Tag Archives: micro volunteering

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.

Me in Austin in September

 I’ll be in Austin, Texas September 17 – 19 for the Alliance for Nonprofit Management Annual Conference. My book, The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, co-authored with Susan Ellis (who will be in Austin too!), is a finalist for Terry McAdam Book Award. In addition to being present for the awards, Susan and I will also be presenting (details TBA), and I’ll be helping at Susan’s Energize booth at the conference, where we will have several copies of our book for purchase, as well as many other volunteer engagement books published by Energize.

I’m excited beyond belief because Austin was my home for four years, it’s where I directed The Virtual Volunteering Project from the University of Texas at Austin, and when I’m stressed, it’s the happy place I go to in my mind… I haven’t been there since 2009. SO EXCITED. If you are an organization in Austin and want to book me for a short training or consultancy while I’m there, please contact me (also see my public calendar for my availability).

The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook is available in both traditional paperback and as an ebook.

virtual volunteering is probably happening at your org!

A guest post from Susan J. Ellis, President of Energize, Inc., originally posted as a “Quick Tip” in Energize Volunteer Management Update, May 2014.


Jayne Cravens and I are enjoying a variety of feedback about our new book, The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. But we admit frustration at one too-common reaction: “That seems interesting, but I don’t see how our organization would possibly involve online volunteers.” So this month’s Tip is: Open your eyes!

If virtual volunteering is still hard for you to accept comfortably, consider some of the points we raise in the book. For example, it is rare to find an organization where onsite volunteers are constantly under observation; most volunteers provide service out of sight of their manager, whether in a different cubicle, a different room, a different area of the facility, or away from the organization’s headquarters altogether. Volunteers who are youth group leaders, home visitors, coaches, mentors, and tutors generally provide their service out in the field (for some, literally out infield). Obviously, organizations have long ago resolved their concerns about allowing certain volunteers the freedom to do their work, make judgment calls, and act responsibly without constant staff surveillance, even when those volunteers are working with children.

It is hard to imagine any volunteering effort where at least some integration of the Internet would not be appropriate or in which some Internet use with volunteers is not already happening.

Invisible Virtual Volunteering? There is a very good possibility that online service has evolved naturally at your agency already. You need to identify it. See what you can discover by asking some key questions:

  • If your organization asks volunteers to visit clients in their homes, or to mentor or tutor people one-on-one at an offsite location or via the phone, or to do any sort of outreach into the community on your behalf, ask: Do volunteers ever interact with these clients/community members online as well, such as with e-mail, instant messaging or calls via Skype? How and how often?
  • If there are volunteers helping with your organization’s Web site or with any computer or Internet tech-related issue, is all service being performed onsite, or are some activities being done via a volunteer’s home, work, or school computer? Ask this of both the employees who work with these volunteers and the volunteers themselves.
  • If any volunteer assignments involve writing of any sort – editing a newsletter, doing research (probably, these days, online!), producing reports, etc. – don’t you expect to receive the materials in electronic form, via e-mail or posted to a cloud platform such as Dropbox or Google Docs?
  • Are there any pro bono consultants at your organization? If so, are they interacting with employees online sometimes, in addition to onsite meetings, or doing their work (such as producing a report) offsite from your organization and submitting it via e-mail?
  • Does the board of directors ever “discuss” issues via e-mail exchanges or live chat before a formal face-to-face meeting? What about various committees and advisory groups?

Chances are great that you will answer one or more of these questions affirmatively. So if you discover people are already doing virtual volunteering, call it what it is and do more! Maybe  The LastVirtual Volunteering Guidebook really can help you.

Incorporating virtual volunteering into a corporate employee volunteer program

A new resource on my web site:

Incorporating virtual volunteering into a corporate employee volunteer program 
(a resource for businesses / for-profit companies)

Virtual volunteering – volunteers providing service via a computer, smart phone, tablet or other networked advice – presents a great opportunity for companies to expand their employee philanthropic offerings. Through virtual volunteering, some employees will choose to help organizations online that they are already helping onsite. Other employees who are unable to volunteer onsite at a nonprofit or school will choose to volunteer online because of the convenience. This resource reviews what your company needs to do, step-by-step, to launch or expand virtual volunteering as a part of your employee volunteering program.

Inspired by my recent webinar with Kaye Morgan-Curtis, of Newell Rubbermaid for VolunteerMatch: Virtual Volunteering: An Untapped Resource for Employee Engagement.

Internet-mediated Volunteering in the EU (virtual volunteering)

paperAt long last, Internet-mediated Volunteering in the EU:  Its history, prevalence, and approaches and how it relates to employability and social inclusion, has been published. 

My research was for the ICT4EMPL Future Work project undertaken by the Information Society Unit of the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and consumed most of my 2013.

As part of this project, I created a wiki of all of the various resources I used for my research, and it includes a list of online volunteering-related recruitment or matching web sties that are either focused on or allow for the recruitment of online volunteers from EU-countries, and a list of more than 60 organisations in EU countries that involve online volunteers in some way. The wiki offers many more resources as well, not all of which made it into the final paper.

I also blogged about what I learned from researching virtual volunteering in Europe, such as how much virtual volunteering is happening all over Europe, how Spain is, by far, the leader in Europe regarding virtual volunteering (particularly in Catalonia), how little the French seem to be doing with regard to virtual volunteering (tsk tsk), and that traditional volunteer centers in Europe are pretty much ignoring virtual volunteering – if it’s mentioned at all, it’s talked about in terms of being new and rare – which the research firmly established is not at all the case.

It would be amazing if this paper lead to significant change in the EU regarding volunteering: if volunteer centers – from the city level to the international level – fully acknowledged virtual volunteering at long last, and if detailed materials regarding how to create virtual volunteering tasks was written and published in all the various languages of Europe. It would be great if employers in Europe started valuing volunteer experience on people’s résumés, something they don’t seem to do currently. What would be particularly awesome would be the establishment of online discussion groups for managers of volunteers in European countries., something that, as far as I can tell, only exists for the UK (UKVPMs) and, to a degree, in Spain (E-Voluntas). People are hungry for virtual volunteering activities – particularly, but not limited to, people under 40 in the EU. I hear European-based NGOs and charities complaining about not being able to involve young people as volunteers – and then balk at the idea of creating online volunteering assignments. THIS HAS TO CHANGE.

Also, as a result of this and other research, I have a list of people based in Europe that I consider experts in virtual volunteering – in the U.K., in Spain (of course – mostly in Catalonia, in fact), in Germany, in Italy (met her after the research was turned in, unfortunately) and Poland, and if you are a researcher, journalist, or organization interested in virtual volunteering, and want to talk to an EU-based consultant, give me a shout and I’ll give you my list of contacts.

Also see this review of the paper by Ismael Peña-López.


When Words Get in the Way (Like “Virtual Volunteering”)

This blog originally appeared at the TechSoup blog space in March 2014:

At the start of any workshop I lead related to virtual volunteering, I ask the audience, “How many of you are engaging with volunteers virtually?” If few or no people raise their hands, I ask the question again at the end of my workshop. And the numbers always change.

Take for example the webinar I did recently for TechSoup’s audience on the best assignments for online volunteers. As usual, I ask a few minutes into the workshop how many people were involving online volunteers. The results:

Yes: 32%
No: 68%

So I went through the workshop and then, at the end, asked the question again. This time:

Yes: 58%
No: 42%

The term “virtual volunteering” is a contested term. Some people define oh-so-strictly: remote volunteers who never come on-site at an organization, and all of their service is conducted online. That means people who translate documents wouldn’t be considered online volunteers, because they aren’t actually using the Internet for their service, they are using their skills. So often, organizations are involving online volunteers – they are engaging in virtual volunteering – but because of the definition they’ve decided upon before the workshop, they have no idea they are engaged in the practice.

That’s why, at the start of any workshop, after the first poll of the room or the webinar attendees, I offer my definition of virtual volunteering:

Volunteers completing tasks, in whole or in part, off-site from the organization being assisted, using any Internet-connected device (computer, smart phone, etc.). 

That means a volunteer could perform most of his or her service for an organization on-site, but if he or she is doing some of the service from home – designing a logo, tagging photos with keywords, writing an article for a newsletter, participating in an online community of fellow volunteers – that person is also engaging in virtual volunteering.

Offering that broader definition at workshops makes people realize that, indeed, they are engaging with volunteers online, and a workshop about virtual volunteering isn’t going to help them introduce the practice; it is, instead, going to help them expand what they are already doing.

In The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, my co-author, Susan Ellis, and I talk a lot about how to expand virtual volunteering at organizations without ever saying the phrase “virtual volunteering.” We find that many organizations have an easier time accepting that five volunteers are working from their home, or work places, or coffee shops writing articles for the upcoming blog than accepting “We’ve introduced a virtual volunteering scheme!”

In fact, I have a confession to make: sometimes I don’t like the phrase virtual volunteering, or any of the other phrases – e-volunteering, micro-volunteering, crowdsourcing, and so on. These terms segregate volunteers into different groups. They cause people who are working with volunteers online in some way to say, “Oh, I’m not engaged in virtual volunteering – the volunteers I work with are real!” Sometimes, I’d like to just talk about volunteers and volunteering. But, the phrase is important, because talking about the best ways to support and involve volunteers using Internet tools, specifically, is important.

If you have a favorite networking tool for working with volunteers, we would love to hear about it? Is it Facebook? Twitter? An online collaborative space like wikispaces? Share your favorite tools – or questions about tools – in the comments below or at the Digital Engagement branch of the TechSoup Community forum!

And check out the on-demand webinar on those best assignments for online volunteers here.

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…

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.”

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