ramblings from the hive mind

Micro volunteering or macro hype?

30 November 2009 | View comments
Damien Austin-Walker

Having tried to tackle micro volunteering at various points over the last 10 years I must place myself in the (healthy) sceptic camp. If you had asked me five years ago I would have said it was the holy grail of volunteering. The thing that if cracked will truly open up volunteering to all and make it an everyday activity. Recently, in part due to the advances in mobile technology and connectivity, there has been renewed interest in making micro volunteering work. The technology is there to catalogue opportunties and connect people to them but the hard part I think is developing or sourcing opportunities/activities that are focussed and quantum (self contained) enough to be picked up and completed by a suitable volunteer. If Wikipedia can crowdsource a whole encyclopedia then surely great things can be acheived in the charity sector.

Is it true volunteering?

Most of the attempts to crack micro volunteering so far have indeed focussed on that very issue, finding suitable distinct ‘doable-in-a-smallish-packet-of-time activities’. However I would challenge whether some of these activities are really volunteering, yes many small actions can add up to one big change and I am a big aficionado of the wisdom of the crowd kind of thinking, but they just don’t hit my ‘volunteering’ button. Most of the tasks currently listed as microvolunteering on the (USA based) site The Extraordinaries are either image tagging or mapping something. Yes these tasks are valuable for charities and I think that it is great that to doing of these tasks can be ‘crowdsourced’ but they not quite the same as volunteering to care for a terminaly ill person or helping to run a soup kitchen for the homeless. Volunteering for me is giving your time up to do something for free. Yes there can be self interest involved, it doesn’t need to be completely altruistic (after all what is altruism - it only is a mecanism which eventually brings back benefit on the larger/longer scale).

Is the sector stifling innovation?

So what’s my problem? Maybe I’ve been in this sector too long and am now tethered by fusty old-school conservative thinking? Maybe I don’t feel that enough time or commitment has been given, or that if you are multitasking when you give time that it somehow devalues it? As far as I’m concerned clicking a link which then donates 1p to whatever charity is not volunteering - it’s participation in online fundraising. Nor is taking a photo of a human rights abuse and documenting or reporting it - for me that’s activism. But taking time to tag a photo in a charity’s photo library, maybe; I can see the value when enough people participate. There are many examples of suitable micro tasks out there, but are these what charities are really crying out for or even want volunteers to do? And maybe that is the problem - does the sector just need to be more flexible in it’s approach? Are it’s traditional definitions stifling innovation?

Re-imagining volunteering

If helping to tag a charity’s photo library means the charity can save money which they can then spend on training longer term committed volunteers to be a support worker in the field then surely the photo tagger is also (if indirectly) contributing to the end social impact. If these micro opportunites can help ease people into more full-on volunteering or if they allow those that would otherwise do nothing to at least participate in volunteering on some level then I’m in favour. However, if micro opportunities mean that less people go on to participate in deeper opportunties because they already feel like they are already “doing something”, then this new wave of microvolunteering will only help make volunteering a casualty of the instant gratification generation. So to sum up, prehaps I am not so much of a cynic as I thought but I think that we need to remember that micro volunteering is not a panacea and can never fully replace traditional volunteering; rather it can be used to augument a charity’s existing use of volunteers and should be a powerful a catalyst for fresh thinking and re-imagining how we create and deliver volunteering opportunities.

What do you think? Is microvolunteering:

a) the future of volunteering,

b) a useful addition to sit alongside longer term more traditional opportunities or

c) a trendy cul-de-sac that takes the focus away from genuine volunteering ?

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