctorate work. The students would get practical experience and I would get people who, perhaps, people would be willing to give more honest answers to than me, someone they know from the theater.

None of this is vague, feel-good data; it’s data that can be used not only to show the organization is meeting its mission through its volunteer engagement, but also testimonials that can be used in funding proposals and volunteer recruitment messages. It would also be data that could help the organization improve its volunteer engagement activities – something that monetary value also cannot do.

Whether your organization is a domestic violence shelter, an after-school tutoring program, a center serving the homeless, an animal rescue group, a community garden – whatever – there is always a better way to demonstrate volunteer value than a monetary value for hours worked. What a great assignment for a nonprofit management or volunteer management class…

For more on the subject of the value of volunteer or community engagement:

Judging volunteers by their # of hours? No thanks.

I would never judge the quality of an employee by how many hours he or she worked. When I see someone regularly working overtime, week after week, here are my thoughts:

  • That person’s job might be too much for one person; that job might need to be broken up into two positions.
  • That person might be doing things he or she shouldn’t be doing, and ignoring what should be priorities. I wonder what isn’t getting done?
  • That person may not be qualified for this position.
  • That person may have personal problems that aren’t allowing him or her to get this job done.

So, if I wouldn’t think the number of hours worked by an employee is a good indicator of their job performance, why would I judge a volunteer by the number of hours he or she contributes?

When judging volunteer performance, I look at:

  • What did he or she accomplish as a volunteer for this organization?
  • How does this person’s volunteering – specifically this person’s time and effort – have a positive effect?
  • How did volunteering have a positive effect on him or her?

Which is actually how I judge paid employees as well…

I gather that data by:

  • surveying volunteers, employees, clients and the public, through both traditional online and printed surveys and formal and informal interviews
  • reading through feedback that comes through emails, memos and online discussion groups
  • listening and writing down comments I hear
  • observing their work for myself

What about you? Is your organization still giving out volunteer recognition based on number of hours provided to an organization? Is the person who donated 100 hours to your organization last year really more valuable than the person who donated 20?

UN Volunteers, IFRC, ILO & others make HUGE misstep

I’ve been trying to follow the Global Volunteering Conference in Budapest (one of my favorite cities) from afar. It’s co-hosted by the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and it has “gathered leaders from governments, UN agencies, non-government organizations (NGOs) and other international organizations to discuss ‘Volunteering for a Sustainable Future.'”

I recently read this statement by UN Volunteers Programme Executive Coordinator Flavia Pansieri, and I cringed. It’s a call to value volunteers based on the money value of the hours they contribute.

Yes, you read that right. The measurement so many of us have been campaigning to end – or at least not make the primary measurement of the value of volunteering – is being officially embraced by UNV and IFRC.

As you will see from the UNV statement, the conference is touting that the value of volunteering across just 37 countries amounted to at least $400 billion and celebrates a new manual by the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies  which aims to help statisticians and economists measure the value of volunteer work at the national, regional and global levels by tracking the amount, type and value of such work in their countries. The manual is a strategic plan to try to measure how many people are volunteering and to value their time based on industry/professional classifications were they being paid.

I’m all for the value of volunteering coming to the increased attention by policymakers. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and probably a lot more): Involving volunteers because of a belief that they are cheaper than paying staff is an old-fashioned idea that’s time should long-be-gone. It’s an idea that makes those who are unemployed outraged, and that justifies labor union objections to volunteer engagement. These statements, and others that equate volunteers with money saved, have dire consequences, which I’ve outlined here.

How to talk about the value of volunteers? Instead of looking for the money value of the hours contributed, UNV and IFRC and other players could look at:

  • Do communities that increase volunteering rates lower unemployment, or have more resilience in dire economic times? The National Conference on Citizenship (in the USA) did a study that found such. Couldn’t ILO do the same?
  • Do increased levels of volunteer engagement lead to less violence in a community?
  • Do high levels of volunteer engagement lead to healthier, more sustainable NGOs and civil society?
  • Do high levels of volunteer engagement lead to more voters, more awareness of what is happening in a community or more awareness of how community decisions are made?
  • Do high levels of local volunteer engagement relate to successfully addressing any of the Millennium Development Goals?
  • Does increased volunteer engagement by women contribute to increased women’s empowerment?
  • Does volunteer engagement by youth contribute to youth’s education levels or safety?

What an important, powerful study that would be! THAT would be a wonderful measurement of the value of volunteers that could help volunteers, the organizations that involve such, and the funders that finance the involvement of volunteers (because, ofcouse, we all know that volunteers are never free, right?)!

But, instead, as a result of UNV, IFRC, ILO and all of the other organizations touting the volunteer-value-based-on-dollar-value:

  • Governments can be justified in saying, “Let’s cut funding for such-and-such programs that the community relies on and, instead, get some volunteers to do it, because volunteers are free labor – they save money!”
  • Corporations can be justified in saying, “We’re cutting our philanthropic programs because these nonprofits should just find some people to do the work and not be paid for it! That will save money. And nonprofits can, instead, create a half day for our staff to come onsite and have a feel-good volunteering experience – it won’t be any extra work for the nonprofits because, you know, volunteers are unpaid, and that makes them free!”
  • Unions can be justified in saying, “We are against volunteering. Because volunteers take paid jobs away.” That’s what the union of firefighters in the USA says – and the UN’s action says it’s right.
  • Economically-disadvantaged people that are being asked to volunteer are justified in saying, “How can you volunteer if you have no income, no money and are concerned about the means to provide your kids with something on their plates every night? With all due respec…I say, ‘Please be serious!'” (yes, that’s a real quote)

All of those scenarios are happening right now in response to calls for more volunteers. And there will more of them as a result of this approach by UNV, IFRC and others.

It’s nothing less than a tragedy.

Also see: Judging volunteers by their # of hours? No thanks.