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LSA Together logoClues to the Future 
... April 2011

What’s in a Name? Microvolunteering, crowd sourcing, virtual volunteering, volunteering

The latest trends in volunteering offer great promise for nonprofits. Which tools are right for what sorts of volunteer assignments is not yet clear. It is not clear what macro-impact smaller units of volunteering or crowd sourcing might have. But, there is lots of buzz, lots of benefit and lots of controversy surrounding them.

The Extraordinaries, a social media enterprise based in San Francisco, specializes in opportunities for microvolunteering. According to the Extraordinaries, “microvolunteering" has four defining characteristics:

  • Convenient - It's volunteerism that fits into your schedule when you have time - typically (but not necessarily) via an internet connected device such as a personal computer or mobile phone. In practice, to achieve this level of convenience, there is often no training or vetting necessary by the nonprofit.
  • Bite-sized - Volunteer tasks are broken into small(-ish) pieces, so that you can complete a task in the time you have available (whatever that time may be).
  • Crowdsourced - The nonprofit that needs help asks a large(-ish) group for assistance. Micro-volunteers who have the time, interest, and skills (ideally), and who may be previously unknown to the nonprofit, do the work.
  • Network-managed - The time demands of the manager (e.g. a nonprofit staffer) are reduced by distributing as much of the project management and quality review as possible to the network of micro-volunteers. This work management method differs from a top-down model of project management.

The Extraordinaries make a distinction between microvolunteering and virtual volunteering. “Virtual volunteering, as it has been done to date,* is exactly like in-person volunteering, but the work takes place remotely. It’s like telecommuting to work. So, all of the same management rules are in place. You will usually be trained, vetted, and accepted for a volunteer position. You will have a direct manager. You will do work and will send it to your manager for review. The manager will approve the work or ask for revisions. The manager will tell you that you’ve done an amazing job – or that you could stand a little more training. Communication will happen via email, typically. But it could also happen via a phone call – or via a project management web site like Basecamp. This is volunteering, remotely, from a more convenient location…. Is one method inherently better than another? No way. They’re both good for different purposes. Virtual volunteering is great for when you want to develop a long-term relationship with a committed volunteer. Microvolunteering is great when you want to get a specific project done with a minimum of fuss.”

Not so fast say others:

Jayne Craven blogs, “Imagine if I announced that a one-day beach clean up, or a one-day walk-a-thon, that brought hundreds or thousands of people together for one-off service in support of a nonprofit organization or cause, wasn't really volunteering. Imagine if I said it isn't volunteering because most of the participants who are donating their time and service aren't screened, aren't interviewed, aren't background-checked, and aren't trained beyond maybe a 10 minute speech about things to keep in mind during the experience. Imagine if I also said it was because most participants may never volunteer again with that organization or for the cause. Imagine if I claimed that people who sewed or knitted items from their home, in their spare time, for some nonprofit group helping kids in hospitals or people suffering from a particular disease, weren't really volunteers. They also aren't screened the way most other volunteers are, aren't background-checked, and usually have no deadline for their work - they get it done when they get it done, if at all.

I would look ridiculous to make such claims…Of course all of these activities are volunteering. In fact, they are all MICROvolunteering, without a computer! (most volunteer managers call such episodic volunteering, but the new name is much snazzier)

At Service, virtual volunteering means, “volunteer tasks completed, in whole or in part, via the Internet and a home or work computer. It's also known as online volunteering, cyber service, online mentoring, teletutoring and various other names. Virtual volunteering allows agencies to expand the benefits of their volunteer programs, by allowing for more volunteers to participate, and by utilizing volunteers in new areas. Many people actively search for volunteer opportunities they can complete via home or work computers, because of time constraints, personal preference, a disability or a home-based obligation that prevents them from volunteering on-site. Virtual volunteering allows anyone to contribute time and expertise to not-for-profit organizations, schools, government offices and other agencies that utilize volunteer services, from his or her home or office”…Online volunteers can typically be classified as one of two types, depending upon the work they do: technical assistance volunteers, and direct contact volunteers and there are also informal volunteers who just use the web to provide information and help each.

By whatever name, learn more and mobilize volunteers for your projects at:

Jill Schumann, President and CEO

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