Tag Archives: microvolunteering

Mike Bright, Microvolunteering’s #1 Fan, Has Passed Away

I am heart-broken to announce that Mike Bright passed away on Tuesday after battling cancer since October of last year. I have heard from his wife, Deb <debmike@talktalk.net>, and have received permission to share the news.

Mike BrightMike Bright was the biggest, most passionate promoter of microvolunteering EVER. He launched the Help From Home initiative (http://helpfromhome.org/) entirely on his own and leveraged the Internet brilliantly to promote this form of episodic virtual volunteering, giving it more attention than it has ever had before. Because of his extensive work, I link to him on both my own web site and on the Virtual Volunteering wiki. Susan Ellis and I have a photo of Mike, in his PJs at a computer (at left), on page 31 of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, in the section about microvolunteering (of course). And I featured Mike prominently in a report for the European Commission, the government of the EU, regarding the prevalence and potential of virtual volunteering in Europe. I would say that it’s because of Mike’s efforts to track microvolunteering in the UK that I am able to say the UK is #2, behind Spain and, perhaps, tied with Poland, for having the greatest amount of virtual volunteering in Europe. Mike’s contributions and promotions regarding microvolunteering have been invaluable to nonprofits, NGOs, charities, and other organizations all over the world – and his legacy will be all that he wrote and researched on the subject.

I am so sorry I never got to meet Mike in-person, but I have lost a respected, admired colleague nonetheless.

Deb said in an email to me, “just to let you know Mike’s Special Day will be held on 14th February 2017, Valentines Day. No flowers but donations to Oxfam and FoodBank if you so wish. Black isn’t the name of the game and we have asked people to wear what they feel comfortable in.” Feel free to contact her if you want to offer condolences.

We’ve lost such an important contributor to the field.

April 17 2017 u update: I’ve created this listing of 300 tweets celebrating & promoting microvolunteering, from April 10 to April 17, 2017, via Storify. These tweets used the tag #microday. Microvolunteering Day is April 15 and was founded by Mike.

Also, Mike’s family is open to turning over his Help From Home and Microvolunteering Day initiatives to an organization that will make a commitment to maintain the two web sites, at their current web addresses, for at least two years, will keep the social media accounts active in that time, and will maintain Mike’s vision, focus exclusively on promoting microvolunteering, both to online volunteers and to organizations, in that time. Here’s more information.

Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

Back in 2000, when Al Gore ran for President of the USA, his campaign championed virtual volunteering, including microvolunteering, by recruiting online volunteers to help online with his election efforts. I was getting ready to leave the Virtual Volunteering Project at the time, to work for UNDP/UNV in Germany, and was not able to document these pioneering efforts at the time. I remembered this effort recently, per the current (and seemingly never-ending) Presidential campaign in the USA, and went digging on archive.org to find the original materials from that campaign regarding this work with online volunteers. They are worth looking at – they are still an excellent example of how to clarify expectations for a virtual volunteering role, something I emphasize again and again in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. They also show that virtual volunteering, including microvlunteering, is NOT a new idea.

He even had an “app” for people with personal digital assistants (PDAs), the precursor to the smart phone.

Somewhere on the archived Gore-for-President site is also a mention of either online volunteering or virtual volunteering, but I can’t find it anymore…

And by the way: Al Gore never claimed he invented the Internet. But he was most certainly one of the visionaries responsible for helping to bring it into being, by fostering its development in a legislative sense.

Also see:

Volunteers are more important than social media in Presidential elections

A volunteerism blog, not a political one

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?

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

Even if your program’s volunteers are working onsite, and you frequently interact with them onsite, face-to-face, here are 11 easy ways you should be using the Internet and text messaging to support and involve those volunteers:

  • Have a list of volunteers and their accomplishments on your organization’s web site, and regularly update that list. Photos of volunteers in action are great too. This says to your volunteers, “Your contributions matter to us – YOU matter to us.” It also helps anyone who visits your web site understand that you value volunteers, and helps others at your organization see volunteer engagement as important as financial donations, client relations, and program activities.
  • Profile a volunteer and his or her accomplishments at least twice a month on your program’s Facebook page, Twitter account and other social media. Do this for all the same reasons mentioned in the first bullet.
  • Have an online discussion group for all volunteers, where information of value ot your volunteers is regularly posted, questions are regularly posed, and feedback regularly sought. Use this group to remind volunteers of new policies, or changes in policies, as well. All volunteers should stay on the group when they go on maternity leave, or take a break from volunteering for any reason, to keep them engaged with the organization.
  • Use text messaging to remind volunteers of work shifts, very special events or critical deadlines.
  • Create a policy for volunteers regarding the taking of photos during their service times, and regarding how they should share them and how they should tag them, including how they should tag your organization.
  • Encourage volunteers to allow such photos to be used by your organization, with permission.
  • Invite volunteers to write a blog on behalf of your organization, and if you track volunteer hours, count this time in tracking their service time.
  • Post your volunteer policies online. If you don’t want to share them with the public, post them in a password-protected area. If you have an online discussion group on Yahoo, you can post these in the “files” section, which an be accessed by your group members at any time.
  • Create a one-minute video showcasing the contributions of your volunteers – showing them in action, showing them laughing, etc. – and post it to YouTube or Vimeo, and link it from your web site and all your social media accounts.
  • Look for software that would allow volunteers to submit their completed service hours and volunteering accomplishments online, via their own devices, from wherever they want to, and to be able to see their hours and accomplishments to date.
  • Suggest an app or other online tool – or more than one – that would be particularly helpful for your volunteers as a part of their service. For instance, if a significant number of volunteers take mass transit to get to your location, is there a free app available that could help them buy tickets and find bus and train schedules on demand? If volunteers need to record their mileage during volunteer activities or record hours worked, is there a good, free app you can recommend to them for that? Are there health-related apps your volunteers could use in their work with clients regarding health issues? If volunteers are assisting people in domestic violence situations, do they know about apps that could help them identify places where clients could seek shelter immediately? If volunteers are assisting people living in poverty, do they know about apps that could help them identify free summer meal programs for children?

Please, no “our volunteers are seniors and don’t use the Internet” excuses (the facts dispute this), nor “our clients are homeless/refugees and don’t have smart phones” (again, the facts say otherwise). If you don’t believe most of these folks are online, fine, but there are enough of them online that you need to adopt these 10 simple activities. To do so demonstrates that your program is competent, organized, supportive, even transparent. To not do so will turn young volunteers away, hide the importance and impact of volunteer engagement from both the public and from people at your organization, and make some people suspicious of your stated abilities to meet your mission.

vvbooklittleWant more ideas for using computers, tablets, smart phones, even old-fashioned cell phones, to support and involve volunteers? Or want to create tasks specifically for volunteers to do online, remotely?  The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook has all of this information and more. It’s available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. It’s written in a style so that the suggestions can be used with any online tools, both those in use now and those that will become popular after, say, Facebook goes the way of America Online. This is a resource for anyone that works with volunteers – the marketing manager, the director of client services, and on and on – not just the official manager of volunteers.

And if you have more simple ideas for easy ways an organization or program can use the Internet and text messaging to support and involve volunteers, please offer such in the comments below.

Also see why we called it The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

Request to all those training re: volunteer management

Are you teaching a volunteer management 101 class, where you talk about the basics of successfully managing volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to identify tasks for volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to recruit volunteers?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to keep volunteers engaged/volunteer retainment?

Are you going to teach a workshop on how to recognize/honor volunteers?

If you said yes to any of these questions, then here’s a thought. Actually, it’s a very strong suggestion: you absolutely should include virtual volunteering, whether or not you ever say the phrase virtual volunteering. You absolutely should talk about how to use the Internet – email, a web site, social media, third-party web sites – in each and every aspect of those basics of volunteer management. No exceptions. No excuses.

Consider this: no high-quality marketing workshop about event promotion would not talk about the Internet. No high-quality HR seminar or webinar would talk about worker recruitment and not talk about the Internet. No high-quality management class about better-supporting large numbers of employees in their work would not talk about digital networking tools. So why do those that work with volunteers settle for volunteer management workshops, even on the most basic subject, that don’t integrate into the class the Internet use regarding supporting and involving volunteers?

I hear a lot of excuses for consultants and other workshop leaders who don’t talk about Internet tools in a course regarding the management of volunteers:

  • The volunteer managers I’m working with don’t work with volunteers that use the Internet or text messing
  • The volunteer managers I’m working with are at organizations focused on the arts or the environment or animals or homelessness and therefore don’t need to talk about the Internet or text messaging
  • There’s a separate workshop for talking about digital tools
  • The volunteer managers I’m working with have volunteers that are over 55

ARGH! Not one of those excuses is valid for not integrating talk of the Internet throughout any volunteer workshop addressing basic topics like recruitment, retainment, task identification, etc. NOT ONE. In fact, I think anyone who attends a workshop on working with volunteers, especially a volunteer management 101 course, whether hosted by a volunteer center, a nonprofit support center, or a college or university, whether online or onsite, should ask for at least a partial refund if virtual volunteering is not fully integrated into the course (it’s either not mentioned at all or is briefly mentioned at the end of the class). There is NO excuse for this, it shows a lack of competency on the part of the workshop leader and it’s time to demand better!

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! The consequences of not integrating Internet use into volunteer management 101 workshops? It ill-prepares people for working with volunteers. It also immediately contributes to the stereotype that nonprofits are out-of-touch and old-fashioned.

vvbooklittleWe called it The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook not because we don’t think there will be more to say about virtual volunteering in the future, not because we don’t think there will be new developments on the subject, but because we really hope it’s the last book focused only on virtual volunteering, because we hope all books written about working with volunteers, whether in general or regarding a very specific part of the management of volunteers, like mentoring or risk management or recruitment or board member support or whatever, will now fully integrate the use of the Internet/digital tools in their suggestions. We hope that every workshop on any aspect of volunteer management, and every certificate regarding the management of volunteers, will fully integrate the various uses of the Internet in their suggestions. There’s no excuse not to!

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.

Keynote speaking in South Carolina & Washington state!

logoCome here me speak this month or next!

Me in South Carolina Jan. 27 – 29, 2016
I’ll be the keynote speaker and presenting workshops at the South Carolina Association for Volunteer Administration (SCAVA) annual conference, January 27-29, 2016 in North Myrtle Beach! You do not have to be a member of SCAVA to attend. Join me!

Me in Vancouver, Washington (state – USA) Feb. 11, 2016
I’ll be the keynote speaker at the Nonprofit Network Southwest Washington / Directors of Volunteer Programs Association (DVPA) conference on Thurs., February 11 in Vancouver, Washington (state), USA.

You can book me for your conference or workshop! After February 2016, my consulting schedule is wide open. I am available for presentations, short-term consultations, long-term projects, part-time positions, and, for the right role, a full-time permanent position. Here’s what I can do for your organization/initiative.

There are free online workshops by me which you can view anytime, if you want to know more about my presentation style. Most are more than 45 minutes long:

I’m available for interviews on Skype or your preferred video conferencing tool, and, of course, by phone – I’m on West Coast time (the same as Los Angeles). I’m available for in-person, onsite interviews in and around Portland, Oregon (the area where I live), and am willing to travel most anywhere for an interview or as part of a short-term consultation.

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

Yes, I love court-ordered community service folks

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersThe Oregon Volunteers Commission for Voluntary Action and Service recently hosted meetings all over the state of Oregon with representatives from nonprofits, religious organizations and government agencies that involve volunteers, and volunteers themselves, to gather information to use in the 2016-18 Oregon State Service Plan and prepare a report for the Oregon Legislature on how to strengthen volunteerism and engagement.

I attended the Washington County meeting. Not many people attended, unfortunately, but the attendees that were there were enthusiastic and ready to work. The second best part of the meeting, for me, was watching one of the commission board members begin to realize just what a pain in the neck requests to nonprofits from corporations for group volunteering activities can be.

The best part of the meeting, for me, was when Sarah Delphine of Hillsboro Parks & Recreation said she loved working with court-ordered community service folks, and I immediately demanded a high-five. Because, for the most part, I love them too. I’ve had good experiences with them as online volunteers.

Oh how that point of view puts me on the outs with so many managers of volunteers! There are regularly rants on various online groups from people that hate working with court-ordered community service folks – or anyone being required to provide community service, including students volunteering as part of a class assignment. “They aren’t really volunteers! I shouldn’t have to work with them!” Gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair…

I approach management of volunteers as community engagement. I’m not just trying to get work done; I’m trying to build relationships and engage with the community, however I might define the community. Organizations I work for often want to engage a diversity of community members – and if they don’t, it’s something I push very hard for. And that includes engaging with community members who are far from perfect.

Let me be clear: I’m not going to involve anyone as a volunteer, online or onsite, that I don’t think is appropriate for the organization, court-ordered or not. I’m not going to create a volunteering assignment just to involve a particular kind of person or a particular group if I don’t think that assignment has real value to the organization where I’m working. I will tell a volunteer – or a group of volunteers, even from a very well-known Fortune 500 corporation – “No, I don’t think we can accommodate you as a volunteer. You might try looking on VolunteerMatch for something else.” My goal is to serve the mission of the organization, and that often means saying no to someone who wants to volunteer. I won’t lower the standards of the organization for anyone.

That said, I’ve worked with about half a dozen online volunteers that were ordered to perform community service by the court, and all have been terrific. And all were VOLUNTEERS, and I treated them as such.

Not everyone who has contacted me to volunteer online to fulfill a court order has ended up volunteering with me. Most disappear after I write them back – just as most people that inquire about volunteering in general disappear. Why do most folks disappear? Because it’s so easy to say “I want to volunteer with you!” So easy to send that email, send that text, make that call. But it’s much harder to actually do it, court-ordered or not – it dawns on folks that, oh, volunteering, online or onsite, really does take time and effort, and they fade away, off to look at some other shiny something they read about online.

My first communication with every person that wants to volunteer notes, among other things, that they have to get permission from the court or their probation officer BEFORE they start volunteering with me if they are wanting to volunteer to fulfill such an obligation. Many times, they don’t get the permission – the court or probation officer says no. So that’s another factor that’s kept the numbers of court-ordered folks I’ve worked with quite low. But for the half a dozen folks who did get permission to volunteer online with me: they were terrific volunteers. They got the assignment done, they did the assignment correctly, they did it on time, they stayed in touch – and, in addition, they volunteered more hours than they had to by the court. One guy stuck around for a few months doing small online assignments for me, going far beyond anything the court had asked for. And I thanked them, just like I did with any volunteer: they got listed on a web page that named them and what they did, along with all other volunteers, they got an email thank you from me, they got invited to focus groups, and on and on.

I really want to help people doing court-ordered service to volunteer. That’s why I created a web page specifically to help guide them. And that’s why I created a web page of where to find virtual volunteering & home-based volunteering with established nonprofits – because there are so many companies out there claiming to give court-ordered community service folks the hours they need for a small fee (please do NOT pay a company for online community service!).

You can involve court-ordered community service volunteers without lowering your standards for volunteers. But don’t say no to someone who needs volunteering time for a court or probation just because its mandatory service, because it’s not pure volunteering – whatever that is. Put the person through all the same screening and orienting you do for any volunteer candidate. If they make the cut, bring them on board. If you see volunteer management as community engagement, as something so much more than just getting work done, there’s no reason not to.

vvbooklittleWant to know more about the realities of engaging volunteers online? Hey, there’s a book for that! The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook is available for purchase, as a hardback book or an e-book. You will not find a more detailed guide for using the Internet to support and involve volunteers! It includes extensive information on safety and confidentiality, for those wanting to use such as an excuse for not involving online volunteers, court-ordered or not – and has specific advice regarding working with court-ordered volunteers.

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.