Microvolunteering: Can you change the world with a few clicks?

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What organizations need done and what volunteers want to do are not always the same, but, rather than wringing hands and recalling the good old days when volunteers were happy to do menial tasks every Tuesday, the 2010 Bridging the Gap study suggests nonprofits should welcome the change: "Advances in technology, shifting demographics and increased resource pressures mean today's organizations must re-evaluate all facets of their volunteer policies and practices, and ultimately embrace different approaches."

In fact, exciting new possibilities are being generated for nonprofits, particularly as a result of new technologies.

With the rise in social media activity — Canadians are the most tech-savvy and social media-friendly users in the G7 — and an increase in the use of mobile devices such as the BlackBerry and iPhone, strategists began to consider how these habits could be used for good. Ben Rigby, software developer and co-founder of sparked.com, asked: What would volunteerism look like if we could fit it into the little tiny moments of our day, as we do Facebook?

Thus was born the concept of microvolunteering — small acts of charity that can add up to significant social change.

What is microvolunteering?

According to Koodonation, an online volunteer-charity matching site launched in late 2011 and sponsored by wireless provider Koodo, microvolunteerism is defined by four key characteristics:

  • Convenience. Tasks are simple ones that don't require training or scheduling
  • Bite-sized. Tasks are broken into small pieces that can be quickly and easily accomplished
  • Crowd-sourced. This simply means that anyone can help, in fact, the more the merrier
  • Network-managed. Like a thumbs-up, thumbs-down system or Facebook's "Like" button, the community of microvolunteers helps nonprofits determine which ideas are best.

One of the earliest social/digital microvolunteering projects involved volunteers tagging and matching photos of missing people with media images in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. This was a task that volunteers could do in small chunks of time and make a meaningful difference — within minutes of the project being released, a volunteer was able to find an image of a woman who had been separated from her family. Simple efforts added up to a swift and joyous reunion.

More typical microvolunteerism tasks include translation, graphic design or design evaluation, copywriting, connecting people, web development, marketing and mobile technology assistance. Microvolunteer pioneer Rigby describes a request from a Haiti to have a microloan application translated into Spanish — a task that took a volunteer less than an hour to complete and which made a tremendous difference for the loan recipients.

Micro-consultants

Microvolunteerism can also be thought of as consulting work, on a small scale. James Ip, who works as a communications advisor at Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, offers his professional skills as a microvolunteer through several online services. One of his recent efforts was to advise Operation Springboard as they looked for a new tagline for their youth programming organization. Years ago, Ip had worked for United Way Toronto. As he met with funded agencies, he said, "They always had public relations questions and so I knew that there was a big demand for professional expertise in the nonprofit sector, especially among small organizations with no other resources to tap into and no funds to hire someone." He adds, "These organizations do great work and most of their funding and expertise are dedicated toward their work — but if they need help, they don't always have the capacity. That's always a challenge in this sector and that's where volunteers come in to make a really crucial difference."

Nicki Inch, Fund Developer, YWCA Niagara Region was faced with exactly this type of situation. Working for a small organization with a bare bones budget, Inch was looking for fresh ideas for how the YWCA (which offers shelter and services for women who are homeless) could distinguish itself from the better known YMCA. In the past, Inch says, "it would have been a struggle. My coworker and I would have tried to muddle through our advertising campaign ourselves, but we aren't marketers. That's not our profession." Instead, Inch turned to both Koodonation and an American microvolunteerism site to ask for an extra push from creative volunteers. She was pleasantly surprised by both the quantity and quality of quick responses. Not all responses were useful, but the vast majority were extremely helpful — and one idea in particular has shaped the campaign the YWCA is using as part of their "Y the W?" advertising.

Inch says "When you're stuck for innovative ideas or you've hit a wall and you need fresh input, this kind of input is very valuable. I would highly recommend using this approach and will use this again. I can see that it could be used quite easily with creative artwork, logo, or marketing ideas."

Microvolunteers can also work together well as a quickly-assembled advisory group or focus group, to brainstorm ideas or to evaluate a nonprofit staff person's ideas.

Ip reflects on the synergistic process of collaborating with nonprofit staff and other microvolunteers. "It's a social media thing — you might add to what the previous person said — echo it or add detail."

Everything old is new again

While the shiny aspect of microvolunteerism is the way social media and digital expertise can be leveraged for social good, the idea that short-term volunteers can make a tremendous difference is not a new one. The Canadian Cancer Society engages about 7000 volunteers in meaningful, short-term roles each year during their April Daffodil Campaign (including D2D, cut flowers and pins) throughout the BC & Yukon Division. For such organizations, microvolunteerism websites may be a way to recruit new volunteers for traditional short-term roles.

Two-way street

Like all volunteering, microvolunteerism is a two-way street. Volunteers find meaningful work, even in the short term. Some microvolunteers are students who are looking to trade their nascent skills to nonprofits in exchange for the ever-elusive work experience. Kristen Nicholson, a visual media arts student at Toronto's Humber College says of her microvolunteerism experiences, "My resume was kind of thin in terms of design work, so I decided to look for work whether paid or volunteer." She also feels good about the experience. "It's been really good — the organizations I've connected with have been responsive and very welcoming."

James Stone retired four years ago after a career in systems design and project management. The father of an adult son with an intellectual disability, Stone has been looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities. He says, "I don't mind sorting and piling papers, but I'd also like to know I'm contributing — I'd be happy to sort papers AND write a weekly article." He recently responded to a Koodonation challenge issued by an association looking for help in updating their website.

Aren't these just slacktivists?

The disparaging term ‘slacktivists' was coined to describe lightweight social activists who take easy social actions in support of a cause — like signing a petition or liking a Facebook page. Organizations, which tend to prefer regular committed volunteers, would be making a mistake to believe that because microvolunteering is easy to do, it doesn't lead to commitment.

"It's up to the nonprofit to see slacktivist action as a sign of interest, and then to deepen that interest with strong engagement," says Katya Andresen, chief strategy officer of Network for Good.

"We all have a role to play along a broad spectrum of engagement — everything from quick bursts of volunteering on mobile handsets to front-line volunteer aid in war-torn regions of the world," said Ruth MacKenzie, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, who helped develop the VQ or Volunteer Quotient tool for Volunteer Canada/Manulife Financial's volunteer recruitment program. "The VQ can help boost volunteer engagement, but it's essential to maintain a balance between episodic and long-term volunteering."

In fact, short-term volunteers may already be making a big difference. Andresen refers to a 2010 US survey that found that so-called slacktivists are actually twice as likely to volunteer their time or take part in events like charity walks, more than twice as likely to buy from companies that supported the cause and three times as likely to encourage others to take action.]

Andresen adds, "Just because people are taking easy actions online doesn't mean they aren't willing to do — or are already doing — more for a cause. Social champions have real value, because they're not only likely to undertake certain activities; they're also more likely to spread the word."

Kristin Nicholson is an example of this. One of her first microvolunteering roles was to create a Twitter background for Camp Awakening, a camp for youth with physical disabilities. Now, not only is she is working with the camp to design materials for their 30th anniversary gala, but she is broadening the camp's volunteer base, as she has recruited fellow design students to assist in the project.

Nicki Inch of the YWCA Niagara Region is already planning her next microvolunteerism task: as she organizes an upcoming event, she will count on the creativity and expertise of volunteers whose small, thoughtful efforts will make a huge difference both for the organization and the people they serve.

In the midst of busy lives, social networking sites offer people an opportunity to connect with others. Microvolunteering takes this one step further — inviting people to make a big impact with small, occasional digital activity. As microvolunteer James Ip says, "What we do might be easy for us, but it can offer huge value to an organization."

Resources for microvolunteering

1. Koodonation — sign up and look for opportunities.

2. Endeavour Volunteer Consulting — sign up to provide management consulting to nonprofits.

3. Visit the Get Volunteering App on Facebook.

4. Take the VQ — a fun, new digital tool created by Volunteer Canada, together with Manulife Financial, that categorizes Canadians into six distinct volunteer types and recommends available roles suited to their volunteer profiles and specific interests.

Want to know more? Watch this TED talk on microvolunteerism.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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