February 20, 2015

Trends Over Time in Virtual Volunteering

Virtual volunteering describes a volunteer who completes tasks, in whole or in part, off-site from the organization or person being assisted, using a computer, tablet, smart phone, or other Internet-connected device. Virtual volunteering is also known as online volunteering, digital volunteering, and e-volunteering, and includes microvolunteering, crowd-sourcing, telementoring, teletutoring, and various other online activities undertaken by remote volunteers. It’s a widespread practice that’s more than 35 years old.

People engaged in virtual volunteering undertake a variety of activities, long and short (microvolunteering) and everything in between. A few examples of virtual volunteering include:

  • Translating documents (and proofreading the translations by others)
  • Researching subjects
  • Designing web pages 
  • Editing or writing proposals, press releases, newsletter articles, video scripts, web pages, etc.
  • Designing any publication
  • Developing material for a curriculum
  • Transcribing scanned documents
  • Designing a database
  • Designing graphics
  • Providing legal, business, medical, agricultural, financial or any other expertise (answering questions, creating a strategy, commenting on a strategy, reviewing or evaluating data, etc.)
  • Serving on a committee or advisory board
  • Counseling people
  • Captioning a video
  • Tagging photos and files with keywords
  • Monitoring media
  • Managing other online volunteers

In the 1990s, when the Virtual Volunteering Project, based at the University of Texas at Austin, was documenting and sharing best practices, those recommendations were regarding text-based communications. I directed that project, and I not only researched what others were doing, I also tested ideas myself, by involving hundreds of online volunteers. At the time, I said that one of the things I loved about working with online volunteers that were too remote for onsite meetings is that volunteers couldn’t be judged based on their age, weight, ethnicity, accent, or anything about their appearance— I could judge them only by the quality of how well they wrote and the work they did. I often worked with people with disabilities and had no idea they had a disability until I suggested an assignment and the volunteer I’d worked with for months already said they couldn’t do such because of a certain limitation.

But now, almost 20 years after those initial recommendations on working with online volunteers, technology has changed drastically, and video calls and photos accompanying social media profiles are the norm. I know what many online volunteers I work with look like even if I don’t intend to, simply because we interact on social media, or they ask to link on LinkedIn, and I see the photo they have posted there. Today’s ability to oh-so-easily see and hear each other online is a double-edged sword: it can make electronic communication more personable, but it can also inject offline prejudices evoked by how someone looks or sounds. Will online volunteering candidates be turned away because of possible but unacknowledged bias?

In addition, most online communication 20 years ago was asynchronous: most people communicated online, via email or an online community, without being online at exactly the same time. Their volunteering contributions were prepared offline, and then uploaded—they weren’t necessarily online at the same time they were undertaking an assignment. Now, a lot of online communication is done synchronously, or nearly so: volunteers are online together, at the same time, talking together, and staff supporting those volunteers is often seeing their volunteering activities in real time. Twenty years ago, I recommended that emails from online volunteers be answered absolutely within 48 hours, and nonprofit managers often balked at that advice. Now, I think 48 hours is often too long of a wait for volunteers to hear back from their manager.

Another change that has greatly affected virtual volunteering is the explosion of multiple contact points for people online. People do not communicate primarily via e-mail anymore; they now talk together via online social networks and in the comments section of blogs, photo-sharing sites, and video-sharing sites. Some people send far more SMS messages than email messages. Upon meeting someone, our question to each other has gone from, “What’s your e-mail address?” to “Will you ‘friend’ me on Facebook?” and “What’s your Twitter name?” Complicating this is that volunteers do not always want to share all of their contact points with an organization they are assisting; a volunteer may be on Facebook, but not want to be Facebook friends with any other volunteers or any staff at your organization.

Today’s online volunteers are not limited to laptop or desktop computers at home or work; they can and do engage in service just about anywhere, not only with a laptop, but with a tablet or smart phone. It is much easier today to be online anywhere, through free wireless access in various public spaces and fee-based access elsewhere on the ground and in the sky. That isn’t necessarily a blessing; it means a volunteer may be trying to do his or her assignment surrounded by noise and people and other distractions, rather than in a quiet room in the house, and that can affect the quality of their work. 

People outside the USA, in what are considered “developing countries,” have always embraced virtual volunteering, in my experience. Many USA folks and Europeans are shocked when I say that, because they think there’s no Internet in, say, all of Africa. I’ve found that people in developing countries with Internet access are quite unlimited in their thinking when it comes to virtual volunteering; they don’t say, “Why should I do that?” but, rather, “Oh, I realize I’m already doing that. How do I do it better?” Back in the 1990s, I was pretty much it as far as researching virtual volunteering and documenting best practices; now, there are people in other countries that are researching and writing about virtual volunteering, most prominently in Spain and Poland. Virtual volunteering was never the domain only of the USA; now, it’s more international than ever.

The most welcomed change in the last few years is that using the Internet to communicate with, engage, and support volunteers has been adopted in one way or another by a majority of nonprofit organizations in the USA. What hasn’t changed is that there are still thousands of organizations resisting any use of the Internet to support and involve volunteers, with thousands of other organizations involving online volunteers while still not understand that the involvement; I volunteered mostly online for a regional office of the Girl Scouts of the USA in 2010 and 2011, yet I would bet that office would say “no” to the question, “Do you engage in virtual volunteering?”

The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, published in January 2014 and written by Susan Ellis and me, takes all of these changes and challenges into account as we make our recommendations for working with online volunteers. While terms and technology keep changing, the elements for success in virtual volunteering are still largely the same as they have been for the last 20 years. What hasn’t changed? The importance of creating volunteering tasks that have real impact, of frequent communications with volunteers, of showing volunteers what impact their contributions have had, and of showing senior management at an organization what impact virtual volunteering is having. I’m relatively sure these recommendations will never change, even as technology does.

Like what you're reading?
Sign up to receive the latest articles and updates on nonprofit tech from NTEN and its community of experts.


Jayne Cravens
Jayne is an internationally-recognized professional with more than 20 years of experience regarding communications, community/volunteer involvement, and capacity-building for nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations/civil society, government-based community programs, and corporate philanthropy programs. She has worked on the local, regional, national and international level, and has worked extensively with multi-cultural audiences, corporate audiences, United Nations agencies, international aid workers, low-income communities, and those who are traditionally socially-excluded. She has a demonstrated commitment to gender issues and mainstreaming gender considerations in her work. A citizen of the USA and a native of Kentucky, she lived in Germany from February 2001 through April 2009, except for six months in 2007, when she lived in Afghanistan. She now lives again in the USA, and is currently based in the Portland, Oregon area.