robJackson

Is microvolunteering a digital knight on a white charger?

Microvolunteering. It is the latest next big thing in
volunteering. By giving just a few
minutes of your time to complete an action, normally via mobile technology, you
can change the world. Many
advocates see microvolunteering as the digital knight on a white charger come
to save the damsel in distress that is ‘traditional’ volunteering.

I am on record as being
sceptical about microvolunteering. Don’t get me wrong, I love new technology. I’m not an early adopter. I’d perhaps class myself as a slightly delayed adopter. I think there is potential in
microvolunteering. But I think the
current, almost zealously positive narrative fails to acknowledge some
important considerations that need addressing if microvolunteering is going to
truly be a valuable addition to a volunteer manager’s toolbox.

Here are just two: impact
and opportunities.

Impact

Is the activity someone does
waiting for a train just making them feel good about themselves or is it
actually making a difference? I’ve
raised this objection before. In
response the excellent Help From Home website published data on
microvolunteering. But in my view
that data is about outputs (what’s been done) not impact (what difference has
been made).

At a time when charities are
being told we need to demonstrate our impact more than ever, should we really
be investing time and money in new initiatives like microvolunteering without
good evidence of impact?

As Paula J Beugen, said
recently, “Erosion of the field [of volunteerism] may not be seen in the number
of volunteers, but rather in depth and continuity of service – what volunteers
are accomplishing overall for the long-term, including getting beyond
alleviating the symptoms of community problems to address the root causes of
those symptoms.”

Opportunities

Meaningful and motivating
volunteer opportunities are the key to great volunteering experiences and, as a
result, more volunteering. If
people enjoy giving time and feel they’ve made a difference they’ll come back
again and tell others about it. Organisations often struggle to create such opportunities that people
can do in a few hours. Asking them
to do this for roles that are completed in a few minutes is perhaps verging on
the unrealistic.

As Oxfam said in response to
the Giving Green Paper earlier this year “…there is a danger that
seeking technological solutions [to increasing volunteering] may lead to a
focus on mechanisms rather than the quality of the volunteering
opportunity. The first priority
should be to ensure that meaningful opportunities are a priority.”

What do you think? Are you a
microvolunteer? How have you made
a difference?

Are you a volunteer
manager? What do you think of
microvolunteering?

Have your say below.

Rob Jackson is director of
Rob Jackson Consulting

  • Damien Austin

    I totally agree Rob. It’s not about the mechanisms or the technology. What needs to be focused on now, and hopefully cracked, is how we create bite sized tasks that either have a beneficial impact in their own right or when performed a number of times or in conjunction with a number of other small tasks add up to a beneficial impact.

  • Rob Jackson

    Thanks Damien.

    Readers may be interested in an earlier post on my company blog about microvolunteering – http://bit.ly/maPFTf

  • Stephen Frost

    Great article Rob.

    Agree with you Damien – the key is beneficial impact and meaningful opportunities across all forms of volunteering, new or slightly more ‘traditional’.

    I have to confess to being optimistic about the role microvolunteering has to play in the future of charities. The US based http://www.sparked.com and the UK http://www.spotsoftime.org.uk look like great models for encouraging useful engagement with charities when you struggle to fit longer term volunteering into your schedule.

    I’m really interested in seeing the stats from Orange’s ‘Do Some Good’ app and some feedback from the charities involved. I hope we’ll find that as well as engaging the 31% of the population who are already ‘doing some good’ this is reaching those who wouldn’t have got involved in the past.

    As someone who has chosen the organisations I can provide long term volunteering support for I really appreciate being able to support other causes without giving up anymore of my weekend!

  • Adrian Barrott

    Excellent article Rob. I agree with Damien’s point that what is really important is to ensure that volunteering opportunities are meaningful and offer beneficial impact across all forms of volunteering – ‘new’ or ‘traditional’. Besides the need to reach those who wouldn’t have got involved in volunteering in the past, I think it equally important to ensure that the routes into all forms of volunteering work to encourage the widest inclusion from across society.

  • Michael Bright

    Hi Rob

    Thanks for including Help From Home in your insightful post. We’ve been in discussions before about the impact of microvolunteering and so to keep you to date on various things:

    1. Help From Home is currently conducting research via this survey into the who, what, where and when of microvolunteers http://www.kwiksurveys.com/online-survey.php?surveyID=NHHIMI_872fd7d6 Results out Winter time

    2. Institute of Volunteering Research currently have a survey listed on Orange Do Some Good mobile appointment, researching into volunteering by mobile. Results out after the Summer.

    3. Nick Ockenden of Institute of Volunteering Research has expressed an interest in conducting a much larger research project into microvolunteering and has invited me to propose some research areas – impact being one of them.

    4. Vinspired have a microvolunteering category, 90% of whose actions being featured from Help From Home. Just under 1,100 participants have registered for this category and volunteers can give feedback and pictorial evidence of what they have achieved. I’ve asked to view this evidence, but presumably due to copyright and privacy reasons, they have not been forthcoming.

    You’re right to point out that microvolunteering is heralded as the next greatest thing without the evidence to back it up. A good example of this is actually the UK government no less than, who have included microvolunteering and Help From Home on their volunteering webpage of their official Number 10 website (a big thanks to them). However, posts like this one are nudging the microvolunteering arena into compiling demonstrable evidence of impact – so keep up the pressure!

    As for creating opportunities that only last for a few minutes, it is perhaps a change of mindset and tagging some opps with a label of microvolunteering is perhaps all that is needed in some cases (and that’s an extremely, extremely generalised statement, so please don’t take umbridge over it) eg. RSPB recently invited people to send postcards out to people to spread awareness of their cause. Normally they might have classed it as a traditional volunteering role but because it took a few minutes to do, they labelled it as microvolunteering. I’ve no idea whether this new ‘label is a success or not or whether volunteers view it as a meaningful action, but it perhaps demostrates that a change in ‘labelling’ an action might allow them to appeal to a different type of volunteer via the microvolunteering label.

    To Stephen Frost.
    Sparked is not the only player in the market doing what it is doing. Check out http://brightworks.me/ and http://www.troopp.com

  • J Cravens

    Great blog yet again, Rob, on microvolunteering. As a person who has been creating online assignments, large and small, for volunteers since 1994 – long before these small virtual tasks got their snazzy new brand name – and researching how organizations engage online volunteers ever since, I know just how much work goes into creating all kinds of online assignments. Organizations that are successfully involving volunteers, online or onsite, don’t start from a place of, “Gosh, we have all this work to do! Hey, let’s get some people to do it for free”, yet, that’s how so many promoters of microvolunteering believe that nonprofits, NGOs and charities think when it comes to initial reasons for volunteer engagement. If these microvolunteering promoters would focus on helping organizations create *meaningful* assignments, and helping organizations focus on engaging volunteers in micro assignments as a way to engage in large-scale cause awareness or to cultivate longer-term supporters, this movement truly would catch on. But as long as they keep only promoting it to people that they think want to do it, while thinking organizations will just magically create lots of assignments, and as long as they think of it as a way to change the world in five minutes while you are having a beer waiting for your flight (as Sparked.com used to promote the practice), it will remain a mere fad.

    When microvolunteering, a form of online volunteering, first got talked about – back in the mid-1990s, when it was called byte-sized volunteering – the biggest obstacle back then is the same that it is now: lack of online tasks that could be done in such tiny pieces, by dispersed people, that would ultimately add up to anything actually meaningful to the organization. Which shouldn’t be a surprise – it’s the same for episodic volunteering, which is OFFline microvolunteering – a one-day or half-day just-show-up-and-work-and-leave-with-no-commitment gig like a beach clean up or house build. If a beach clean up doesn’t also create awareness about environmental issues among participants and doesn’t invite continued involvement – at least a financial donation – or if a house build doesn’t create awareness about lack of affordable housing and poverty issues and doesn’t invite continued involvement, it’s just a *tremendous* amount of work for very little real pay off – staff spend weeks, even months, and many, many hours preparing a two-six hour experience for volunteers to have some feel good moments, volunteers who will walk away and not show up again. And the same will be true of microvolunteering if Sparked.com and all these other groups don’t start helping organizations always be looking for ways to microvolunteering into longer-term, meaningful engagement, as a way to build relationships that last beyond a few hours.

    As I’ve said before, microvolunteering is being promoted like a series of one-night stands – a cyber service “quickie”. And one night stands can, indeed, be a lot of fun – not that I would know – but they usually don’t lead to anything meaningful or life-changing. Not saying every online volunteering gig has to be marriage, but it has to be a lot closer to dating to be worth doing for the vast majority of participants.

  • Ben Matthews

    @Michael – Thanks for the mention of http://brightworks.me/

    @Rob – Great points and well worth bearing in mind as these microvolunteering projects develop.

    It’s worth remembering that microvolunteering is still in a young stage (in its current technological format), so we hope to see rapid developments and iterations in the next few years. We’ll see more advanced measurement of impacts (rather than outputs) and have more data to judge which are the best microvolunteering opportunities that organisations should be posting and how internal processes can be developed to help make microvolunteering a valuable part of an organisation’s wider volunteering programme.

    The scale of microvolunteering is also important, in that social impact might be relatively small. However, there is the potential for microvolunteering to capture an audience that might not normally be interested in ‘traditional’ volunteering and get them interested enough that they consider more in-depth (and perhaps more meaningful) volunteering in the longer term, thus microvolunteering can lead to creating a larger social impact.

    Great debate though, so looking forward to seeing it develop and for the various microvolunteering initiatives to take on board and address some of the sceptical points being argued.

  • Michael Leyland

    As the article and the commments rightly say microvolunteering is an aperitif or a ‘try before, you buy’ into volunteering.

    If nothing else it helps to raise the profile of volunteering in general which is certainly not a bad thing.

    Like J Cravens I have seen first hand the benefits of managing volunteers online through emails, shared documents and skype meetings.

    Online volunteering and microvolunteering clearly have lots of potential. However, I think at some point people are going to want to see who or what they are volunteering for.

  • Oliver Henman

    Richard,

    Thanks for raising these questions, we’re really glad that you’re highlighting the potential opportunities to use EU funds to increase the resources to target those areas that need support at this time. This is a crucial issue and we want to make sure we can get the best for all parts of civil society.

    My team at NCVO has been pushing to unlock new funds and develop a greater role for civil society within the next cycle of EU Structural Funds over the past year, since the merger with the Third Sector European Network took place in September 2011 to form our European Funding Network.

    We’re going through a detailed process to shape the next round of funding, and we’re working in partnership with the regional members of the European Funding Network, including Network for Europe in the North West, VONNE in the North East, RAWM in West Midlands among others. The group came together for a national conference on 27 April, called ‘Back to the Future: Civil Society Engagement in Structural Funds’ at which point there was a joint call for a specific funding stream for civil society in the next round of EU funding.

    Since then, we have been in contact with a number of partners and potential match-funding bodies to explore the possibility of a greater role for civil society across the country. This includes an initial conversation with the Big Lottery Fund on the role that they might play in the future programme.

    We are now preparing a series of regional events in the autumn, to continue the process of consultation and look forward to connecting with all civil society partners in defining priorities for these potential projects.

    You can see all the relevant information on our website: http://www.europeanfundingnetwork.eu

    The proposals will then be shared with BIS as part of its role as the government department which is responsible for negotiations on the overall EU programmes.

    We believe that this is an opportunity for civil society to play a more active role and to access additional sources of funding; and we agree with you that it’s important to find ways for much more EU funding to be available to local organisations right across the country!

  • Big Lottery Fund

    For BIG’s part, we have held informal and exploratory discussions with NCVO and with BIS about whether we might play a role helping civil society organisations better access EU funds. No decisions have been made about whether or how BIG might be involved. Whatever BIG does here, our decision will be entirely of our own volition, guided by the additionality principle and for the benefit of communities and individuals most in need.

  • James Renton

    Richard
    I must admit I am familar with both lottery and EU programmes and I can not figure out what this is all about? If it is this is about using lottery funding as match in an arrangement similar to ESF Co-financing. It would only work if the Lottery gave their cash to third party or managed the EU cash and their own cash. Either way they would have to ringfence x% of their budget for this purpose. If it was the later your concerns would be partly alleviated i.e. its Big Lottery managing EU cash and trying to make it work with their funds for the VCS. The need for specialist knowledge about EU rules means there is no long term benefit to managing this cash locally better to manage it in one central office with local/regional allocations.

  • Quartny Thornberry

    I have been a long distance runner for over 16 years and it is because of greedy charities that I refuse to ever run for a charity. I think it is wrong to demand runners raise such high amounts of money. I can ask my friends to donate, but most do not have the means to contribute to make the amount that most charities request. I have, rather, spent my time training diligently and have since been able to qualify for London under GFA. However, I think this ridiculous standards set by charities completely excludes good people that would campaign enthusiastically for a given charity…simply because they do not have the means to reach this ridiculous goals. Charities should be grateful to distance runners that take any time out of the training required to run a marathon to raise money for them. The whole point of a CHARITY is the fact that it is designed to be dependent upon the good will of others to give. I think it is absolutely ridiculous that this is the mindset of charities, seems like the thought is one of entitlement.

    • e5otericdviant

      I’m a beginner runner and one day would love to run for charity and would like to be able to go down the fundraising route.

      I understand the need to fund raise but I can see that keeping costs to a minimum would also be beneficial for runners as they know that the money would go to a good cause not be chewed up in administrating the day, a certificate and medal would be all I’d care for, I’d happily pay for my own bar tab afterwards.

      Please try to keep costs to a minimum so that people like me who will try hard will meet your targets easier, I also think that a personal target for fundraising is just that its personal I don’t want it held over me like the sword of Damocles, I’d rather just know what a happy minimum would be and just set my own target.

  • Mark Coombes

    I sympathise, but some tolerance of runners who genuinely struggle to raise the money is key I think. I signed up to a charity place in 2015 I really struggled to raise about £1800 of my £2500 from events, friends, family and colleagues .. only for my employer to withdraw their verbal agreement of donating £500-1000 with just a couple of weeks before the marathon. I put my body through hundreds of hours of training, picking up plantar facitis (which i still have now) and raised what i consider a pretty decent chunk of money and was made to feel really shit by my charity after the event. I will only ever try to get a ballot place from now on and would advise anyone without rich relatives and/or work for a large company full of generous emloyees or live in an affluent area to think carefully about whether you can raise the money.
    Some method of advertising places that aren’t being used would be good (?) surely replacing an empty place with someone who might be able to raise some amount of money would be better than nothing? As someone that would love to run it again I find it painful to hear empty spots not filled.

    • tptoodle

      I totally agree. When I heard about paying money from your own pocket after failing to raised the pledged target i was a bit disappointment. I feel I would rather run for my own health and pay a tenner or 20 to a charity later.
      I will never ever run for a charity where I have to pay from my pocket for the difference I originally pledged for.
      This whole system sucks.