How Virtual Volunteering Works for Individuals and Nonprofits
How Volunteers Can Go Virtual
Volunteering has changed dramatically over recent years. From serving in soup kitchens, signing up for school functions, to building houses, usually volunteering meant going somewhere to do something.
However, today’s volunteering includes donating your virtual time and skills. Instead of being present to volunteer in the “real world,” many people have found their place in the world of virtual volunteering.
Nonprofits, as well, have adapted to the virtual world. With many employees now working from home, it's simpler than ever to set up virtual work for their volunteers.
Virtual volunteering allows you to commit your time and services away from the physical site of an organization, project, or campaign. Virtual volunteers work over the internet via computer, tablet, or phone to provide their skilled services to support a cause that is important to them.
How Virtual Volunteering Works
Many people find that it is much more convenient to become virtual volunteers, also called “cyber-volunteers,” “digital volunteers,” or even “e-volunteers.” Virtual volunteers serve causes both near and far. That service takes many forms, including:
- Website design or support
- Data entry
- Email marketing or management
- Fundraising phone calls and outreach
- Social media promotion and management
- App development
- Volunteer tracking
- Copywriting, blogging, or editing
- Graphic design, photography
- Marketing or branding assistance
- Video creation
- Virtual assistance, staff support
Of course, this is just a small sample of all the possible virtual volunteering tasks a person could provide. Each organization has a different approach, so there will be unique ways for volunteers to support each charity remotely.
Moreover, while physical volunteers will always be in demand, the shift towards the Internet has made virtual volunteer positions plentiful. In fact, in times of great disruption such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic, working and volunteering remotely became essential to keeping the economy, including nonprofits, moving. At one point in the spring of 2020, Volunteer Match had thousands of openings for virtual volunteers on its site.
Helping the shift to virtual volunteering is the move to remote work of all kinds. It's not unusual for paid employees to work from home or remote locations. This has been true of nonprofits as well. Many charities have a mixture of remote and on-site work for their employees. New technologies have arisen to make it easier to conference online, manage teams online, and share materials easily. These tools can also be used for virtual volunteering. Just consider the popularity of Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Webex.
How Virtual Volunteering Started
Since the 1990s, when the internet became publicly available, the definition of volunteerism has evolved.
The term “virtual volunteer” was first referenced in 1995 by Steve Glikbarg, co-founder of Impact Online. It became a way to distinguish the new work volunteers were doing outside of traditional volunteering roles. Glikbarg’s company later became VolunteerMatch, one of the biggest online databases that match volunteers to organizations.
Almost all nonprofits have made a home online, connecting people with their causes and programs all over the world. Now, finding a volunteer opportunity is just like finding a paid job; most people go online to search and apply.
While virtual volunteering is as old as the internet, it has become an ever-more familiar part of our world as ways of collaborating online have become more sophisticated.
Now, we can be alerted to virtual volunteer opportunities instantaneously, and we can work with other people through chats and virtual meeting spaces. Moreover, training for volunteer work can be delivered efficiently right online.
Why Virtual Volunteering Is so Popular
There’s no denying that we have become an increasingly digital culture and, in many ways, that is not a bad thing.
The internet has allowed us to do so much more in much less time, and our skills are no longer limited to our geographical location. More skill sets have stemmed from society's use of technology, as well. Because of that, volunteering is no longer limited to just physical labor or attendance.
Nonprofit organizations need websites as well as “boots on the ground.” They need help with their social media and assistance in the community.
One exciting new frontier has been the ability to crowdsource data for research in the humanities and sciences.
For instance, history buffs can collaborate with the Smithsonian to help make historical documents accessible. Birdwatchers can help track bird populations and migration patterns with eBird. And amateur scientists can contribute to counting penguins at Zooniverse.
For those people who long to volunteer for global causes but the PeaceCorps seems unrealistic, the United Nations has the answer. UN Volunteers online offers safe opportunities to do good around the world in a vast variety of ways from translation to outreach and advocacy.
Many of these crowdsourcing opportunities fall into the unique category of "micro-volunteering" because one can perform them in just snippets of time and the tasks may not require formal training or qualification. Looking for more ways to use your smartphone? Try micro-volunteering.
Today, nonprofit organizations need more help than ever to support their everyday operations and to expand. Virtual volunteering has helped many nonprofits to grow and broaden their impact.
It is easy to see the allure of virtual volunteering for volunteers. Ask any volunteer about the obstacles that made service difficult and they are likely to say, “Making time to get there.” Between work, family time, commuting, and the general chaos of daily life, virtual volunteering could be the solution that many volunteers and organizations need.
The Benefits of Virtual Volunteering for Individuals and Organizations
While there are countless benefits to volunteering, for both the individual and the causes they support, virtual volunteering has opened up a whole new realm of possibility.
Jayne Cravens, the author of "The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook," has studied the benefits of virtual volunteering for many years. Much of her research has highlighted both the personal and institutional benefits of this form of volunteerism. Indeed, Jane maintains that there should be no difference between volunteerism and virtual volunteerism and she predicts that the distinction between the two will disappear.
For the volunteer, virtual volunteering can mean:
- More opportunities to volunteer for multiple causes and organizations
- More time to volunteer
- Flexibility in scheduling, location, and level of involvement
- A unique outlet for skills or passions that aren’t met by physical volunteering
- More positions for disabled or very remote volunteers
- Fulfilling education or career volunteer milestones
For an organization, institution, or cause, virtual volunteering often provides:
- More volunteer positions that cover more tasks and skills
- Increased access to more qualified volunteers
- More ways to save money on operating costs
- An easier way to access more data for your organization
- Professional-level communications, branding, and outreach
Of course, the benefits of volunteering, both physically and virtually, are unique to the person and organization.
We have never before had the opportunities we have today. These new possibilities make it easier for nonprofits to function in the current digital society with more volunteers. They also make it easier for people to support causes from anywhere at any time.
How You Can Become a Virtual Volunteer
Most nonprofits are always looking for more volunteers. Finding the best virtual volunteer position for you is just a matter of knowing where to look.
However, before you begin, it always helps to know what cause or program you want to support. Whether you like animals or want to help support kids in different countries, you need to narrow your area of focus. Also consider your own life and career goals, your interest in issues, and your available time commitment. You won't be able to help anyone if you can't persist with your assignment.
Then, you will need to figure out what type of virtual service you would like to provide. For instance, it could be social media management, copywriting, or even phone outreach.
To find opportunities, use established databases and well-known charities such as:
If there’s a particular organization you want to work for, you can also check the organization’s website for a volunteer section.
Before you sign up for an online volunteer position, determine that the organization does the kind of work that you support, and that fits your interests and skills.
Make sure you have the equipment and services you might need to do virtual volunteering. Most projects at a minimum require a computer, tablet such as an iPad, or smartphone as well as a secure and robust internet connection.
You may also want to acquire a headset that allows two-way communications, a web camera, and a charging device if you're working on a handheld device.
The organization you volunteer with will let you know which browser (such as Chrome or Microsoft Edge) works best for them and which apps you'll need to download. Most organizations will be happy to train you on platforms with which you're not already familiar.
What You Should Look for Before Signing Up
Cravens and Ellis suggest that before enlisting as a virtual volunteer, make sure to do the following:
1. Research each organization thoroughly. Start with organizations you have heard of, or where people you know have volunteered. Look for organizations that are called 501c3 charities. This designation will be on the organization's website and means that they are IRS approved tax-exempt public charities.
2. Eliminate fraudulent or unstable organizations. Check out the consumer reports of the nonprofit world. They include Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau, the Charity Watch and GuideStar. Many volunteers use Indeed.com, Great Nonprofits, or Glassdoor.com to get a feel for employee and volunteer reviews of an organization.
3. Understand how your hours and work will be recorded. Record keeping is especially important if you need to track hours for court-mandated volunteering, work, or school. Some organizations monitor volunteer hours with software, while some use email or spreadsheets.
4. Know what kind of training or experience is required. Some organizations need high-level experts while other positions are entry-level. Searching for the necessary degree of expertise (and the needed commitment) can help whittle down your selection.
5. Discuss needs and expectations. Sometimes, remote volunteer communication can be hard. Make sure to discuss hours, which tasks are your responsibility, and how to contact people when you need help. Deadlines and important dates are also important if your volunteer work is not ongoing.
These steps will help you find the perfect virtual volunteer opportunity. They will also make your experience much more pleasant.
How Nonprofits Can Attract and Use Virtual Volunteers
Using virtual volunteers requires the same infrastructure that you create for regular volunteers. You need training, a volunteer coordinator, recruitment strategies, and outreach.
For virtual volunteers, organizations need to look for those tasks in your organization that can be done online. There are likely to be many of your normal tasks that can be converted to online work. But, also think outside the box, and determine if there are other creative ways to use volunteers from home.
Some suggestions from Points of Light include:
- Projects that include data entry or research
- Tutoring or mentoring
- Graphic design
- Managing social media
- Editing or writing
- Curriculum development
Check out what other organizations are doing and what the nonprofits in your area might be doing to get ideas.
Make sure you have software applications for remote work. You are likely to have several already if employees have been doing some work remotely. But not all virtual opportunities need sophisticated equipment. For instance, you might ask a volunteer to track something, such as bird sightings, or do searches online for resources. They can use simple and readily available tools such as online documents and forms to report back.
Take your volunteer applications online and your interviews with potential volunteers might be done with applications such as Zoom or Skype.
For recruitment, use popular volunteer sites, such as AARP's Create the Good, VolunteerMatch, and Points of Light. Let your current volunteers know that they may be able to work from home and help them adapt.
What Are You Waiting for?
Volunteering is an age-old institution. From school fundraising to church programs, to corporate philanthropy, volunteering is a part of nearly every area of our lives.
"Traditional” volunteering will always be around, but virtual volunteering has changed the way many of us give back. When you are ready to start volunteering (or volunteer more), this trend could open many doors you had not considered before.
Virtual volunteering provides an outlet for many different skills and passions, but it also makes it easier for organizations to do good work all over the world.
Become a part of the movement that is making a difference. Become a virtual volunteer or, if you are an organization, get on board now with a virtual volunteer force.
Jayne Cravens and Susan J. Ellis. "The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Fully Integrating Online Service into Volunteer Involvement," Page 2. Energize, Inc. 2014.
VolunteerMatch. "Virtual Volunteer Opportunities: Volunteer From Anywhere." Accessed April 8, 2020.
National Council of Nonprofits. "Remote Workers and Telecommuting Practices for Nonprofits." Accessed April 8, 2020.
Idealware.org. "The Remote Option: Smart Technology for Creating Virtual Teams," Page 2. Accessed April 8, 2020.
Jayne Cravens and Susan J. Ellis. "The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Fully Integrating Online Service into Volunteer Involvement," Page 4. Energize, Inc. 2014.
Centrepreneurs' Foundation of SVCF. "Microvolunteering." Accessed April 9, 2020.
Jayne Cravens and Susan J. Ellis. "The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Fully Integrating Online Service into Volunteer Involvement," Page 15-77. Energize, Inc. 2014.
Points of Light. "Nonprofit Considerations For Starting a Virtual Volunteering Program." Accessed April 9, 2020.
Johns Hopkins University. "'Top Ten Tips for 'Serving Sensibly'." Accessed April 8, 2020.
WEA Adult Learning Within Reach. "What equipment do you need to Zoom?" Accessed April 8, 2020.
National Service.gov. "Tips for Nonprofits on Using Volunteers." Accessed April 9, 2020.