Virtual Volunteering. Beneficial? Yes, but for whom?

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Nowadays, almost everything seems to be reachable through new technology. We all at some point have heard of on-site volunteers, who devote their time to help those who are in need, travel a long way to help with the aftermath of natural disasters or spend years abroad participating in developing projects. Moreover, there is a big chance that many of us have even performed some kind of on-site volunteering. However, not all of us know that there is another type of volunteering, called online or virtual volunteering, which is becoming more and more popular. All one needs is a computer with internet access. An example of an online volunteering provider is the UNV Online Volunteering service, through which volunteers can be linked with the organizations that provide volunteering tasks. It was launched in 2000, and by 2014, it had 10,887 online volunteers who were participating in 16,134 assignments (https://onlinevolunteering.org/en/vol/about/statistics.html). Even though on-site volunteering provides an amazing experience and opportunity to have face-to-face interactions with other cultures, travel and see the results of your work and contributions, it might not seem doable for people with a full-time job, family or other fixed commitments. The great thing about online volunteering is its flexibility. It can be done from anywhere and at any time. Moreover, it is a great chance for people with disabilities to offer their contribution to the society. Online volunteering also includes micro volunteering, where people can complete some easy non-time-consuming tasks by using only a smartphone. For example, the UNV online volunteering tasks include writing and editing, translation, design, research, project development and management, IT development, coordination and facilitation, consulting, training and coaching. This means that everyone can find something of interest there.

The 2014 UNV annual report reported that online volunteering encourages South-to-South cooperation instead of traditional North-to-South relationships in volunteerism, with 60% of all online volunteers being from developing countries.

In addition to the personal development, volunteers are usually awarded by letter of appreciation from the organization they helped. Moreover, the Unites Nations has created the UNV Online Volunteering Award, where the online volunteers with the biggest input can be recognized.

People might do online volunteering for different reasons. The first reason is receiving personal benefits, such as an improved CV, a letter of appreciation from the organization, a widening of ones own personal network for finding better job opportunities in the future, among others. I believe there are also many volunteers who are driven by the simple desire to help without gaining recognition.

With all the positive features of online volunteering, it still raises a question: Who benefits from it more – the organization, volunteers or aid receivers? Online volunteering is a great example of what a huge impact the Internet and social media has on society. Fuchs has introduced the term critical theory to social media, which criticizes domination and exploitation. Even though communication technologies such as computers, the Internet, phones, etc. are very beneficial, “the history of these technologies depends on history of capitalism, colonialism, warfare and inequality” (Fuchs, 2013, p.10). Sometimes usage of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) helps a person or a group use them, but harms others, whom it is used against. Therefore he bases his book on the assumption that we must have a society and social media that will be beneficial for all of us, rather than just for some of us. In order to understand if this is true, some critical questions need to be asked, like who benefits the most from online volunteering and is there any part of society which is harmed by it. Online volunteering is in most cases not a direct form of help to the aid receivers, and therefore receivers probably do not feel a big impact on their lives due to the creation of an additional website or translated document. Online volunteering is not really a three-way relationship, but more a relationship between a volunteer and an organization, which then will have a relation to aid receivers. No doubt that the organizations have a huge advantage from volunteering help since an enormous amount of tasks is done free of charge and in the vast majority (as per information on the UNV website) successfully. However, for me the open question remains as to why 60% of volunteers are from the developing countries. Is there a chance that some of them do it because improving their CV and getting additional work experience, so often required by job providers, is the only way to find a paid job? If yes, can the whole volunteering process be considered as harmful or forced for volunteers even though it might bring some benefits at the end? These questions remain open, and hopefully bring some food for thought. Of course, volunteering is not forced by the organizations; it is simply an offer from the organizations. However, in the time of high unemployment, people (especially younger generation) might feel pressured to take on additional jobs in order to have an advantage on the job market. In any case, online volunteering brings a difference into our society of the digital age, even though some parts of society might benefit  from it more.

References:

Fuchs, C. 2013: Social Media: A critical introduction. London: Sage.

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2 Responses to Virtual Volunteering. Beneficial? Yes, but for whom?

  1. “Online volunteering is not really a three-way relationship, but more a relationship between a volunteer and an organization, which then will have a relation to aid receivers.”

    This isn’t accurate. Many virtual volunteering experiences are direct service assignments, where online volunteers work directly with clients. Online mentoring programs, such as Bpeace and Infinite Family are but two examples. These are some of the most sought-after online volunteering opportunities.

    “However, for me the open question remains as to why 60% of volunteers are from the developing countries.”

    It’s one of the statistics I was most proud of when I directed the Online Volunteering service, and am glad to see that the percentage is pretty much the same as when I left in 2005. Sharon Capeling-Alakija, then head of UNV, said that the reason she felt so strongly about the online volunteering service was that, for the first time, anyone with a computer connection and skills to offer could get involved in the work of the United Nations – before, you had to either be a client of UN services or you had to be a UN employee or official UNV under contract, there was no other way.

    Indeed, many young people seek volunteering as path to career development and networking for jobs, in both developing and developed countries. In 2013, I had the pleasure of being one of the researchers on the ICT4EMPL Future Work project, funded by the EU, which aimed to inform policy of new forms of work and pathways to employability mediated by ICTs. The researchers on the project produced a series of reports on the state of play of novel forms of internet-mediated work activity: crowd-sourced labour, crowdfunding, internet-mediated volunteering (virtual volunteering) and internet-mediated work exchange (timebanks and complementary currency). I was the researcher for the virtual volunteering portion, reviewing possible linkages between virtual volunteering and greater employability and social inclusion for online volunteers, particularly young people. The paper is available here:
    http://ftp.jrc.es/EURdoc/JRC85755.pdf
    And a wiki associated with my part of the research is here:
    https://ict4empl.wikispaces.com/

    “can the whole volunteering process be considered as harmful or forced for volunteers even though it might bring some benefits at the end?”

    No. But certainly volunteering, on or offline, can be used to exploit free workers. This is an issue not at all unique to virtual volunteering. I believe volunteers should be involved for a whole host of reasons beyond money saved, but unfortunately, many organizations and consultants promote the best way to value volunteer engagement is about assigning monetary values to volunteer hours, which has lead to a growing number of anti-volunteering movements, which I’ve listed here:
    http://coyotecommunications.com/volunteer/antivolunteer.shtml

    I’m also tracking the growing anti-unpaid internship movement regarding the UN, and I started doing so specifically to defend volunteerism:
    http://coyotecommunications.com/coyoteblog/2015/04/09/uninternships/

    I’m glad you’ve discovered virtual volunteering. It’s a practice that’s more than 35 years old, and its benefits go far beyond anything I ever imagined when I started researching and reporting on it back in the 90s.

  2. Natalija Janesa says:

    Dear Jayne,

    Thank you very much for your educative comment and good tips. I have found a lot of useful information in the report you wrote and will use it for the future reference.

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