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:
- do not take long to complete (a few hours over one day, or just a
few days, maybe even two weeks, but no more).
- do not involve high security or handling of proprietary data.
- do not require much supervision.
- are important, as all volunteering activities should be, but not immediately
or highly critical (as in,
if volunteers do not get these tasks done within the next two weeks,
it will not bring your organization to a screeching halt, it will not
cause a huge problem at the organization, etc.).
- can be done by a person on his or her own, rather than requiring an
organized team with different members relying on the work of others in
order to complete their part of the assignment.
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
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):
- Translating just a few paragraphs into another language (as opposed
to an entire web page, or entire brochure).
- Gathering online information on one very specific topic
(identifying nonprofit organizations in a large city focused on
children, finding conferences in the next six months focused on human
resources management, finding samples of volunteer policies online,
finding samples of company social networking policies online, etc.).
- Editing a press release, newsletter, or new Web page.
- Posting a request by a nonprofit to the volunteer's various
networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), to see if anyone could answer or
help ("We need a free meeting space for 30 of our volunteers to do a
this Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m." or "We need a meeting table that
could accommodate at least 10 people. Does anyone know of an
organization that is looking to get rid of such? or "We have a survey
for teenagers on our web site regarding what program activities they
would be interested in. Please help us get the word out!").
- Providing feedback on a graphic or event theme.
- Providing feedback on a short strategy or proposal.
- Setting up an account on an online social networking site for an
organization, such as FaceBook, Twitter or Change.org
- Analyzing information on a short spreadsheet or looking at a bit of
data and offering a short narrative on what the data might mean.
- Doing a Web search to seek out resources and activities that are
needed for clients in a specific geographic location: summer camps,
vocational training, child care, government programs to help a
particular group of people, etc.
- Checking grant proposal submission guidelines on the Web sites of
various potential funders, such as foundations or corporations
(although this often requires a greater commitment than just a few
- Creating a new Web page on an existing site (putting up a
newsletter article as a new Web page, for instance).
- Web site testing to make sure the site works on a variety of
computers and Web browsers, and identifying any problems so that IT
staff can take action to make a site more accessible.
- Compiling a list of online communities relating to a particular
field of expertise, a specific topic, a specific geographic area, etc.
- Compiling a list of blogs relating to a specific topic.
- Compiling a list of Twitter accounts of people or organizations
that tweet regularly on a particular topic.
- Compiling a list of Facebook pages of people or organizations that
post information regularly regularly on a particular topic.
- Researching which Web sites link to your organization's Web site,
and researching which Web sites should link to your organization's Web
site but do not currently.
- Identifying which groups on Flickr or another photo-sharing web
site your organization might want to sometimes post photos to, in
order to get the word about your work and events.
- Adding new tags to photos already uploaded on a photo-sharing web
site, such as Flickr, to ensure they will come up on a search of
- Reviewing the work of other volunteers engaged in
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:
- Written descriptions (the more detail, the better)
- Deadlines (by when does this assignment need to be done?)
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 (soc.org.nonprofit
was a particularly popular crowd-sourcing resource for nonprofit
Crowd-sourcing is not just for discussion questions. For instance:
- The free, open system software movement is driven by
crowd-sourcing: anyone can participate, at any time, in helping to
write the code for these software products.
- Wikipedia is an online
encyclopedia that anyone can edit at any time.
- ClickWorkers was 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, like identifying craters on Mars in photos the project
posted online. Clickworkers worked whenever and for however long they
chose. You can read more about this now defunct project by going to archive.org
and cutting and pasting in this URL:
(choose the earliest version of the site available).
- NetSquared, an initiative
of TechSoup.org, invites anyone
to view proposed tech-networking projects listed on its site, post
questions and thoughts about these proposals and to vote on the ones
they believe will have the most potential for social impact. Most of
the projects relate to cell phones and smart phones used in
community-empowerment or humanitarian efforts. Partners for its
project proposal competitions have included USAID, Microsoft and
- TechSoup.org allows anyone
to answer questions or comment on discussions on its online community
forum. TechSoup sends out tweets, tagged with #DonateYrBrain, to
highlight discussions needing input from online volunteers.
- Blogher allowed members to
manipulate its official logo on their own web sites to show their
support of its first-ever conference in 2005, versions of which ended
up being used by other members as well, and engaged in a variety of
online and onsite activities to allow supporters to set the agenda for
the conference workshops.
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.
Last Virtual Volunteering
purchase as a paperback & an ebook
Completely revised and updated, & includes lots
more advice about microvolunteering!
Published January 2014.
is virtual volunteering
A rebuttal on my blog to the claim that microvolunteering isn't
- Short-term Assignments for Tech
There are a variety of ways for mission-based organizations to involve
volunteers to help with short-term projects relating to
computers and the Internet, and short-term assignments are what are
sought after most by potential "tech" volunteers. But there is a
disconnect: most organizations have trouble identifying such
short-term projects. This is a list of short-term projects for "tech"
volunteers -- assignments that might takes days, weeks or just a
couple of months to complete.
- One(-ish) Day "Tech" Activities for
Volunteers are getting together for intense, one-day events, or events
of just a few days, to build web pages, to write code, to edit
Wikipedia pages, and more. These are gatherings of onsite volunteers,
where everyone is in one location, together, to do an online-related
project in one day, or a few days. It's a form of episodic
volunteering, because volunteers don't have to make an ongoing
commitment - they can come to the event, contribute their services,
and then leave and never volunteer again. Because computers are
involved, these events are sometimes called hackathons, even if coding
isn't involved. This page provides advice on how to put together a
one-day event, or just-a-few-days-of activity, for a group of tech
volunteers onsite, working together, for a nonprofit, non-governmental
organization (NGO), community-focused government program, school or
other mission-based organization - or association of such.
- Finding a Computer/Network
Staff at mission-based organizations (nonprofits, civil society
organizations, and public sector agencies) often have to rely on
consultants, either paid or volunteer, for expertise in computer
hardware, software and networks. Staff may feel unable to understand,
question nor challenge whatever that consultant recommends. What can
mission-based organizations do to recruit the "right" consultant for
"tech" related issues, one that will not make them feel
out-of-the-loop or out-of-control when it comes to tech-related
- Myths About Online Volunteering (Virtual
Online volunteering means unpaid service that is given by volunteers
via the Internet. It's also known as virtual volunteering, online
mentoring, ementoring, evolunteering, cyber volunteering, cyber
service, telementoring, online engagement, and on and on. Here is a
list of common myths about online volunteering, and my attempt to
- Studies and Research Regarding Online
Volunteering / Virtual Volunteering
While there is a plethora of articles and information about online
volunteering, there has been very little research published regarding
the subject. This is a compilation of publicly-available research
regarding online volunteering, and a list of suggested possible angles
for researching online volunteering. New contributions to this page
are welcomed, including regarding online mentoring programs.
- Incorporating virtual volunteering
into a corporate employee volunteer program (a resource for
businesses / for-profit companies)
Virtual volunteering - volunteers providing service via a computer,
smart phone, tablet or other networked advice - presents a great
opportunity for companies to expand their employee philanthropic
offerings. Through virtual volunteering, some employees will choose to
help organizations online that they are already helping onsite. Other
employees who are unable to volunteer onsite at a nonprofit or school
will choose to volunteer online because of the convenience.
- Creating One-Time, Short-Term Group
Details on not just what groups of volunteers can do in a two-hour,
half-day or all-day event, but also just how much an organization or
program will need to do to prepare a site for group volunteering. It's
an expensive, time-consuming endeavor - are you ready? Is it worth it?
- Recruiting Local
Volunteers To Increase Diversity Among the Ranks
Having plenty of volunteers usually isn't enough to say a volunteering
program is successful. Another indicator of success is if your
volunteers represent a variety of ages, education-levels, economic
levels and other demographics, or are a reflection of your local
community. Most organizations don't want volunteers to be a
homogeneous group; they want to reach a variety of people as
volunteers (and donors and other supporters, for that matter). This
resource will help you think about how to recruit for diversity, or to
reach a specific demographic.
- Using Third Party Web Sites Like
VolunteerMatch to Recruit Volunteers
There are lots and lots of web sites out there to help your
organization recruit volunteers. You don't have to use them all, but
you do need to make sure you use them correctly in order to
get the maximum response to your posts.
- Using Video to Support Online
Video is a great way to further support volunteers, and your computer
probably already has all of the tools you need to make a video, or to
engage in a live video conversation with others. Video isn't something
to use only with online volunteers or remote volunteers (those
providing onsite service at a different location than yours). It's
also a tool you can use with new and current volunteers. In addition
to an organization producing videos for volunteers, it can also work
the other way around: volunteers can produce videos for organizations.
This resource provides information on your options, and links to my
own short video on the subject.
- Using Real-Time Communications
A growing number of organizations are using real-time communications
-- including video conferencing, online phone calls, chats and instant
messaging -- to hold online meetings with volunteers, to allow
volunteers to interact with staff, clients, or each other, or to
involve volunteers in a live, online, real-time event. This resource
provides more information on real-time communications with volunteers
-- what the various tools are, how agencies are using them to interact
with volunteers, and tips to encourage and maintain participation in
- Recognizing Online Volunteers &
Using the Internet to Honor ALL Volunteers
Recognition helps volunteers stay committed to your organization, and
gets the attention of potential volunteers -- and donors -- as well.
Organizations need to fully recognize the efforts of remote, online
volunteers, as well as those onsite, and not differentiate the value
of these two forms of service. Organizations should also incorporate
use of the Internet to recognize the efforts of ALL volunteers, both
online and onsite. With cyberspace, it's never been easier to show
volunteers -- and the world -- that volunteers are a key part of your
organization's successes. This new resource provides a long list of
suggestions for both honoring online volunteers and using the Internet
to recognize ALL volunteers that contribute to your organization..
- Lessons from
Some key learnings from directing the UN's Online Volunteering
service from February 2001 to February 2005, including support
materials for those using the service to host online volunteers.