Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Virtual Volunteering

A recent study by the Pew Research Center has shown that people who use the internet are more civically engaged than their offline counterparts. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as both internet use and mainstream modes of civic engagement are correlated with income, and Pew used an expansive measure of civic participation, including everything from political rallies to online chatrooms. However, the increased engagement of internet users demonstrates that the internet is great resource for volunteers, and one that has yet to be fully tapped.

Nearly all volunteer agencies and nonprofits use the internet for information and recruitment. (For example, see or There is no doubt that social networking has changed the way volunteering functions, and has led to great changes in how people find volunteer opportunities.

However, ask the average person what they think of when the word volunteering is mentioned, and they may conjure images of soup kitchens, construction sites and long hours spent mentoring youth. While this type of engagement is necessary (and commendable!) it does not fully capture the opportunities that technology has made available. Every day, thousands of people volunteer without ever leaving the comfort of their home.

Websites such as Sparked help people take advantage of these opportunities. Sparked, which considers itself a “micro-volunteering” platform, allows volunteers to help nonprofits based on their specific skills and interests.

On the site, nonprofits from around the world post “challenges” that volunteers then take on. Right now, there are challenges from a Swedish nonprofit looking for help with Twitter, a Cameroonian organization looking for revenue ideas, a Canadian nonprofit looking for help with event planning, and hundreds of other challenges in dozens of different fields. Volunteers can do as much or as little as they would like—all without leaving their home!

More traditional organizations have also gotten into the act. The United Nations Volunteer (UNV) website also has virtual volunteering opportunities that can be searched by skill or interest area. The UNV program is more formal than Sparked (you have to apply and be screened in order to volunteer, whereas Sparked is open to everyone) but the goal—to allow people to volunteer from home—is the same.

This type of crowd sourcing isn’t a new idea, but the move into the civic engagement sphere is a positive development. According to the US Bureau of Labor, 45% of Americans who don’t volunteer cite lack of time as the reason. Innovations such as Sparked and UNV virtual volunteering help to mitigate this excuse, and allow people to volunteer without setting aside a major part of their day.

Next time you’re bored online, remember this simple fact: A little time volunteering completely offsets a day spent Facebook stalking.


Leanne Folan said...

I'm really interested in seeing where micro-volunteering takes us in 2011. The site below has a great list of micro-volunteering platforms. As mobile media and emerging social media technologies continue to grow I wonder if nonprofits can learn to take advantage of it all or if at somepoint it becomes impossible to keep up with.


Nichole Johnson said...

Thanks for the information @LeanneFolan! I'm also interested in how nonprofits can take advantage of new social media technologies. I'm not sure if anyone can entirely keep up with new technology, but I'd like to think that nonprofits will learn to take advantage of new platforms as they arise.


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