Revised with new information as of
October 20, 2010
Myths About Online Volunteering (Virtual
Quiero tener esta información con respecto a
voluntariado en Red, voluntariado en Internet, voluntarios sin
fronteras, etc., en español y ofrecer en el Internet. Necessito una
organización español o un departamento de universidadque español
traducirá la presentación en español. Escríbame por favor con el nombre
de su organización o departamento de universidadque, su ciudad y el
país, y si usted quiere traducir esta información en español. Si usted
querría ofrecer esta información en español en su propia página web, eso
sería razonable. Siento que mi español sea tan malo. Por favor
Online volunteering means unpaid service that is given via the Internet,
either via a computer or via a handheld device (smart phone, cell phone,
PDA, etc.). It's a method of volunteering I have been using, studying,
documenting or promoting since 1995, first independently, then with the Virtual
Volunteering Project, and then with the UN's
Online Volunteering service. It's also known as virtual volunteering,
online mentoring, ementoring, evolunteering, cyber volunteering, cyber
service, telementoring, micro-volunteering, crowd-sourcing and on and on.
Now, 15 years on, I'm stunned at how many myths are still out there
about the concept. Here is a list of 17 of the most common myths, and my
attempt to counter them:
- Online volunteering is great for people who don't have time to
False. This is probably the biggest and
most annoying myth out there about the practice. Online volunteering
requires REAL time, not "virtual" time. If you don't have time to
volunteer offline, you probably do NOT have time to volunteer online.
Online volunteering should never be promoted as a way an alternative
volunteering method for people who don't have time to volunteer
face-to-face. Rather, the appeal of online volunteering for individuals
- it's another way for a person to help an organization they are
already helping in face-to-face settings
- it's a way for someone who cannot volunteer onsite because, while
they have time to volunteer, they cannot leave their home or work
place to do so
- it allows a way for people with disabilities who have problems
with mobility, or people no way of traveling easy, to volunteer
- it can allow a person to help an organization that serves a cause
or issue of great importance to the person but for which there are
no onsite opportunities in his or her area
- it can allow a person to help a geographic area that he or she
cannot travel to
- People who volunteer online don't volunteer face-to-face.
False. According to research by the Virtual
Volunteering Project in the late 1990s, as well as anecdotal
evidence since then from various organizations, the overwhelming
majority of online volunteers also volunteer in face-to-face
settings, often for an organization in their same city or region, and
often for the same organization they are helping online.
- There are online volunteers and there are onsite volunteers and
these are entirely separate groups
False. As stated in the previous myth,
rarely will you find an online volunteer who doesn't also volunteer
onsite, or an onsite volunteer that doesn't use the Internet in some way
to interact with the organization they support onsite. They are all
volunteers, and don't self-identify into separate online and onsite
- People who volunteer online do so for organizations that are
geographically far from them.
False. Most online volunteers are people
who also volunteer onsite for the same organization; for
instance, a volunteer designing an annual report may go onsite to meet
with staff but perform most of the donated service via his or her home
or work computer. Also, most people who volunteer online look for
opportunities that are in their same geographic area -- just as do
people who want to volunteer onsite. Indeed, there are thousands of
online volunteers who look for remote online volunteering opportunities,
and the UN's Online
Volunteering service is an excellent avenue for them to find such.
- People who volunteer online are mostly young, affluent and living
in the USA.
False. Online volunteers come from all
age groups who can use the Internet independently (usually starting when
a person is over 13), from various educational and work backgrounds, and
from various geographies and ethnicities. The breakdown of online
volunteers from the UN's
Online Volunteering service is telling: more than 40% are from
developing countries. Ofcourse, each organization that involves online
volunteers will have a different breakdown as far as online volunteering
demographics; in short, one cannot make sweeping generalizations about
who online volunteers are.
- People who volunteer online are very shy and have trouble
interacting with others.
False. As noted earlier, according to
research by the Virtual Volunteering
Project in the late 1990s, as well as anecdotal evidence since
then from various organizations, the overwhelming majority of online
volunteers also volunteer in face-to-face settings. In fact,
online volunteers tend to be excellent at interacting with others --
it's that hunger for interaction that often drives their volunteering,
on or offline.
- Online volunteers engage primarily in technology-related tasks.
False. Online volunteers engage in a
variety of non-technology-related tasks, such as advising on business
plans, human resources development, fund-raising and press relations,
researching topics, and facilitating online discussions. A survey of
online volunteering assignments posted to, say, the UN's
Online Volunteering service, usually shows 50% of more assignments
that are non-tech-specific.
- Online volunteering is impersonal.
False. Online interactions are quite
personal. In many circumstances, people are often more willing to share
information and feelings online than they are in face-to-face. Also,
volunteers can more easily share photos of their families, and
narratives about their interests, via the Internet than, say, at an
onsite volunteer luncheon. Online volunteers with whom I have worked are
real people to me, not virtual people. When they have gotten married or
graduated from high school or college or had a baby or gotten a job, I
have celebrated, and when they have died or lost a loved one, I have
- Interviewing potential volunteers face-to-face is much more
reliable than interviewing people online.
False. Both methods of interviewing
potential volunteers have strengths and weaknesses, and one may be more
appropriate than another for a particular situation, but each is
effective. I have talked to plenty of people face-to-face who expressed
great enthusiasm and interest in becoming online volunteers, and have
wanted information on how to get started -- and who never
follow-through, while people online must show not only their interest
but their commitment and skills almost immediately, by responding to
emails promptly and by writing clearly.
- The Internet Is Dangerous and, therefore, online volunteering
opens an organization and its clients up to many risks.
False. The Internet is no more, nor no
less, dangerous than the offline world. When people, including children,
have been harmed as a result of online activities, it has been because
they or their parents did not take appropriate safety measures -- it's
amazing to me that parents who would never allow their children to go
to, say, a bus station to play for the day, allow their children to go
into unsupervised chat rooms. There is extensive information on how to
ensure safety in online volunteering (and online mentoring) programs at
the Virtual Volunteering Project.
- The biggest obstacle to online volunteering is lack of Internet
False. For organizations, the biggest
obstacle to involving online volunteers successfully, or at all, is lack
of experience in basic volunteer management practices. If an
organization doesn't know how to involve onsite volunteers effectively,
they won't be able to do it online.
- Working with online volunteers is completely different
than working with onsite volunteers.
False. The key to success in working
with online volunteers is the application of basic volunteer management
standards - the fundamentals that make any traditional volunteering
program work. All volunteers, whether online or onsite, need support,
feedback, guidance and recognition.
- Online volunteering requires building a dedicated online platform
or using a specific tech tool.
False. If an organization has email, the
organization can involve online volunteers. An organization can
effectively involve and support online volunteers with Internet tools
they already have (email, instant messaging, an iVisit
or Skype account, etc.). Organizations can also use free Internet tools
to support all volunteers (not just online volunteers), like YahooGroups
or GoogleGroups, the online
calendars provided by both Yahoo
and The Google. And
organizations recruit online volunteers via the same offline and online
avenues as their onsite, face-to-face volunteers.
- Much more needs to be done to get people to volunteer online.
False. There are plenty of
people who want to volunteer online, far, far more than there are
opportunities for them. Instead, much more needs to be done to help
build the capacity of organizations regarding volunteer management, and
to incorporate information about online volunteering into this
- Online volunteering is a very new concept.
False. Online volunteering has been
going on probably has long as there has been an Internet (which itself
is more than 30 years old). Certainly the Internet itself, particularly
USENET, could be categorized as a form of online volunteering -- users
helping users. Also, Tim Berners Lee, in an online appearance at the
United Nations Volunteers' event at United Nations Open Day in Geneva in
2001, noted the role volunteers had played in his development of the
World Wide Web back in the 1980s. But the earliest example I have been
able to find of formal online volunteering, where volunteers were
mobilized specifically to contribute to a specific not-for-profit
project meant to help others (other people, the environment, animals,
etc.) via their home, work or school computer, is Project
Gutenberg, which began in the 1970s and which mobilized
online volunteers to create electronic versions of public domain books.
More about the history of online volunteering/virtual volunteering is
detailed on this page
on Wikipedia regarding online volunteering.
- Micro-Volunteering and Crowd-Sourcing are completely different
than virtual volunteering/online volunteering
Back in the 1990s, when I directed the Virtual
Volunteering Project, I called it byte-sized volunteering:
online volunteering tasks that take just a few hours or a few days to
complete, like translating some text into another language, gathering
information on one topic, tagging photos with certain keywords, etc.
Now, the hot-new term for this is micro-volunteering.
- There is no need for traditional volunteer management activities
Micro-volunteering is 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 long pre-service
orientation, don't fill out a lengthy volunteer application form and may
never volunteer with the organization again, online volunteers that
participate in a micro-volunteering task may get started on their
assignment just a few minutes after expressing interest. But just as
offline episodic volunteering like beach cleanups are more about
building relationships, creating more awareness and cultivating more
supporters, micro-volunteering needs
to have the same goals in order to be worth doing, and that takes
having established, tried-and-true volunteer management standards in
Also see this list of research about online
volunteering undertaken by various organizations and individuals.
On a related note, Volunteer
Program Mythology by Ivan Scheier, which identified myths relating
to volunteer management in 1992, myths that are still common today,
including in relation to online volunteering.
Last Virtual Volunteering
Guidebook has MUCH MORE detailed information on how to
address each of these myths.
Return to my volunteer-related resources
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