Are myths about online volunteering preventing your organization from tapping into this valuable resource? In the following article, which first appeared on the website Coyote Communications, consultant Jayne Cravens dispels some common misconceptions about finding and working with online volunteers.
Online volunteering means unpaid service that is given via the Internet, either via a computer or a handheld device (smartphone, cell phone, PDA, or iPad). It's a method of volunteering I have been using, studying, documenting, and promoting since 1995, first independently, then with the Virtual Volunteering Project, and then with the United Nations (UN) Online Volunteering service. It's also known as virtual volunteering, online mentoring, ementoring, evolunteering, cyber volunteering, cyber service, telementoring, micro-volunteering, crowd-sourcing and on and on.
Now, 15 years on, I'm stunned at how many myths are still out there about the concept. Here is a list of 17 of the most common myths, and my attempt at countering them:
False. This is probably the biggest and most annoying myth out there about the practice. Online volunteering requires real time, not "virtual" time. If you don't have time to volunteer offline, you probably don't have time to volunteer online either. Online volunteering should never be promoted as an alternative volunteering method for people who don't have time to volunteer face-to-face. Rather, the appeal of online volunteering for individuals is that:
False. According to research by the Virtual Volunteering Project in the late 1990s, as well as anecdotal evidence since then from various organizations, the overwhelming majority of online volunteers also volunteer in face-to-face settings, often for an organization in their same city or region, and often for the same organization they are helping online.
False. As stated in the previous myth, rarely will you find an online volunteer who doesn't also volunteer onsite, or an onsite volunteer that doesn't use the Internet in some way to interact with the organization they support onsite. They are all volunteers, and don't self-identify into separate online and onsite groups.
False. Most online volunteers are people who also volunteer onsite for the same organization; for instance, a volunteer designing an annual report may go onsite to meet with staff but perform most of the donated service via his or her home or work computer. Also, most people who volunteer online look for opportunities that are in their same geographic area – just as do people who want to volunteer onsite. Indeed, there are thousands of online volunteers who look for remote online volunteering opportunities, and the UN's Online Volunteering service is an excellent avenue for them to find such.
False. Online volunteers come from all age groups who can use the Internet independently (usually starting when a person is over 13), from various educational and work backgrounds, and from various geographies and ethnicities. The breakdown of online volunteers from the UN's Online Volunteering service is telling: more than 40% are from developing countries. Of course, each organization that involves online volunteers will have a different breakdown as far as online volunteering demographics; in short, one cannot make sweeping generalizations about who online volunteers are.
False. As noted earlier, according to research by the Virtual Volunteering Project in the late 1990s, as well as anecdotal evidence since then from various organizations, the overwhelming majority of online volunteers also volunteer in face-to-face settings. In fact, online volunteers tend to be excellent at interacting with others – it's that hunger for interaction that often drives their volunteering, on or offline.
False. Online volunteers engage in a variety of non -technology-related tasks, such as advising on business plans, human resources development, fundraising and press relations, researching topics, and facilitating online discussions. A survey of online volunteering assignments posted to, say, the UN's Online Volunteering service, usually shows 50% of more assignments that are non-tech-specific.
False. Online interactions are quite personal. In many circumstances, people are often more willing to share information and feelings online than they are in face-to-face. Also, volunteers can more easily share photos of their families, and narratives about their interests, via the Internet than, say, at an onsite volunteer luncheon. Online volunteers with whom I have worked are real people to me, not virtual people. When they have gotten married or graduated from high school or college or had a baby or gotten a job, I have celebrated, and when they have died or lost a loved one, I have cried.
False. Both methods of interviewing potential volunteers have strengths and weaknesses, and one may be more appropriate than another for a particular situation, but each is effective. I have talked to plenty of people face-to-face who expressed great enthusiasm and interest in becoming online volunteers, and have wanted information on how to get started – and who never follow-through, while people online must show not only their interest but their commitment and skills almost immediately, by responding to emails promptly and by writing clearly.
False. The Internet is no more, nor no less, dangerous than the offline world. When people, including children, have been harmed as a result of online activities, it has been because they or their parents did not take appropriate safety measures – it's amazing to me that parents who would never allow their children to go to, say, to a bus station to play for the day, allow their children to go into unsupervised chat rooms. There is extensive information on how to ensure safety in online volunteering (and online mentoring) programs at the Virtual Volunteering Project.
False. For organizations, the biggest obstacle to involving online volunteers successfully, or at all, is lack of experience in basic volunteer management practices. If an organization doesn't know how to involve onsite volunteers effectively, they won't be able to do it online.
False. The key to success in working with online volunteers is the application of basic volunteer management standards – the fundamentals that make any traditional volunteering program work. All volunteers, whether online or onsite, need support, feedback, guidance, and recognition.
False. If an organization has email, the organization can involve online volunteers. An organization can effectively involve and support online volunteers with Internet tools they already have (email, instant messaging, an iVisit or Skype account, and so on). Organizations can also use free Internet tools to support all volunteers (not just online volunteers), like Yahoo! Groups or Google Groups, the online calendars provided by both Yahoo! and Google. And organizations recruit online volunteers via the same offline and online avenues as their onsite, face-to-face volunteers.
False. There are plenty of people who want to volunteer online; far, far more than there are opportunities for them. Instead, much more needs to be done to help build the capacity of organizations regarding volunteer management and to incorporate information about online volunteering into this capacity-building.
False. Online volunteering has been going on probably as long as there has been an Internet (which itself is more than 30 years old). Certainly the Internet itself, particularly USENET, could be categorized as a form of online volunteering – users helping users. Also, Tim Berners Lee, in an online appearance at the United Nations Volunteers' event at United Nations Open Day in Geneva in 2001, noted the role volunteers had played in his development of the World Wide Web back in the 1980s. But the earliest example I have been able to find of formal online volunteering, where volunteers were mobilized specifically to contribute to a specific not-for-profit project meant to help others (other people, the environment, animals, and so on) via their home, work, or school computer, is Project Gutenberg, which began in the 1970s and which mobilized online volunteers to create electronic versions of public domain books. More about the history of online and virtual volunteering is detailed on this page on Wikipedia regarding online volunteering.
False. Back in the 1990s, when I directed the Virtual Volunteering Project, I called it byte-sized volunteering: online volunteering tasks that take just a few hours or a few days to complete, like translating some text into another language, gathering information on one topic, tagging photos with certain keywords, and so on. Now, the hot-new term for this is micro-volunteering or crowdsourcing.
False. Micro-volunteering is no different than offline, episodic volunteering. Just as volunteers who come to a beach cleanup or participate in a Habitat for Humanity work day don't undergo a criminal background check, don't receive a long pre-service orientation, don't fill out a lengthy volunteer application form, and may never volunteer with the organization again, online volunteers that participate in a micro-volunteering task may get started on their assignment just a few minutes after expressing interest. But just as offline episodic volunteering like beach cleanups are more about building relationships, creating more awareness, and cultivating more supporters, micro-volunteering needs to have the same goals in order to be worth doing, and that takes having established, tried-and-true volunteer management standards in place.
Also see this list of research about online volunteering undertaken by various organizations and individuals.
On a related note, Volunteer Program Mythology by Ivan Scheier identified myths relating to volunteer management in 1992, many (including some related to online volunteering) that are still common today.
Image: Woman on laptop, Shutterstock
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