It’s no surprise that in a world run by apps, someone has figured out a way to digitise volunteering. But did you know that this concept has existed, in some form, since the dawn of the internet?
So, how did virtual volunteering begin?
It started with Project Gutenberg, recruiting volunteers to create online versions of works in the public domain since the 90’s; followed by the launch of UN Online Volunteers, as part of NetAid in 2000.
This process has been refined since then – on the UN Online Volunteers platform alone there are now over 12,000 people volunteering each year from 184 countries. It has never been easier to lend your skills and expertise to a good cause, without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home!
Does virtual volunteering work?
Although it may seem hard to find fault with the concept of virtual volunteering, sceptics question the effectiveness of its indirect nature.
Unlike helping at a food bank or in a community project, in most cases, virtual volunteering will have no direct impact on the lives of the aid receivers. However, it is an invaluable way to share the burden of necessary, time-consuming admin so that members of an organisation can focus on delivering direct support.
It has also been argued that the ‘virtual’ element of the process completely removes one of the most talked-about benefits of volunteering: the ability to work with people and create social connections.
While it is true that this is a huge part of what makes volunteering such a positive influence on the wellbeing and mental health of participants, this is likely to be more relevant for older volunteers who might have less opportunity to network outside of their volunteering involvement than younger people.
Virtual volunteering is also a wonderful networking tool for people with limited abilities who might otherwise struggle to find opportunities to lend their skills and get involved.
Often, virtual volunteering platforms will have some sort of forum or Facebook page, where like-minded volunteers can communicate about projects or interests. In this sense, it is a wonderful tool for networking and connecting with people who you would never have had the chance to work with otherwise.
Is it only available in certain parts of the world?
The global aspect of virtual volunteering is one of its greatest strengths. Through online platforms, people from anywhere in the world can contribute to, and raise awareness for, causes that matter most to them, not just those that are local to them.
With widening access to computers and internet connections across the world, there has been a significant increase in South to South volunteering (between developing countries) rather than the traditional North to South volunteering structure (Western volunteers travelling to developing countries to help out) that has been standard in the past.
The UN Online Volunteers platform claims that 60% of their online volunteers come from developing countries, something that they are very proud of as they ‘recognise that South-South Cooperation can unlock untapped innovation, knowledge and resources’.
Is it only for those with expertise in a particular skill or interest?
There are a growing number of websites where people can find opportunities for virtual volunteering, depending on their interests or skillsets.
The most common skills provided by online volunteers are:
- Writing and editing
- Project management
While some prefer the skill-based nature of virtual volunteering, as it makes it easier for them to contribute quickly and efficiently to a cause using their previous knowledge and without having to undergo any training, others see it as a valuable opportunity to develop new skills and gain experience in their chosen field.
Who really benefits from virtual volunteering?
Although virtual volunteering may not always provide immediate benefits to aid receivers, it is hard to deny the incredibly positive impact of virtual volunteering for both charities and volunteers.
An evaluation report on the ‘Impact of UN Volunteers Online’ showed that 46% of receiving organisations valued the cost-effectiveness of virtual volunteering, and 41% valued having access to technical expertise which was not available internally.
The rise of virtual volunteering platforms has revolutionised the industry. Forget travelling long distances and committing to unsustainable workloads in order to contribute to the causes you believe in; now all you need is internet access, a skill to offer and a passion to do good!
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