Revised with new information as of March 28, 2016

A free resource for nonprofit organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations,
public sector organizations, and other mission-based agencies

Jayne Cravens,

Microvolunteering & Crowd-Sourcing:
Not-So-New (but important) Trends in
Virtual Volunteering/Online Volunteering

Back in the 1990s, when the Virtual Volunteering Project was documenting best practices in involving and supporting volunteers via the Internet, one of the methods for involving online volunteers was creating what I called byte-sized volunteering assignments. These are assignments that:

Now, the hot term for this is microvolunteering or micro volunteering (sometimes with space, sometimes without) or microtasks. Some people include offline activities in microvolunteering. Others narrow the definition even further than I have, and say the activity has to be mobile-ready, something that can be done on a smart phone.

At its heart, microvolunteering 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 lengthy pre-service orientation, don't fill out a lengthy volunteer application form and may never volunteer with the organization again - they feel like they just show up and get to work - online volunteers that participate in a microvolunteering may get started on their assignment just a few minutes after expressing interest, if your organization has the right, tried-and-true volunteer management standards in place.

What does online volunteering as microvolunteering or a byte-sized assignment, really look like? Most sites that talk about microvolunteering don't offer any specifics on what microtasks look like. 

He's the longest list you will find anywhere of microvolunteering in action - but note that this list would be very shorter if your definition of microvolunteering is mobile-ready volunteering (the task can easily be done on a mobile phone):

Again: these are tasks that will take just a few minutes or a few hours to complete, and can happen in one day or over a few days, even a couple of weeks. Note that some require a bit of expertise: a person might have to be fluent in two languages, or know about web accessibility, or be terrific at finding very specific information online.

To ensure success with such short-term tasks, any microvolunteering assignment should have:

Mid-assignment reporting requirements might also be necessary if the deadline is a week or more after the assignment is given - many times, organizations can't just assume people are working on assignments, only to find out, once they need the work, that the volunteers didn't do it.

A volunteer can complete one of these assignments and then walk away from every volunteering with you again. However, your goal with these assignments is much more than to get work done; it is to create such a positive experience that the volunteer stays interested and takes on another small task, or a task with more responsibility or greater time commitment, as well as becoming a fan of your organization, talking about your good work to colleagues, friends and family. You might even turn such a volunteer into a financial donor!


Part of the microvolunteering phenomena is crowd-sourcing, a practice that is as old as the Internet itself (which makes it more than 30 years old). This is when a task or question is offered up online to anyone who would like to take it on, without that person having to sign up to participate as a volunteer. It can be as simple as writing, "How would you handle the following situation..." to an online community of volunteer resources managers. Or asking "How could we improve the our online volunteer orientation" to your online community of volunteers. Or asking on an online community for HR managers, "Would anyone be willing to share their company's dress code? We're looking for ideas." Or writing all of your current volunteers and saying, "What do you think of our new logo?" It is also called "distributed problem-solving."

Before the World Wide Web, a popular Internet tool was USENET newsgroups, which were online communities put together around various interests, professions and topics, and much of the activity on these was what we now call crowd-sourcing ( was a particularly popular crowd-sourcing resource for nonprofit representatives).

Crowd-sourcing is not just for discussion questions. For instance:

Crowd-sourcing can involve people who are not a part of your organization -- anyone visiting your web site, anyone on an online discussion group run by another organization, etc. -- or it can be reserved only for vetted volunteers on your online discussion group for such.

What About the Ice-Bucket Challenge?

As long as someone was including the name of the organization that this was supposed to benefit (usually the ALS Association) from the ice bucket challenge, and the web site address so people could donate more money, sure, I would consider this micro volunteering. But you have to be careful with these types of campaigns - a lot of people uploaded videos of themselves dumping ice water on themselves without ever naming the charity it was supposed to benefit, and that means it was just slacktavism or slackervism.

It's Always About Building Relationships

A misconception about microvolunteering and crowd-sourcing -- and, indeed, about all volunteering, including in its most traditional forms -- is that the primary goal is to get work done, or to get work done for free. These are old paradigms regarding volunteering that so many of us have worked for a very long time to move away from. Volunteering is about so much more: it's about building relationships with the community, increasing the number of people advocating for your organization and even supporting it financially, demonstrating transparency, and even targeting specific demographics for involvement in your work.

The biggest advantage to creating microvolunteering and crowd-sourcing opportunities isn't getting work done; rather, it's giving current volunteers more and different ways to participate (believe it or not, many of your volunteers want to do more for you!), and allows you to cultivate new supporters.

Never think of the primary goal of microvolunteering as getting work done. Your goal should always be to cultivate new supporters or to build awareness about a cause. You want to turn people who answer your question on a discussion group or take on a small online volunteering assignment into long-term supporters, people who tell family and friends about your organization, who have their perception changed about a particular issue your organization is involved with (why people are homeless, why the arts are important to teens, why there are misunderstandings about HIV/AIDS, why increasing literacy improves women's health, etc.), who take on more assignments for your organization and, hopefully, are so moved by your work that they make a financial donation.

Therefore, if your organization decides to make microvolunteering or crowd-sourcing activities available to people beyond your corps of vetted volunteers, make sure you have ways to capture their key contact information and provide followup to them regarding the project or issue they contributed to. Encourage these contributors to complete the briefest of online volunteering applications, to join an online discussion group, and/or to subscribe to your email newsletter.


Also see

 The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

available for purchase as a paperback & an ebook

from Energize, Inc.
Completely revised and updated, & includes lots more advice about microvolunteering!
Published January 2014.


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