Tag Archives: research

Research Explaining How Websites Encourage Volunteering & Philanthropy

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersMost practitioners in volunteer management and community engagement don’t have time to review academic literature to see if there might be information that’s helpful in their work – and even if they do have time, academic language can be inaccessible for non-academics. I try to read as much as I can and then summarize and pass on the information that can help practitioners in their work, or even just give them ammunition for a project or funding proposal.

Below are links to two academic papers that are worth at least a skim by anyone trying to use web sites to encourage philanthropy, including volunteering. The reference lists at the end of each papers are gold mines of research for further reading:

Persuasion in Prosocial Domains: Explaining the Persuasive Affordances of Volunteering
by Peter Slattery, Patrick Finnegan and Lesley Land, all three of the Australian School of Business, UNSW Australia, and Richard Vidgen of Hull University Business School, University of Hull, UK. Presented at the Twenty Second European Conference on Information Systems, Tel Aviv, 2014.

Abstract: As technology becomes increasingly pervasive and invasive, it increasingly facilitates and instigates behaviour. Prosocial behaviours, such as volunteering, activism and philanthropy, are activities that are considered to be particularly beneficial to others. Prosocial behaviours are important within IS as: (i) they are encouraged by IS stakeholders including volunteering organisations and charities, and; (ii) they contribute to tackling social issues. However, while information technology is poised to become increasingly important for facilitating prosocial behaviour, little is known about how digital artefacts can encourage it. To address this research gap, this study seeks to explain how website features persuade in prosocial online contexts. The study uses the Repertory Grid Technique (RGT) to examine individuals’ experiences of persuasion on live volunteering websites. The analysis reveals that ease of use, trust, and creating positive emotion are important factors in persuading users to volunteer.

Examining How Perceptions of Websites Encourage Prosocial Behaviour
by Peter Slattery, Patrick Finnegan and Richard Vidgen of Australian School of Business, UNSW Australia. Presented at the Thirty Seventh International Conference on Information Systems, Dublin 2016.

Abstract: Organisations are increasingly reliant on information and communications technology (ICT) to encourage prosocial behaviour (i.e., volunteering, philanthropy and activism). However, little is known about how to use ICT to encourage prosocial behaviour. Given this research gap, the objective of this study is to outline and test a research model that assesses the role of specific perceptions of websites in encouraging prosocial behaviour. To do this, we review the literature to derive a theoretical model of relevant perceptions. We then test the extent to which this model can predict participants’ volunteering and philanthropic behaviour subsequent to their usage of a website that encourages prosocial behaviour. The findings are expected to contribute by (i) giving insights into how perceptions of websites encourage prosocial behaviour, (ii) explaining the roles of negative and positive affect in ICT domains, and (iii) developing a “persuasiveness of website scale” to help IS researchers to measure this construct.

In addition, Mr. Slattery’s 2016 PhD thesis is Explaining How Websites Are Used to Encourage Volunteering and Philanthropy. The thesis restricted from public access until March 2018, but some of its research is repeated in the aforementioned papers.

Also see this list of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, as a practice in general or focused on specific projects, on the Virtual Volunteering wiki.

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?

Research: Immunity under the Volunteer Protection Act (USA)

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing work of volunteersVolume 6, Issue 1 (Apr 2015) of the Nonprofit Policy Forum features research by Patricia Groble and Jeffrey L. Brudney, “When Good Intentions Go Wrong: Immunity under the Volunteer Protection Act.” It’s research about a law in the USA. The abstract says:

The Volunteer Protection Act (VPA) was enacted in 1997 to encourage volunteerism by protecting individuals from liability for their negligent actions while volunteering. Proponents intended to provide legal safeguards for volunteers, whom they claimed were deterred from volunteering by fears of liability. Little attention has been paid to this legislation since its enactment, however. This article examines the implementation and interpretation of the VPA through the lens of case law to determine whether the act has had its intended effects for volunteers. Our analysis of all court cases in which the VPA has been cited shows that volunteers are at risk for lawsuits over a variety of actions during the course of their volunteer activities. This analysis also demonstrates that although volunteers can avail themselves of the VPA’s protection, their success in invoking this defense is mixed.

A must read for managers of volunteers… however, it’s cost-prohibitive for most of them: the article costs $42.00 / 30,00 € / £23.00 to access (the entire issue of the journal is $235.00 / 172,00 € / £129.00. I’ll be heading to my local library to see if I can access it through them (I suspect I’ll have to schlep 100 minutes by mass transit one-way, all the way to downtown Portland via the bus and train to read it, in order to read it). The Nonprofit Policy Forum is an international journal that publishes original research and analysis on public policy issues and the public policy process related to the work of nonprofit organizations.

Also see: List of

List of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, as a practice in general or focused on specific projects (much of the research is free to access).

International Sport Volunteering – Call for Chapters

A Call for Chapters for a new book project. Posted at ISTR-L, and email-based group by the International Society for Third-Sector Research. Chapter proposals are due by May 1, 2015. And I’m guessing British English must be used.

Begin forwarded post:

International Sport Volunteering

Editors: Angela M Benson, University of Brighton and Nicholas Wise, Glasgow Caledonian University (eds)

The study of volunteering is well documented with sport voluntarism hailed as a valuable contribution to society, particularly within the western world. In terms of scale and the range of such opportunities, international sport volunteering is not only replicated through mega-sporting events, as seen in Beijing and Sochi at recent Olympic Games, but through sport development initiatives/programmes in remote communities in Africa and South America. As such, the research into sport volunteering within national boundaries is reasonably well developed, and therefore more research is needed to evaluate the impact and assess sport volunteering in international contexts at a range of scales to critically frame/ successes and limitations to the wider body of volunteering literature. International sport volunteering is often contextualized as part of sport tourism or volunteer tourism research, which is an embryonic but growing field of study. Therefore, the purpose of this timely special issue is to tease out and address conceptual uncertainties and challenges associated with international sport volunteering, pertinent to various dynamics and diverse approaches/understandings.

Linking volunteering and sport within an international (and therefore, tourism related) context is a more recent phenomenon with much of the research focusing around events; according to Baum & Lockstone (2007), even this area lacks a holistic approach and again is concentrated on predominantly national volunteers. More recent research by Nicols (2012) suggests that sport volunteering now plays a significant role in sports policy and the current demands and pressures placed on society are encouraging international volunteering. Bringing together a collection of papers adds diverse scope into the holistic and interdisciplinary nature of contemporary sports volunteering. The field of sport volunteering in an international context is clearly both dynamic and diverse with a range of opportunities and challenges emerging. For instance, a growing number of volunteer tourism organisations are offering ‘sport volunteer projects overseas’; colleges and universities are travelling with volunteer sport students to engage with communities in a sporting context; mobility of sport volunteers is occurring at events, with volunteers travelling both domestically and overseas to take part. These burgeoning opportunities however, raise a plethora of questions and issues (see below) and it is evident that the current literature offers few answers. While these questions are inherently geographical and sociological, nascent understandings inform policy, practice and performance, thus offering greater insight to better manage future sports volunteering programmes that attract internationals.

More research needs to consider sport volunteering in an international context, especially in an era where people continually seeking opportunities abroad whilst engaging in familiar activities through what are often deemed as altruistic experiences. Consequently, this special edition seeks to provide an opportunity amongst academics and practitioners to explore the relationship between these two phenomena and present ideas that capture the dynamics and diversity of international sport volunteering. Interdisciplinary and international approaches are particularly welcomed.

We, therefore, invite chapter proposal on topics that include, but are not limited to:

  • Understanding the sport volunteer in an international context (who is the volunteer in regards to their behaviour, motivation, experience, gender, contribution, impact?) To what extent are they similar or different to other international volunteers (volunteers on projects such as humanitarian, conservation, medical)?
  • Intercultural perspectives on international sport volunteering (a recent advert stated that ‘sport is a universal language’; is this true?  If so, what affect does it have on adaptation, culture confusion and cultural exchange?  If not, what engagement is happening?
  • Supply side (which sectors are involved – private, public or third sector organisations? To what extent are partnerships being formed?)
  • Sponsorship, funding and payment (how is international sport volunteering being funded?)
  • Impact (social, economic, environmental) (is it sustainable?) upon people and places (host communities, volunteers, cities, townships) (are host communities in western cities less impacted than host communities in developing countries where international sport volunteering takes place?)
  • Social development aspects (whose development the volunteers and/or the participants?)
  • Legacy of volunteering in international sport volunteering – tangible and intangible (whose legacy – the country where the volunteering took place or the country the volunteers return to?) (To what extent do relationships continue after volunteers return home?) (Do episodic volunteers become long-term volunteers?)
  • Management of key stakeholders (what are the issues related to the management of international sport volunteering?)
  • The media is full of articles regarding the quality of volunteer tourism should the current academic debates and discussions around this include international sport volunteering.
  • Critical reflections of self, including auto-ethnographies where the international volunteer critiques their role/position during the process of volunteering and conducting research

We are happy to discuss and consider other areas and case-studies related to the main topic area of international sport volunteering.

Chapter proposals should be between 300-500 words in length and should be emailed to both Angela M Benson amb16@brigthon.ac.uk and Nicolas Wise Nicholas.Wise@gcu.ac.uk by the 1st May 2015.

We have already discussed the proposal with a publisher who is keen to work with us on this.

Angela and Nick

Dr Angela M Benson
Principal Lecturer in Sustainable Tourism Management and Development
Director of Postgraduate Studies (Integrated Doctoral Framework)
Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Canberra, Australia
Centre of Sport, Tourism and Leisure Studies (CoSTLS)
Eastbourne Campus
Denton Road
East Sussex
BN20 7SR
Tel: +44 (0) 1273643621
Fax: +44 (0) 1273 643949
Email: amb16@brighton.ac.uk

ESRC Seminar Series – Principal Investigator for “Reconceptualising International Volunteering”. Partner institutions University of Kent and University of Strathclyde. 2013 – 2015. http://about.brighton.ac.uk/sasm/research/researchevents/reconceptualising-international-volunteering/

Special Issue (forthcoming):

Theme Editor: Dr Angela M Benson. Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes   – Why and how should the international volunteer tourism experience be improved?  Volume 7 Number 2  2015 Information about the themed issue can be found at: http://www.emeraldgrouppublishing.com/products/journals/news_story.htm?id=5976

Latest Papers (2014):

Darcy, S., Dickson, T. J., and Benson, A.M. (2014) London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games: Including volunteers with disabilities, a podium performance?  Event Management. 18 : 431-446.

Benson, A.M., Dickson, T. J., Terwiel, A. and Blackman, D. (2014) Training of Vancouver 2010 volunteers: a legacy opportunity? Special Issue: The Olympic Legacy; Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences. 9(2): 210-226.

Dickson, T. J., Benson, A.M. and Terwiel, A. (2014) Mega-event volunteers, similar or different? Vancouver 2010 vs. London 2012. International Journal of Event and Festival Management. 5(2): 164-179.

Research Fellow re: in Civil Society Organisations and research, Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility

Closing date: 14-Jan-2015

De Montfort University”s Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility is offering the position of a Research Fellow to work across a number of European and national research projects, including:
GREAT (www.great-project.eu)
RESPONSIBILITY (http://responsibility-rri.eu/?lang=en)
Responsible-Industry (www.responsible-industry.eu)
CONISDER (www.consider-project.eu)
Network Analysis and Simulation of Civil Society Organisations in Research
Human Brain Project (http://www.humanbrainproject.eu/)
DREAM (http://dream2020.eu/)
SATORI (http://satoriproject.eu/)

The CCSR contributions to these projects share the focus on responsible research and innovation (RRI). As research fellow you will be expected to work on specific aspects of these projects and also create synergies between them. You will conduct high quality research, shape the work and take initiatives, and publish the results of the work in high quality outlets and publications. Working closely with leading scholars from a range of disciplines, you will also contribute to the initiation of new research initiatives of the Centre.

Job Details


How many virtual volunteering projects are there?

I get these questions frequently:

How many virtual volunteering / digital volunteering or microvolunteering projects are there?

How many people are engaged in virtual volunteering?

The answer: NO ONE KNOWS.

vvbooklittleI can say that there are at least thousands of virtual volunteering projects in the world, and MANY thousands of people engaged in virtual volunteering, but I cannot tell you exactly how many.

No one can.

Why can’t those questions be answered? Because no one is tracking the number of projects nor the number of volunteers engaged in such. Why is no one tracking such? Because IT’S IMPOSSIBLE. Why is it impossible? Because:

  • Most volunteering tasks – virtual or not – aren’t officially registered anywhere, maybe not even in the organization where they are happening. Individual organizations struggle to count how many volunteers actively engaged with them in any one year! You can’t even rely on web sites where organizations recruit volunteers, since not every organization use such sites – nonprofits and NGOs often use their own web sites and social media channels to recruit volunteers for online tasks, in addition to offline means – announcing the availability of online tasks at an onsite meeting, for instance. I can’t count how many times an organization tells me they aren’t involving online volunteers, and after I explain to them what virtual volunteering is, they realize, in fact, they ARE involving digital volunteers.
  • Many, and maybe most, organizations involving volunteers virtually don’t think of themselves as involving online volunteers, and most people that become volunteers online don’t think of themselves as online volunteers or digital volunteers. People volunteer, period. Organizations involve volunteers, period. Many, and maybe most, organizations don’t distinguish when a person is an onsite volunteer versus an online volunteer.
  • No one can say how many group volunteering events have happened in any given area. Or family volunteering. Or teen volunteering. Or pro bono service. Again – none of these are officially, regularly registered anywhere, and are often not even tracked and recorded within the agency or department that organized such!
  • The terms volunteer and volunteering are contested terms, in any language (not just English); there is not universal agreement on their definitions and they are not uniformly used the same way – if they are used at all by organizations (they often are not). There’s also not agreement on terms like virtual volunteering, micro volunteering, digital volunteering or cyber volunteering. When we aren’t all using the same words regarding online volunteers, how can we even begin to try to count such?

It was a huge challenge for me to do a research paper in 2013 regarding Internet-mediated Volunteering in the EU (virtual volunteering). I made it clear to the EU agency that hired me that I would NOT be finding every organization in Europe engaged in virtual volunteering – I wouldn’t even come close – because it would be impossible, for all the reasons I have already mentioned, plus because of the multitude of languages in Europe. In several weeks reviewing just online materials, with my limited language abilities and Google Translate, I found 60 organizations involving online volunteers – but imagine how many I would have found if I could have visited ever NGO umbrella organization in every country and explained what is meant by virtual volunteering – like so many people that attend my workshops, they would realize that they have been working with online volunteers for YEARS and didn’t know it.

It’s the same with hackathons. Knowbility, in Austin, Texas, has been doing hackathons since the 1990s, but they never called them that – the term didn’t become widely known and used until fairly recently. How many other nonprofits have been doing hackathons for years and haven’t known it?

So here’s what we can say:

  • Virtual volunteering is happening on every country on Earth that has Internet access – both organizations engaging with volunteers online and people volunteering their time online.
  • In fully-developed countries (the USA, Canada, Western Europe, etc.), transitional countries (such as those that were a part of the Soviet Union), and developing countries with a sizable population with Internet access (South Africa, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, etc.), there are more online volunteers / digital volunteers, and more projects that are involving volunteers, than can be counted. There are not dozens, not hundreds-there are thousands of digital volunteering projects, collectively, in all these countries.
  • Virtual volunteering is a practice that’s more than 30 years old.
  • The USA probably has the largest number of virtual volunteering-related projects and the largest number of online volunteers – but other virtual volunteering hot spots include Canada, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Ukraine, Brazil and India. In Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa are worthy of attention as well.

Also see:

How many organizations involve online volunteers?

Research on USA volunteerism excludes virtual volunteering

When words get in the way (like “Virtual Volunteering”)

Volunteerism research should include virtual volunteering!

Finding out how many orgs are involving online volunteers

Penn Social Impact Doctoral Fellows Program

The University of Pennsylvania’s Nonprofit Leadership (NPL) Program invites doctoral student researchers to apply for the 2014 Penn Social Impact Doctoral Fellows Program.

Facilitated by Peter Frumkin, Director of the NPL Program, the program will explore emerging issues in the world of nonprofit organizations, voluntary action, philanthropy and international civil society. The program is June 7 – July 1, 2014 at The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Students are expected to submit a draft research paper that they would like to refine and prepare for publication during the program. Housing near the Penn campus and $3,000 stipends are provided to all 2014 Summer Fellows.

Eligibility: Graduate students currently enrolled in PhD programs at degree-granting institutions

Submission deadline: Friday, March 14, 2014

Submission requirements: A resume, draft research paper (unpublished) on a topic related to the nonprofit sector, and an abstract. Send to Leeamy1@sp2.upenn.edu by March 14, 2014.

New report NOT by me re: microvolunteering

At long last, someone that is not me has conducted a fact-based, non-hype review of micro volunteering, and not just from the volunteers’ point of view, but from the volunteer-involving organizations point of view as well. Hurrah!

Published by the Institute for Volunteering Research and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the report, The value of giving a little time Understanding the potential of micro-volunteering, is focused on United Kingdom-based efforts, but is applicable to other countries regarding what micro volunteering really looks like, and what it takes for it to be successful.

Do I agree with everything in the report? No. For instance, the writers don’t believe micro volunteering is episodic volunteering; I’m adamant that it is. The writers include offline activities within their definition of micro volunteering, something that is a very new way of thinking. But every researcher has to define the parameters of their study, and I respect how they’ve chosen to define the practice, even if I don’t agree with it 100%.

And is it micro volunteering, microvolunteering, or micro-volunteering? I just do whatever spell check tells me…

That said, it’s a good report and worth your time to read, particularly if you are skeptical of the idea of micro volunteering. My favorite part was part 6, “What are the challenges of micro- volunteering?” It’s the part of the report that breaks new ground, because (1) it admits that there ARE real challenges to creating micro tasks and involving volunteers in those tasks, something people promoting micro volunteering to date have been reluctant to admit, and (2) it offers a detailed list of those real challenges, and a start on how they might be addressed.

I have managed probably hundreds of online volunteers in micro volunteering projects – though it didn’t have a snazzy name for most of the years I did so. In September 2013, I blogged at TechSoup about what it’s like to manage its micro volunteering initiative, Donate Your Brain, pointing out just how much time and effort it takes to look for micro volunteering opportunities in relation to the TechSoup community forum. I’d like to see others that are creating micro volunteering tasks and supporting the volunteers in them do this as well: talk about what it REALLY takes!

I have to say that Table 3 in the report, “Are organisations experiencing the benefits of micro-volunteering?”, made me laugh out loud – it reads oh-so-much like the benefits of virtual volunteering for organizations that was written back in the 1990s!

Here’s more of my own recommendations regarding micro volunteering. And in January 2014, The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook will be published, and it includes practical guidelines on how to create micro tasks for volunteers, and how to support volunteers in those tasks. But more information, and voices, are needed! We need more, real research that answers these questions, in detail:

  • What does successful micro volunteering look like for an organization? I don’t mean just a list of tasks; how do they measure success? What measurable impact does engaging with volunteers in micro tasks look like, for the organization and those it serves?
  • How much time and other investment, in detail, is required by the organization to create successful micro volunteering that makes the investment of time and effort by the organization worth it?

Let’s hope that national institutes that study community engagement, as well as traditional volunteer centers, will, at last, embrace micro volunteering (and all virtual volunteering, for that matter) and start including it in their studies, workshops, publications and trainings.

With all that said, and as much as I really do like this report, the reality is that not every organization is going to be able to create micro tasks for micro volunteering. Just as not every organization can, or should, create opportunities for family volunteers, or other group volunteers. Not every task can be altered so that any volunteer can do it. Not every task can be done by episodic volunteers – sometimes, the best person for a task or role is a long-term volunteer who can give a substantial amount of time every month. Different tasks require different kinds of staffing. And all volunteering, including micro volunteering, takes real time – let’s NOT say it’s perfect for people that don’t have time to volunteer, because it DOES take real time, even if it’s just a few minutes.

The challenge isn’t creating micro tasks for volunteers; the much greater challenge is supporting those charged with supporting volunteers at organizations large and small with the resources they need to create all of these different avenues for volunteer engagement. Are you ready to fund and equip your manager of volunteers with the resources he or she needs to make this a reality?

Finding out how many orgs are involving online volunteers

A followup to my last blog, where I whined that so many organizations charged with measuring volunteering in a region or country refuse to ask any questions related to virtual volunteering.

As I’ve said many times: when I do workshops on virtual volunteering, and describe all the different aspects of what online volunteering looks like, including microvolunteering, someone always raises a hand or comes up to me afterwards to say, “My organization has online volunteers and I didn’t even know it!” or “I’m an online volunteer and I didn’t know it!”

If you ask organizations, “Do you have virtual volunteering / microvolunteering at your organization?” most will say “No.” But if you ask the question differently, the answer is often “Yes!”

How would YOU ask the question of organizations to find out if they were engaging volunteers online?

Here’s one idea:

In the last 12 months, did any volunteers helping your organization work in whole or in-part offsite on behalf of your organization, and use their own computers, smart phones, notebooks (Internet-enabled devices) from their home, work or elsewhere offsite, to provide updates on their volunteering, or the results of their volunteering?

What is your idea for ONE question? Please post it in the comments.

Challenges to getting answers:

  • There’s rarely just one person at an organization involving volunteers; often, several employees or key volunteers are involving volunteers, but there may not be one person tracking all of this involvement. So if you ask this question of just one person at the organization, you might not get an accurate answer.
  • The word volunteer is contested. People will say, “Oh, we don’t have volunteers. We have pro bono consultants, we have unpaid interns, we have executives online, we have board members, but we do not have volunteers.” That means someone who is advising your HR manager regarding the latest legislation that might affect hiring or your overworked marketing person regarding social media, and offering this advice unpaid, from the comfort of his or her  home or office or a coffee shop, won’t be counted as an online volunteer – even though they are. In fact, I talked to the manager of an online tutoring program who brought together students and what she called “subject matter experts” (SMES) together online for school assignments, but because it never dawned on her that the SMES were volunteers (unpaid, donating their service to a cause they believed in), she had no idea she was managing a volunteer program, let alone a virtual volunteering program.

This is not easy. I’ve been researching virtual volunteering since 1996 and, geesh, it’s still not easy! When does it get easier?!

Volunteerism research should include virtual volunteering!

The NCVO UK Civil Society Almanac , published by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), maps the the size and scope of the voluntary sector in the United Kingdom.

The Independent Sector does the same for the USA, as well as promoting the oh-so-dreadful dollar value of volunteer time (which does so much to reinforce the idea that volunteers are a great way to save money and replace paid staff). The Volunteering and Civic Life in America report from the Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship also provides stats on volunteering in the USA.

You can find statistics online for volunteerism in Australia.

Through these and other research organizations, you can find out about how many organizations are involving volunteers, or the demographics of volunteers in certain countries.

But here’s what you can’t find out:

  • how many organizations are using the Internet to recruit, screen and/or support volunteers
  • how many people are using the Internet as a part of their volunteering service
  • the demographics of people using the Internet as a part of their volunteering service
  • etc.

Why? Because, even in 2013, these organizations and other researchers are STILL not asking these questions as a part of their studies / data collection regarding volunteering.

Virtual volunteering – including microvolunteering – has been practiced as long as there has been an Internet – making it a practice more than 30 years old. The Virtual Volunteering Project did the first research regarding virtual volunteering in the last 1990s. References to using the Internet as a part of volunteering service are now common place in trainings, books and articles. Yet… these research organizations continue to ignore online tools as a part of volunteering.

I am regularly asked for data regarding online volunteering – how many organizations are engaging people online, who is volunteering online, etc. And I cannot answer those questions with hard data because, since the expiration of the Virtual Volunteering Project, there is no one collecting the data!

And it’s worth noting: back in 2012, myself and Rob Jackson drafted and circulated a survey regarding software used to manage volunteer information. The purpose of the survey was to gather some basic data that might help organizations that involve volunteers to make better-informed decisions when choosing software, and to help software designers to understand the needs of those organizations. We published the results of the survey here (in PDF). But we learned some things that had nothing to do with software.

We asked a lot of questions that didn’t related directly to software, like about how many volunteers these organizations managed, as well as what volunteers did. We expected the percentage of volunteers that worked onsite to be huge. We were very surprised, and pleased, to find, instead, that so many organizations that responded to our survey involved volunteers that:

  • worked offsite, with no direct supervision by staff
  • worked directly with clients
  • worked directly with the general public
  • worked online from their home, work, school or other offsite computer or handheld device
    (virtual volunteering, including microvolunteering)
  • engaged in on-off activities, like a beach cleanup – otherwise known as episodic volunteering

You can see the breakdown for yourself here.

Wouldn’t it be great if NCVO, the Independent Sector, CNCS, the Points of Light Foundation, universities, and anyone researching anything to do with volunteering anywhere would start asking questions related to online tools? Wouldn’t it be great if finally, in 2013, they finally understood that virtual volunteering is an established, widespread practice and is worthy of inclusion in all discussions and research about volunteering?

I guess I’ll keep dreaming. Or move to Canada. Because, OF COURSE, the Canada report on volunteering in that country includes statistics on virtual volunteering.