Virtual volunteering widens opportunity

Julia Vail

Ana Fortin, a volunteer coordinator for Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Juma Ventures, needed a volunteer designer to help create new graphics for her organization.

Using the VolunteerMatch website, she located Stephen Mortimer, a professional graphic designer in London.

Though more than 5,000 miles away, Mortimer was able to provide a new logo, letterhead and business cards, says Greg Baldwin, president of VolunteerMatch.

“They’ve never met face to face,” he says, “but they’re now great partners.”

Volunteering online, or “virtual volunteering,” has seen a great deal of growth since it started to gain popularity about 10 years ago, says Robert Rosenthal, director of communications for VolunteerMatch.

“We see around 260 to 290 virtual-volunteering opportunities posted every month,” he says. “Looking back about two years, some of those numbers were around 170 or 180.”

VolunteerMatch, the biggest Web-based volunteer-recruiting service in the U.S., has about 1.9 million registered members. currently offers 2,442 virtual-volunteering opportunities, accounting for 4.6 percent of all volunteering opportunities listed on the website.

The number of virtual-volunteering opportunities on the website more than doubled from October 2003 to last month.

Online volunteering in a down economy

Especially as the economic downturn prompts volunteers to save gas money, and even supplement their incomes with part-time jobs, virtual volunteering provides the option of continuing to give back.

“It reduces not only transportation cost, but also time lost in travel,” says Robert Grimm, director of research and policy development at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

It may even be the answer to the drop in volunteerism that nonprofits have been struggling to overcome in the past several years.

One out of every three people who volunteer drops out the following year, Grimm says.

But nearly six in 10 people surveyed by VolunteerMatch said they plan to volunteer more in the year ahead than they do today, says Baldwin, VolunteerMatch president.

“One of the trends that’s really driving growth is the trend around choice and finding something that’s personally meaningful and utilizes your skills,” he says. “Virtual volunteering is a byproduct of that new trend. It’s a new way for volunteering to be relevant.”

Virtual volunteering’s changing face

Though opportunities in virtual volunteering range from fundraising and translation to research, most opportunities are related to technology and the Internet.

Some of the most popular categories include assistance with HTML coding, Web development and graphic design.

“That has been the bread and butter, the sweet spot of virtual volunteering,” Rosenthal says.

But that is beginning to change.

“People are starting to see the softer aspects of virtual volunteering,” he says.

The In2Books program, for example, allows online volunteers to serve as mentors for schoolchildren. Volunteers read books along with the children and discuss them by e-mail.

As volunteers across the U.S. become more comfortable working from home, “you’re seeing a slow migration from more technical opportunities to more traditional ones,” Rosenthal says.

The benefits

While virtual volunteering has the potential to cut down on gas expenses by taking the distance factor out of volunteering, it has many other benefits as well.

Perhaps the most revolutionary is the ability to break down geographic barriers.

“It allows people to serve internationally and share their skills beyond their geographical area,” says Sarah Jane Rehnborg, associate director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin.

Virtual volunteering also allows volunteers to be judged on their performance, rather than on outward appearance, Rehnborg says.

“There are people with body art or tattoos that are rejected when they go in for on-site volunteer work,” she says.

Volunteering online also works well for people whose busy work schedules may not allow time for on-site volunteering.

And many of the tasks performed by online volunteers can make them better employees by familiarizing them with new programs and techniques, experts say.

The contact factor

Tearing down the distance barrier, though beneficial in many situations, can detract from the volunteer experience.

A main reason people continue to volunteer is the social-networking opportunity and the potential for building relationships, experts say.

People who volunteer online not only miss the face-to-face contact with other volunteers, but also can miss out on the nonprofit’s larger mission.

“For those who are really yearning for personal contact, it certainly isn’t going to be the type of experience like a beach cleanup with friends,” Baldwin says.

But the distance factor might be mitigated by the ability to find opportunities worldwide that fit particular skills and passions.

As a result of new online matching technology, Baldwin says, “more and more people are able to find something that speaks to them personally.”

The future of volunteering online

Though virtual volunteering provides vast opportunities for people to get involved without leaving their computer desks, many nonprofits are reluctant to tap into this new volunteer pool.

“Nonprofits are substantially under-utilizing and under-imagining the role volunteers can play in service,” says Grimm of the Corporation for National and Community Service. “A lot of organizations really need to reinvent their conception of what volunteers can do, whether it’s help with website design, marketing plans or financial analysis.”

But the transition will not be easy, says Vic Murray, adjunct professor at the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

“It’s tempting to think, ‘This is easy,'” he says. “But virtual volunteers can take as much work and hand-holding as any other group of volunteers.”

Nonprofits would make their jobs easier by developing guidelines and training practices for their virtual volunteers, Murray says.

“You have to have a specific set of policies that apply to them,” he says. “And you have to do the usual checks if they’re going to be communicating with your clients or funders.”

If nonprofits would work to embrace virtual volunteering as a resource, the rewards could be worth the effort, he says.

“We all have been reading about the incredible use of the Internet in politics and social change,” Murray says. “It might have greater use in the future for its potential for lobbying, advocacy and education.”

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