Online Communities Depend on Online Volunteers

Virtual volunteering, micro-volunteering, crowdsourcing, and other terms refer to unpaid work done via the Internet by computer, tablet, smartphone, or other mobile device. While the general public associates the word “volunteer” mainly with social and human services or the arts, in fact there are volunteers everywhere.

The Internet is a volunteer-rich environment on a global scale. Of course there are many people hoping to get rich online, but from open source programmers to YouTube video producers to Wikipedia posters, most online interactions are purely voluntary and often done in a spirit of sharing with others.

Nowhere is this more evident than in what we call “online communities” – the thousands of discussion forums allowing like-minded people to find one another, keep in touch, and share information. Most often these online communities are started by one or two highly motivated and unpaid individuals (aided by the amazing availability of free platforms to host such groups), and participation by all subscribers is intentional and voluntary. They operate on the principle of exchange, since if everyone lurks and never posts, no helpful ideas can emerge.

Are you an online volunteer? Even if you don’t associate that label with yourself, see how many of the following criteria apply to you:

  • I put in a lot of time online interacting in discussion groups, answering questions and giving advice to people I mainly know only in cyberspace.
  • I design or maintain Web sites for one or more organizations of which I am a member.
  • I contribute open source programming to sites such as Drupal.
  • I coordinate events online in which I recruit participants, keep everyone informed, create work shifts, and thank people without ever seeing them in person.
  • I write or contribute to a blog, e-newsletter, or other electronic form of communication.
  • I often “like,” “share,” or retweet social media messages about causes and organizations that mean something to me.
  • I do the work above without any financial remuneration at all.
  • Some of the above is part of my paid job, but I put in many extra hours on my own time, too.

See? Virtual volunteering is a part of your identity!  And there are more types of online service beyond Internet-related projects.  Check out other examples at the Virtual Volunteering Wiki.  If you’re on LinkedIn, join our Virtual Volunteering group there, as well.

Now, are you a coordinator of online volunteers? In preparing to write this blog post (no I am not getting paid!), I had a funny conversation with the folks at NTEN. I asked them about how they worked with online volunteers and at first they said they didn’t have any.  Naturally, I soon changed their perception. In fact, NTEN depends on the freely donated time and skills of its involved members. The checklist above illustrates activities many organizations have come to take for granted, done almost entirely by people volunteering virtually.

Why is it important to recognize this quasi-invisible workforce? Because seeing and valuing the volunteer nature of this service will let you appreciate and strengthen it. Further, it’s possible to apply the principles of volunteer management to make such volunteer participation easier and more productive. For example:

Recruit More Volunteers

Don’t confuse publicity with recruitment. Simply posting a notice soliciting “help” or “volunteers” is not an individual invitation to get involved. First, a public notice is seen by everyone so it is not really  meant for me, right? Second, you are asking for help before you have explained what you actually hope the responding volunteering wants to do or is able to do.  Some tips:

  • Clearly outline – up front – what you need to have done. Be specific in explaining the tasks involved and when the work has to be completed.  Also state preferred qualifications, so that people can self-screen themselves out and you only get contacted by prospective volunteers who actually know they are viable candidates.
  • Do not expect immediate long-term commitment to an assignment that will never end. Instead, start with “byte-sized” tasks with new volunteers so that you can each test the waters and get acquainted. That way the newcomer can do something useful right away while you both decide if an ongoing role makes sense.
  • Directly ask people whom you think have potential to volunteer. For example, watch for frequent posters to a discussion forum (the ones who contribute good ideas, of course) and contact them privately with an invitation to do something.  Even if they say no, they will be flattered at the recognition. But they might well say yes. That’s because even if people are aware you are looking for volunteers, they do not always realize that means them.
  • Keep a wish list posted. This may seem contradictory to my earlier comment about not confusing publicity with recruitment, but since you are working with a community of people who interact regularly on line, there’s nothing wrong with putting your needs in front of them when they log in. Hint: keep it updated so it’s worth looking at throughout the month – and be sure to indicate “Bravo! Fulfilled!” when something on the list has been adopted or completed. See the recognition section below for some ideas.

Give Volunteers the Information and Tools They Need

Even someone who has been in your network for a long time needs some form of “orientation” when accepting a volunteer role.  Create a PDF or Web page that provides basic information on the organization, who is running it, who the other volunteers are, etc.  This makes newcomers feel a part of a shared operation.  Also make sure everyone knows how to use your platforms and tech tools.  Maybe arrange a first-day Skype call with video and walk the new volunteer through some basics.  Seeing each other at least once will help your ongoing working relationship.

Monitor Work

Keep track of who is doing what, and how well.  Not only is this important for managing what’s going on in your online community, it also makes it less likely that you will allow good people to disappear after doing only a single task with you. These days, most people do not want to get sucked into continuous service and so are happy to remain under the radar.  However, these volunteers might agree to an episodic role that recurs regularly or periodically. The point is to be in communication with those who are carrying out work for the community, inviting them to stay involved or to return as they can.

The other reason for monitoring the work volunteers do is quality control. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to hold volunteers to high standards of performance. In fact, it can be seen as a form of recognition to expect the best.  No one intends to give their time to do something wrong. Constructive feedback conveys the message that the activity is important enough to do well.

Say Thanks Often and Sincerely

Recognition is the pay of volunteers. It is a combination of hearing genuine appreciation,  getting individualized acknowledgement, and the satisfaction of knowing that the donated time accomplished something meaningful.  Say thank you publicly and privately (but check if the volunteer wants to have his or her name used, or a screen name), with specifics about what was done.  List time donors along with money donors in your reports to others.  Link to a page showing the pictures and bios of the volunteers who did a special project. Show the volunteers that they are very real to you, even if they did the work virtually.  In so doing, you’ll make them visible to everyone else – and then have a good chance of making others feel invited to participate, too.

Susan Ellis
Energize, Inc.
Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc., an international training and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. Visit their comprehensive Web site at She has been immersed for many months editing the new book, 'Measuring the Impact of Volunteers: A Balanced and Strategic Approach,' by Christine Burych, Alison Caird, Joanne Fine Schwebel, Michael Fliess, and Heather Hardie (© 2016, Energize, Inc.).