This is an archived version of the Virtual Volunteering Project web site from January 2001.
The materials on the web site were written or compiled by Jayne Cravens.
The Virtual Volunteering Project has been discontinued.
The Virtual Volunteering Project web site IS NO LONGER UPDATED.
Email addresses associated with the Virtual Volunteering Project are no longer valid.
For any URL that no longer works, type the URL into
For new materials regarding online volunteering, see
Jayne Cravens' web site (the section on volunteerism-related resources).
Agencies and People Engaged
in Virtual Volunteering

DRAFT 08/17/99
by Jayne Cravens
the final and complete version will be available in Summer 2000 in the Journal of Technology and Human Services (JTHS)

Narrative Excerpt

Available literature on volunteer management is based on traditional volunteer programs. At the time of this Project's launch, little was known about the ways that programs could adapt onsite volunteer management practices to the online environment. The Virtual Volunteering Project sought to obtain feedback and first hand experience from agencies and volunteers to determine the ways online volunteers were engaging in service, the factors for success in online volunteer service programs, and the extent to which the Project's materials were useful in facilitating virtual volunteering development. To achieve this, the Project pursued four strategies:

During 1997 and 1998, surveys were delivered via the Project's Website, e-mailed directly to organizations the Project manager knew or suspected were involving online volunteers, and were posted to online discussion groups relating to volunteers, not-for-profit, or advocacy organizations. In addition, surveys were created specifically for organizations using VolunteerMatch [] to recruit online volunteers (n = 105), and volunteers who signed up for virtual opportunities on this service (n = 245). VolunteerMatch, which is Impact Online's (IOL) centerpiece program, was chosen because of the Project's past association with IOL and because it lists the greatest number of virtual volunteering opportunities of any online recruitment database. Finally, the Project also included questions in its own application for potential online volunteers [] so staff could track demographics, past volunteer experiences (on or offline) and interests of those wanting to volunteer virtually.

The feedback generated from all of these various forms is available and summarized on the Project's Web site []. It's worth noting that this information was formatted and summarized largely by online volunteers themselves, working on behalf of the Project [].

Another source of feedback was information obtained by working directly with agencies to help them set up or expand a virtual volunteering program. The original Affiliate organizations were selected based on their knowledge of basic volunteer issues; their success with volunteers in traditional, face-to-face settings; their vision for virtual volunteering at their own organization; their commitment to collaborating with the Project; their knowledge of basic Internet navigation and use; and their demonstrated commitment to timely communications via e-mail. The Project formed an Affiliates program [] to help staff establish collaborations that would allow them to detail first hand the realities of setting up and maintaining such a program. The Project staff provided technical assistance to the 13 Affiliate organizations via phone, a private e-mail discussion group, and, for more than half of the group, in a face-to-face setting. The Affiliate agencies also asked questions and provided assistance to each other via the discussion group.

The Project itself involved more than 100 online volunteers in support of its activities during its first two years[]. This allowed staff to document first hand the realities of working with volunteers via cyberspace. Another reason to involve volunteers was because the Project has a commitment to the involvement of the cyberspace community in its activities, just as do other organizations that work to involve their local communities in on-site programs. In addition to completing volunteer assignments, many of these volunteers also offered suggestions and information for materials on the Project Web site.

Feedback Results and Implications

Using informal feedback, survey data [], and profiles of agencies and volunteers featured on the Virtual Volunteering Project Website, it is possible to create a general profile of the people who are performing online service, the agencies they are assisting, and the kinds of service being performed. This is not a formal evaluation based on rigorous methodological standards, but rather is one person's (the Virtual Volunteering Project Manager) observations based on a combination of survey data, agency feedback, experience in volunteer management of online volunteers, and discussions with online volunteers. Much of the data used to identify the following results is available at: [].

It is not possible to determine the population of online volunteers or the agencies that utilize them because there is no central registration of organizations or individuals engaged in any type of volunteering, let alone online service. In addition, many organizations that involve online volunteers don't know the terms "virtual volunteering" or "cyber service," and do not distinguish virtual involvement as different from on-site service.

The Project has identified almost 200 agencies involving online volunteers, and profiled more than 100 such agencies on its web site []. The Project has also compiled more than 400 e-mail addresses of volunteers interested or engaged in virtually volunteering. Based on informal observations by the Project staff and advisors, however, these numbers likely greatly underestimate those who are involved in virtual volunteering activities.

Who is volunteering virtually?

The Project received online feedback through surveys and its application for online volunteers from more than 100 people volunteering virtually, ranging in age from 14 to 75. Most were between the ages of 18 and 50, with no large cluster of people anywhere within this range. The median age is 31. Approximately twenty people ages 14 to 17 have contacted the Project looking for online volunteer opportunities because the agencies they wanted to help on-site had prohibitions against involving anyone under 18, or because they had no transportation to an on-site volunteer assignment. There have been fewer than half a dozen online volunteers over 70 who have contacted the Project about online volunteering experiences.

The majority, more than 60%, of online volunteers in contact with the Project identified themselves as Anglo or of European descent. The next largest group, approximately 10 percent, identified as people of Asian or East Indian descent. Fewer than 5% said they were African American or Hispanic, and none identified as American Indian. About 25% of respondents did not answer questions relating to age or ethnicity, and a few expressed anger that the questions were asked at all. The Project makes it clear on its forms and surveys that the questions are asked only for statistical purposes, but a few people have said these questions defeat the idea that everyone is "equal" on the Internet. The limited ethnic diversity among online volunteers reflects the much cited technology gap in Internet access for ethnic minorities in the United States (Stevens, 1999). Gender, however, appears to be equally distributed among online volunteers, with males and females each accounting for approximately 50% of online volunteers.

More than 25% of online volunteers and more than 35% of the agencies involving online volunteers, based on survey and application responses, are in California, in or near the San Francisco or Los Angeles metropolitan areas. Other areas with relatively large numbers of online volunteers are the greater Washington, D.C./Philadelphia metropolitan areas, New York City, the Boulder/Denver Colorado metropolitan areas, Florida, North Carolina and Texas. All of these areas have a higher number of Internet users per capita than the rest of the country (ZDNet, 1998). The large numbers in California could also be because Impact Online has a well-established reputation in the state.

More than 75% of online volunteers have performed or are also performing volunteer service in on-site, face-to-face settings. Most reported very positive experiences as on-site volunteers, and looked at online volunteering as another way to "help others" or "give back." Fewer than 10% of respondents reported wanting to volunteer online as a permanent alternative to traditional, face-to-face volunteering.

Convenience and schedule flexibility were the two most common cited reasons for individuals choosing to volunteer online. A few reported an interest in online service just to see what it was like, or because they felt guilty for spending so much time online and wanted to do something more constructive while on the Internet. Many reported using virtual volunteering as a way to develop certain skills (for example, Web design). About a dozen people said they prefer online volunteering to on-site volunteering because a disability or health issue makes traditional service difficult. One person noted that, when volunteering online, "People see me, not the (wheel)chair."

What agencies are involving online volunteers?

Agencies generally reflect the same geographic representation as online volunteers, although the Western states of Washington, Oregon and Arizona also have many agencies engaged in virtual volunteering []. Virtual volunteering seems to have taken hold with agencies in Western states in particular. In combination, online volunteers and agencies in contact with the Project represent half of all states. Canada, as a region, rank third behind California and New York as having the most agencies and individuals who engage in virtual volunteering.

There seems to be no particular trend in staff size for agencies involving online volunteers. Based on the surveys completed by agencies for the Virtual Volunteering Project, some are all-volunteer organizations with no staff, some have as many as 50 employees, and there is a wide range of agencies in between.

Approximately 31% of agencies involving online volunteers have a specific focus on technology as part their mission: community networks and freenets being the most common. One example of a technology-related agency using online volunteers is the Digital Clubhouse Digitally Abled Producers Project [], which pairs youth with disabilities and youth without disabilities to teach multimedia, universally accessible Web page production, networking and career skills. Agencies that do not focus on technology as part of their mission involved online volunteers in staff-assistance roles, primarily building Web sites or performing online research. It has been difficult to identify organizations engaged in online volunteering that already had traditional, face-to-face service opportunities that matched volunteers with clients, because there is no central registry of such agencies, and search engines and web directories do not list such agencies under one identifiable category.

How do most volunteers connect with online assignments?

More than 25% of online volunteers said they performed an online assignment for an agency that they or a family member or friend were already working with offline, or with whom they had a personal connection (knew a staff member). The second most frequently cited reason for virtual volunteering was related to having volunteer opportunities with an agency that had a mission they personally supported. When potential volunteers did not already have a personal connection with an organization, they looked for opportunities using Web search engines and directories, Yahoo! [] being the most frequently used. They searched using the word "volunteer," or looked for agencies based on mission and program types (improving the environment, working with the elderly, etc.) in which they were interested.

What are the most common tasks of online volunteers?

Approximately 45% of online volunteers who answered the Project survey created or maintained Web sites for an organization. More than 40% of volunteers have performed online research, provided technical assistance to staff and clients, and helped with online marketing and activism, such as posting alerts to appropriate online discussion groups.

The Project staff has identified more than 20 organizations that match online volunteers with clients, such as students in mentoring or tutoring, but none of these organizations have been willing to allow the Project to survey their volunteers, and none have provided feedback, even in summary, about the experiences of these volunteers. These organizations, on the rare occasion that they have responded to this request, have said they do not have the resources or time to comply. Information about 18 of these organizations is available online, indexed at [].

What do agencies and volunteers dislike about virtual volunteering?

Both volunteers and agencies cited the lack of face-to-face contact as the biggest drawback of online service. Volunteers also frequently cited a lack of response from agencies, particularly in letting the volunteers know how their work made a difference at an agency. The number one complaint of volunteers who tried to use Volunteer Match to sign up for online opportunities was lack of follow up by the agency. Approximately 30% never heard from the agencies that used this service to say they needed online volunteers, and more than 70% were never actually placed in an online assignment.

Although the Project is set up specifically to assist agencies, the feedback from volunteers, such as what they disliked most about online volunteering, suggested a need for resources to assist individuals as well. While the majority of materials on the Project site are focused on agencies, a significant number are for volunteers. An example is "Tips on Volunteering Virtually" [], which encourages volunteers to take the lead in initiating and maintaining communications with an agency. These and other materials for volunteers promote the idea that volunteers can encourage good volunteer management on the part of agency they serve; for example, a volunteer writing his or her own written task description if the agency does not provide one, as a way to clarify expectations and boundaries.

What factors promote or impede the success of a virtual volunteering program?

Almost all of the factors cited in the surveys as impeding the success of virtual volunteering related to overall organization management, which greatly affects the management and involvement of volunteers. For agencies, the most common obstacles cited in survey responses were lack of time on the part of the supervisor to manage the program and lack of a system to create assignments and match volunteers to those assignments. The Virtual Volunteering Project manager has observed that this is also a top complaint of managers working in traditional, face-to-face volunteer settings, and believes this reflects the overall need for better volunteer management training and support. Only two organizations of the more than 100 in contact with the Project cited a lack of volunteers as an impediment.

More than 50% of agencies using VolunteerMatch in January 1999 to recruit online volunteers and who responded to the Project survey stated that they did not have any system to screen, orient or supervise online volunteers. Therefore, most did not meet the requirements outlined in the Project's instrument to assess an organization's readiness to engage in online volunteering []. The Project staff feels this lack of preparation and organizational readiness are the chief reasons that the majority of volunteers who used VolunteerMatch never actually engaged in an online assignment.

Some volunteer managers said they had difficulty relating to volunteers online. For instance, one agency reported, "It's difficult to know whether someone hasn't written you back because they're no longer interested or because they're unavailable." These types of comments led to the creation of materials that deal specifically with online communications from the human perspective (as opposed to the technology perspective). The first was "Online Culture" [], which notes the variety of communication styles of online volunteers and provides first-hand accounts and advice from the Project Affiliate agencies. This Web page cites numerous other resources providing guidelines for online communication.

Development of clearly written task descriptions and a good communication process for delivering these assignments to volunteers are cited most by agencies as the key to success in virtual volunteering programs. It is worth noting that most agencies that said they have a successful virtual volunteering program also have a staff person whose primary responsibility is volunteer management. All of these criteria are cited as necessary for a successful program in "How do I know if my organization is ready for virtual volunteering?" []. However, while the Project has this and other resources that address the issues cited by those surveyed regarding what promotes or impedes the success of a virtual volunteering program, most organizations providing feedback were unaware of these resources before they embarked on virtual volunteering. The Project hopes to secure funding in its fourth year to increase awareness of its resources to agencies that involve volunteers.

If you find this or any other Virtual Volunteering Project information helpful, or would like to add information based on your own experience, please contact us.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]