Tag Archives: virtual volunteering

The legacy of early tech4good initiatives

UNLogoThe Internet changes so quickly. As does our offline world. It’s amazing not only how quickly web sites go away, but how often entire initiatives are scrubbed online as well – even major United Nations initiatives that were covered extensively once-upon-a-time in major media. That’s a big problem if much of your professional work has been for and with online initiatives.

I’ve been working with organizations online since the 1990s, and many of those organizations are long gone. The initiatives I worked with may have gotten coverage from major media outlets and had huge names behind them back in the day – David Bowie, Bill Clinton, Bono, Nelson Mandela and more – and done a lot of great work, but when those initiatives go away, so do their web sites, all their research and all the records of their work – sometimes from the Internet Wayback Machine as well.

You may think outdated information is no longer useful and should go away. The reality is that “old” information is often vitally important. If anything, it often offers baseline data you can use to compare with data now, and together, it shows you, for instance, if the situation has improved for women online, or if the challenges for women getting online are the same now as they were in the 1990s, or if the promises made now regarding technology are the same unrealized promises from 20 or 30 years ago, and on and on. Having access to old information can also help you avoid previous missteps – or rediscover something that never should have gone away that you can use now.

If you can remember a defunct initiative’s web site address, you can often find archived versions of the site at archive.org, a site I use at least a few times a month. But if you can’t remember a defunct initiative’s URL, you may never be able to find deleted information again. And, as has already been noted, archive.org may not have the web site; sometimes, new owners of an organization ask for old web sites to be taken down, and the site complies.

Early in 2016, I started spending a lot of time updating various pages on Wikipedia related to subjects of greatest interest to me, including several defunct tech4good initiatives. Many times, when I’m trying to find information about a now-defunct volunteering or tech initiative, a Google or Bing search leads me to a page on Wikipedia, but the information isn’t always up-to-date or complete. When I can improve an entry, I do. But a big problem with Wikipedia is that someone can come along at any time and rewrite and delete all of your hard work – or even delete an entire page you have relied on for reference for modern research projects and proposals. I’ll keep updating Wikipedia, but I’ve realized there’s a need to create a more permanent archive of some of the volunteering and tech initiatives with which I’ve been associated, as well as those that I know did great work in the past.

So I have created the following pages on my own web site, to more permanently capture this information. Some pages are just summaries, while other sections are comprehensive. Whenever possible, I’ve included the original URLs, so that you can use archive.org to see complete web sites of these initiatives yourself, if they are there at all. I hope this info is helpful to those who worked on such initiatives in the past and would like to reference this work, as well as helpful to those doing research on the impact of nonprofit/NGO tech use, tech4good, ICT4D, volunteering and other initiatives.

I also hope these pages will be a caution to those who launching so-called disruptive technologies, or a tech tool or management approach the designers believe is entirely new and innovative, or a tool or approach with some pie-in-the-sky promises: always look at what’s been done before. You might be surprised to find that what you were promising now, or think you invented, was talked about many years ago:

United Nations Tech4Good / ICT4D Initiatives, a list of the various UN initiatives that have been launched since 2000 to promote the use of computers, feature phones, smart phones and various networked devices in development and humanitarian activities, to promote digital literacy and equitable access to the “information society,” and to bridge the digital divide. My goal in creating this page is to help researchers, as well as to remind current UN initiatives that much work regarding ICT4D has been done by various UN employees, consultants and volunteers for more than 15 years (and perhaps longer?).

United Nations Technology Service (UNITeS), a global volunteer initiative created by Kofi Annan in 2000. UNITeS both supported volunteers applying information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) and promoted volunteerism as a fundamental element of successful ICT4D initiatives. It was administered by the UN Volunteers program, part of UNDP, and during the tenure of UNITeS, the UNV program helped place and/or support more than 300 volunteers applying ICT4D in more than 50 developing countries, including 28 Least Developed Countries (LDC), making it one of the largest volunteering in ICT4D initiatives. Part of the UNITeS mandate was to try to track all of the various tech volunteering initiatives and encourage them to share their best practices and challenges with each other. UNITeS was discontinued as an active program in 2005.

What Was NetAid?
A history of the NetAid initiative, part of which became the UN’s Online Volunteering service. This is what I was referring to specifically with all that name-dropping at the start of this blog.

Lessons from onlinevolunteering.org
Some key learnings from directing the UN’s Online Volunteering service from February 2001 to February 2005, when I directed the initiative, including support materials for those using the service to host online volunteers. This material, most of which I authored, was recently removed from the latest version of the OV service.

Tech Volunteer Groups / ICT4D Volunteers
A list of tech volunteering initiatives, some defunct, some still going strong, that recruit tech experts to volunteer their time support either local nonprofit organizations or NGOs in developing countries regarding computer hardware, software and Internet tech-related tasks.

The Virtual Volunteering Project
In 1995, a then-new nonprofit organization called Impact Online, based in Palo Alto, California, began promoting the idea of virtual volunteering, a phrase that was probably first used by one of Impact Online’s co-founders, Steve Glikbarg. In 1996, Impact Online received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to launch an initiative to research the practice of virtual volunteering and to promote the practice to nonprofit organizations in the United States. This new initiative was dubbed the Virtual Volunteering Project, and the Web site was launched in early 1997. After one year, the Virtual Volunteering Project moved to the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and Impact Online became VolunteerMatch. I directed the project from December 1996 through January 2001, when I left for the UN; the project was then discontinued. This is an archive of the Virtual Volunteering Project web site just before I left.

Early History of Nonprofits & the Internet
The Internet has always been about people and organizations networking with each other, sharing ideas and comments, and collaborating online. It has always been interactive and dynamic. And there were many nonprofit organizations who “got” it early — earlier than many for-profit companies. So I’ve attempted to set the record straight: I’ve prepared a web page that talks about the early history of nonprofits and the Internet. It focuses on 1995 and previous years. It talks a little about what nonprofits were using the cyberspace for as well at that time and lists the names of key people and organizations who helped get nonprofit organizations using the Internet in substantial numbers in 1995 and before. Edits and additions are welcomed.

Also see:

Incredibly Sad News re Gary Chapman Internet Pioneer

This article from the Nonprofit Quarterly about nonprofits losing critical archives as tech changes rapidly. In the article, the Atlantic is quoted:

Digital space is finite and expensive. Digitally stored data can become corrupted and decay as electrical charges used to encode information into binary bits leak out over time, altering the contents. And any enduring information could be lost if the software to access it becomes obsolete. Or a potent, well-timed coronal mass ejection could cause irreparable damage to electronic systems.

Facebook use to organize Women’s Marches: lessons learned

womensmarchThe women’s marches on Saturday, January 21, 2017, may have been the largest single day of marches in US history. Somewhere between 3.3 million and 4.6 million marched in cities across the USA, according to political scientists from the Universities of Connecticut and Denver, who are compiling a mammoth spreadsheet listing turnouts, from the roughly half a million that demonstrated in Washington to the single protester who picketed Show Low, Arizona. There were also marches around the world.

Facebook was an essential tool in organizing women’s marches all over the USA. Most everyone I know personally who was a part of a march got their information from a Facebook group set up specifically for their city’s demonstration.

I joined two of the online groups, for Portland, Oregon and for Washington, DC, and it was fascinating to watch how the groups were used. Some things I learned observing the online organizing:

  1. March organizers realized that they needed a web site or public google doc associated with the group, because group discussions quickly became unwieldy – there needed to a place to find all of the essential information, without having to scroll through what seemed an endless stream of Facebook group messages. It also mean that people that were not on Facebook could access the basic information.
  2. Constant facilitation and moderation were essential. FAQs are great and absolutely necessary, but there will always be people that don’t read them and ask the same questions over and over. Also, a quick, even immediate, response to rumors and misinformation was essential, and it took more than just one post to counter such.
  3. Rumors and misinformation were posted *regularly*. There were people posting that march permits were denied, that the marches were canceled, that the starting point had changed, that bus parking was being denied, that mass transit was going to be canceled that day, and on and on. Not sure if it was people just thinking/wondering out loud (many posts began with “I heard from someone that…”), if it was individuals trying deliberately to disrupt, or if it was people part of an organized effort to disrupt.
  4. Constant updates, often several times a day, were essential, particularly in showing response to criticism and questions.
  5. Facebook created a written record of the behavior of organizers. If they made a misstep, it was there for all to see. If they did things right, it was there for all to see. It was forced transparency for organizers.
  6. Deletion of critical comments was often NOT a good strategy. In November, Portland, Oregon March group moderators began deleting comments, even entire threads of conversation, that they deemed as critical of the march, such as those by people that felt the march was too focused on the experiences of white women, and did not address the unique challenges and perspectives of other women. Many people didn’t just want inclusiveness; they wanted specific statements regarding the particular challenges of black women, Latino women, Asian women, and transgendered people. Deleting those criticisms made people angrier. At one point, major allies such as Planned Parenthood and the NAACP Portland chapter decided they wouldn’t participate. Constance Van Flandern, an artist and activist in Eugene who was the Oregon’s official liaison to the national Women’s March on Washington, said in this article, “These women were overwhelmed by people coming to their Facebook page and asking about issues of diversity. It was just delete, delete, delete.” So Van Flandern started a new Facebook group for the march and invited nine women who had been complaining to her about the lack of inclusion on the other page to join. The page quickly replaced what had been the official page, and the march was saved – in fact, at 100,000, it was the largest march in Portland’s history.
  7. These marches weren’t at the initiative of paid staff at large organizations; they were started at the grassroots level, and powered by independent, spontaneous volunteers, who took on high responsibility roles and recruited and managed other volunteers, mostly through Facebook. And by all accounts, they managed brilliantly – not perfectly, but show me an event managed perfectly by paid staff! I also think their organization and popularity caught a lot of traditional women-focused organizations off guard, and they had to play catch-up. Often, grassroots folks are far ahead of traditional groups in taking a stand – and I think this is going to happen more because Facebook makes it so easy for any group to start getting its message out.
  8. Facebook played a significant role in getting the word out about these marches. But the reason these marches were so well attended, far exceeding predictions in terms of crowd size all over the USA, including DC and Portland, wasn’t just because people knew about the marches. I hope people don’t start thinking all they need is a Facebook group to get lots of people to attend a march.

What lessons did you learn in watching Facebook be used as the primary organizing tool for the women’s marches? Share in the comments below.

January 30, 2017 update: New York Times article, The Alt-Majority: How Social Networks Empowered Mass Protests Against Trump.

vvbooklittle The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, by Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document the best practices over the more than three decades virtual volunteering has been happening, in a comprehensive, detailed way, so that the collective knowledge can be used with the latest digital engagement initiatives to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference. It’s a tool primarily for organizations, but there’s also information for online volunteers themselves. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. Bonus points if you can find the sci fi/fan girl references in the book…

Also see:

20 Years Ago: The Virtual Volunteering Project

vvlogoThe Virtual Volunteering Project officially launched 20 years ago this month. It was the first attempt by anyone, anywhere, to research online volunteer service and document what works, and what doesn’t. I directed the initiative at its launch – and now, two decades later, I’m in a mood to reflect.

The Virtual Volunteering Project was the brainchild of Steve Glikbarg and Cindy Shove, co-founders of Impact Online (what became VolunteerMatch). In fact, Glikbarg probably originally coined the phrase virtual volunteering, back in the mid or even early 1990s. In its first two years, the Virtual Volunteering Project was funded primarily with the support of the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support in this first phase of the Project came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Morino Institute and the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation. The Charles A. Dana Center, a research institute at the University of Texas at Austin, hosted the Project for most of its life.

How did I start on the road to becoming a virtual volunteering expert? In 1995, while working at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, the two volunteer interns I’d taken on to build web sites for all of the initiatives we were managing said they would prefer to build the sites on their own computers back on campus, rather than at our office, because their computers were better and it was more convenient for them. They would bring their work to me on disks when they were finished. What a great idea! It worked out very well – they got to work on their own schedule, from their homes, on better computers, and I got what I needed. So I offered the option of working remotely part of the time, even most of the time, to every volunteer I recruited after that at Joint Venture. The next year, Cindy contacted me about running a new virtual volunteering initiative she and Steve had just gotten funded. “What’s ‘virtual volunteering?'” I asked. “It’s what you’ve been doing with your volunteers and talking about on USENET!” she replied.

The Virtual Volunteering Project officially launched in December 1996. It was quite rough at first; the vast majority of the programs that involved volunteers donating some or all of their time online never used the phrase virtual volunteering. In fact, that’s still true today! I remember thinking in those first several weeks that most online volunteers would be 20 something men living in Silicon Valley; imagine my surprise to find out, rather quickly, that most online volunteers were women living all over the USA – and beyond! I was also stunned at how quickly I found more than 100 virtual volunteering initiatives, most of which didn’t know about each other. With the help of online and onsite volunteers myself, I researched virtual volunteering activities, created and continually updated web pages about it, and marketed what I was learning, via both traditional press releases and frequent posts to various online discussion groups. I also involved online volunteers myself – more than 300 over more than four years. As a result, I was invited to speak at a lot of conferences and was quoted in a lot of traditional press, like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

I left the Virtual Volunteering Project in Janaury 2001, to prepare for my move to Germany to work for the United Nations to run the virtual volunteering component of NetAid, which became the stand-alone Online Volunteering service. I got that UN job because of my online activities, including participation in various online communities. In subsequent UN and international work, even when the focus isn’t virtual volunteering but, say, communications, I’ve found a way to inject at least a little virtual volunteering capacity building and involvement into the work.

Now, it’s 20 years after the launch of the Virtual Volunteering Project, which is archived here. Not much has changed in terms of best practices in virtual volunteering, the practices that make virtual volunteering effective for nonprofits, NGOs, government programs, schools and more, though there’s lots of new jargon now in the mix: micro volunteering, crowdsourcing, digital volunteering, the Cloud, etc.

vvbooklittle The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, by Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document all these best practices over the more than three decades virtual volunteering has been happening, in a comprehensive, detailed way, so that the collective knowledge can be used with the latest digital engagement initiatives to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference. It’s a tool primarily for organizations, but there’s also information for online volunteers themselves. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. Thanks to everyone who has purchased it so far! Bonus points if you can find the sci fi/fan girl references in the book…

Also see:

Early History of Nonprofits & the Internet

Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

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

Online volunteers created a music festival in St. Louis

Updated: research regarding virtual volunteering

Al Gore Campaign Pioneered Virtual Volunteering

algoreweblaunch
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?

Virtual volunteering: it’s oh-so-personal

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

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

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

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

I submitted my own story for this challenge, noting:

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

I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wikipediaJulia Bear of Stony Brook University’s College of Business and Benjamin Collier of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar published “Where are the Women in Wikipedia? Understanding the Different Psychological Experiences of Men and Women in Wikipedia” in the journal Sex Roles in January 2016.

Those that contribute information and edit Wikipedia, help others on the site, are called Wikipedians, and are online volunteers. So this study relates to virtual volunteering without ever actually saying that phrase.

From the abstract of the paper:

“We proposed that masculine norms for behavior in Wikipedia, which may be further exacerbated by the disinhibiting nature of an online, anonymous environment, lead to different psychological experiences for women and men, which, in turn, explain gender differences in contribution behavior. We hypothesized that, among a sample of individuals who occasionally contribute to Wikipedia, women would report less confidence in their expertise, more discomfort with editing others’ work, and more negative responses to critical feedback compared to men, all of which are crucial aspects of contributing to Wikipedia. We also hypothesized that gender differences in these psychological experiences would explain women’s lower contribution rate compared to men in this sample… Significant gender differences were found in confidence in expertise, discomfort with editing, and response to critical feedback. Women reported less confidence in their expertise, expressed greater discomfort with editing (which typically involves conflict) and reported more negative responses to critical feedback compared to men. Mediation analyses revealed that confidence in expertise and discomfort with editing partially mediated the gender difference in number of articles edited, the standard measure for contribution to Wikipedia. Implications for the gender gap in Wikipedia and in organizations more generally are discussed.”

Their study is summarized in this 02 June 2016 article “Why Do So Few Women Edit Wikipedia?” That article notes that Jimmy Wales, the founder of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the site, said that the organization failed to meet its goal of increasing women’s participation to 25% by 2015, despite launching several initiatives.

This is great information for anyone that works with online volunteers – or wants to. While most reviews of the makeup of online volunteers at organizations, at least in the USA, show more women than men participating, and women providing more hours during their service, Wikipedia attracts far more men in its online volunteer ranks. Your organization might also be unconsciously excluding a particular group of people from participating, and this study can help you think about ways to find that out. Kudos to the Wikimedia Foundation for acknowledging this gender gap problem and wanting to address it.

vvbooklittleInformation about this study of the gender gap among Wikipedians has been added to the Virtual Volunteering Wiki list of research regarding virtual volunteering, the most comprehensive list you will find anywhere of such, with information about virtual volunteering research dating back to 1997 (though most starts in 2000). Wikipedia’s engagement of online volunteers is talked about in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. The book is 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.

February 10, 2017 update: @Wikimujeres_ES: voluntarias de Wikimedia que intenta reducir la brecha de género incorporando nuevas editoras y generando más contenidos relacionados con mujeres (Volunteers from Wikimedia who are trying to reduce the gender gap on the service, by incorporating new female Wikimedia editors and by generating more content related to women). Here is the web site of this volunteer effort. Here’s a nice 09 January 2017 article by the Association for Progressive Communications about their efforts, in English.

Also see:

Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

justiceThe most popular blog I’ve ever published, by far, is an exposé of a for-profit company based in Florida, called Community Service Help, Inc., that claimed it could match people have been assigned court-ordered community service “with a charity that is currently accepting online volunteers” – for a fee, payable by the person in need of community service. But the community service was watching videos. The company was selling paperwork saying people have completed virtual volunteering, that those people then turn into probation officers and the courts. The practice is at least unethical, and, according to at least one state, illegal.

While I have no issue with a nonprofit organization, or even a government agency, charging a volunteer to cover expenses (materials, training, staff time to supervise and support the volunteer, criminal background check, etc.), I have a real problem with companies charging people to fake community service. And as a promoter of virtual volunteering since 1994, before I even knew it was called virtual volunteering, I also have a real problem with someone claiming watching videos is online volunteering. And, for those that might not know, here’s what real, legitimate virtual volunteering looks like. And here’s a wiki about virtual volunteering with even more detailed information.

Community Service Help isn’t the only company selling paperwork to people that need community service hours for the courts, and I’ve mentioned some of the other companies that are pulling off this scam in several blogs (all linked from the end of this one). Actually, I should it wasn’t the only company – its web site went offline in January 2016 and is now for sale. Hurrah!

Companies like Community Service Help post frequently to Craigslist, and I try to keep up on these folks, especially news stories about them, but somehow, I missed this story from 2014!

Caffeine group admits community-service scam

By JENNIFER PELTZ – Associated Press – Thursday, August 7, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) – An anti-caffeine activist pleaded guilty Thursday in a scheme to make court-ordered community service as easy as taking an online quiz.

Marina Kushner and the Caffeine Awareness Association, a group she founded, each pleaded guilty to a false-filing felony. Kushner’s promised sentence includes a $5,000 fine – and 300 hours of legitimate community service.

“A community service sentence is a public and personal responsibility,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said last week in unveiling the case. Kushner’s lawyer, Peter Schaffer, declined to comment Thursday.

Kushner, 47, was arrested recently in Delray Beach, Florida. While Manhattan prosecutors became suspicious after a local defendant filed a letter from the caffeine association to satisfy a community service sentence, questions also had arisen in Washington state and Oregon about a “fast community service” website linked to the group.

The association still exists, offering debunked claims about caffeine, but there’s no page anymore on its web site, at least that I can find, called “quick community service.”

I’ve written and sent a letter to Mr. Vance, thanking him for his pursuit of this company. I’m hoping other prosecutors all over the USA  will take similar action. These companies damage nonprofits, damage courts, damage the idea of community service.

Is it possible, or even appropriate, for people that have been assigned community service hours by the court to do some or all of those hours online? Are they eligible for virtual volunteering? Yes, they are. Here’s detailed advice on supervising online volunteers in court-ordered settings, which I hope nonprofits, probation officers and court representatives will read. And note that Community Service Help and other similar companies would not hold up to the scrutiny recommended in this blog.

My other blogs on these companies that sell virtual volunteering and other community service in order to fool probation officers and courts, which include links to the various media articles about these companies:

Haters gonna hate, November 2014 update on Community Service Help and other similar, unethical companies

Community Service Help Cons Another Person – a first-person account by someone who paid for online community service and had it rejected by the court.

Online community service company tries to seem legit, a November 2013 update about efforts these companies are making to seem legitimate

Update on a virtual volunteering scam, from November 2012.

What online community service is – and is not – the very first blog I wrote exposing this company, back in January 2011, that resulted in the founder of the company calling me at home to beg me to take the blog down

Online volunteer scam goes global, a July 2011 update with links to TV stories trying to expose these scam companies

Courts being fooled by online community service scams, an update from November 2011 that is the most popular blog I’ve ever published

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!