Virtual volunteering is a term describing a volunteer who completes tasks, in whole or in part, off-site from the organization being assisted, using the Internet and a home, school, telecenter or work computer or other Internet-connected device. Virtual volunteering is also known as online volunteering, cyber service, E-mentoring, and online tutoring, and various other names. Virtual volunteering is similar to telecommuting.
People engaged in virtual volunteering undertake a variety of activities from locations remote to the organization or people they are assisting, via a computer or other Internet-connected device, such as:
- translating documents
- researching subjects
- creating web pages
- editing or writing proposals, press releases, newsletter articles, etc.
- developing material for a curriculum
- designing a database
- designing graphics
- scanning documents
- providing legal, business, medical, agricultural or any other expertise
- counseling people
- tutoring or mentoring students
- moderating online discussion groups
- writing songs
- creating a podcast
- editing a video
- monitoring the news
- answering questions
- tagging photos and files
- managing other online volunteers
Online micro-volunteering is also an example of virtual volunteering and crowdsourcing, where volunteers undertake assignments via their PDAs or smartphones. These volunteers either aren't required to undergo any screening or training by the nonprofit for such tasks, and do not have to make any other commitment when a micro-task is completed, or, have already undergone screening or training by the nonprofit, and are therefore approved to take on micro-tasks as their availability and interests allow. Online micro-volunteering was originally called "byte-sized volunteering" by the Virtual Volunteering Project, and has always been a part of the more than 30-year-old practice of online volunteering. An early example of both micro-volunteering and crowdsourcing is ClickWorkers, a small NASA project begun in 2001 that engaged online volunteers in scientific-related tasks that required just a person's perception and common sense, but not scientific training, such as identifying craters on Mars in photos the project posted online; volunteers were not trained or screened before participating. The phrase "micro-volunteering" is usually credited to a San Francisco-based nonprofit called The Extraordinaries.
Early history of the practice
The practice of virtual volunteering to benefit the nonprofit initiatives dates back to at least the early 1970s, when Project Gutenberg began involving online volunteers to provide electronic versions of works in the public domain.
In 1995, a new nonprofit organization called Impact Online (now called VolunteerMatch), based in Palo Alto, California, began promoting the idea of "virtual volunteers." In 1996, Impact Online received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to launch an initiative to research the practice of virtual volunteering and to promote the practice to nonprofit organizations in the USA. This new initiative was dubbed the Virtual Volunteering Project, and the web site was launched in early 1997. After one year of operations, the Virtual Volunteering Project moved to the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin. In 2002, the Virtual Volunteering Project moved within the university to the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
The first two years of the Virtual Volunteer Project were spent reviewing and adapting telecommuting manuals and existing volunteer management guidelines with regarding to virtual volunteering, as well as identifying organizations that were involving online volunteers. By April 1999, almost 100 organizations had been identified by the Virtual Volunteering Project as involving online volunteers and were listed on the web site.
Due to the growing numbers of nonprofit organizations, schools, government programs and other not-for-profit entities involving online volunteers, the Virtual Volunteering Project stopped listing every such organization involving online volunteers on its web site in 2000, and focused its efforts on promoting the practice, profiling organizations with large or unique online volunteering programs, and creating guidelines for the involvement of online volunteers.
Until January 2001, the Virtual Volunteering Project listed all telementoring and teletutoring programs in the USA (programs where online volunteers mentor or tutor others, through a nonprofit organization or school). At that time, 40 were identified.
Current state of the practice
Virtual volunteering has been adopted by the thousands of nonprofit organizations and the other initiatives. There is no organization currently tracking the best practices in online volunteering in the USA or worldwide, how many people are engaged in online volunteering, or how many organizations are involving online volunteers, and studies regarding volunteering, such as reports on volunteering trends in the USA, rarely include information about online volunteering (for example, a search of the term virtual volunteering on the Corporation for National Service's "Volunteering in America" yields no results.)
The United Nations runs an online volunteering service, formerly a part of NetAid, that allows organizations working in or for the developing world to recruit online volunteers, and does have statistics available regarding numbers of online volunteers and organizations involving such through its service. Several other matching services, such as VolunteerMatch and Idealist, also offer virtual volunteering positions with nonprofit organizations in addition to traditional, on-site volunteering opportunities. VolunteerMatch currently reports that about 5 percent of its active volunteer listings are virtual in nature. As of June 2010, its directory included more than 2,770 such listings including roles in interactive marketing, fundraising, accounting, social media, and business mentoring. The percentage of virtual listings has dropped since 2006, when it peaked at close to 8 percent of overall volunteer opportunities in the VolunteerMatch system.
Wikipedia and other Wikimedia endeavors are examples of online volunteering, in the form of crowdsourcing or micro-volunteering; the majority of Wikipedia contributing volunteers aren't required to undergo any screening or training by the nonprofit for their role as researchers, writers or editors, and do not have to make a specific time commitment to the organization in order to contribute service.
Many organizations involved in virtual volunteering might never mention the term, or the words "online volunteer," on their web sites or in organizational literature. For example, the nonprofit organization Business Council for Peace (Bpeace) recruits business professionals to donate their time mentoring entrepreneurs in conflict-affected countries, including Afghanistan and Rwanda, but the majority of these volunteers interact with BPEACE staff and entrepreneurs online rather than face-to-face; yet, the term virtual volunteering is not mentioned on the web site. BPEACE also engages in online micro-volunteering, asking for information leads from its supporters, such as where to find online communities of particular professionals in the USA, but the organization never mentions the term micro-volunteering on its web site. Another example is the Electronic Emissary, one of the first K-12 online mentoring programs, launched in 1992; the web site does not use the phrase virtual volunteering and prefers to call online volunteers online subject matter experts.
- Wikipedian of the year
- Wikipedia Wikipedian
- Wikipedian community
- Online mentoring
- List of awards for volunteerism and community service
- Online tutoring
- Virtual assistant
- Virtual management
- Volunteer computing
- Swarm intelligence
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