Myths about Online Volunteering
Online volunteering means unpaid service that is given via the Internet. It's a method of volunteering I have been using, studying, documenting or promoting since 1995, first independently, then with the Virtual Volunteering Project, and then with the UN's Online Volunteering service. It's also known as virtual volunteering, online mentoring, ementoring, evolunteering, cyber volunteering, cyber service, telementoring, and on and on.
Now, 10 years on, I'm stunned at how many myths are still out there about the concept. Here is a list of 12 of the most common myths, and my attempt to counter them:
- Online volunteering is great for people who don't have time to volunteer!
False. This is probably the biggest and most annoying myth out there about the practice. Online volunteering requires REAL time, not "virtual" time. If you don't have time to volunteer offline, you probably do NOT have time to volunteer online. Online volunteering should never be promoted as a way an alternative volunteering method for people who don't have time to volunteer face-to-face. Rather, the appeal of online volunteering for individuals is that:
- it's another way for a person to help an organization they are already helping in face-to-face settings
- it's a way for someone who cannot volunteer onsite because, while they have time to volunteer, they cannot leave their home or work place to do so
- it allows a way for people with disabilities who have problems with mobility, or people no way of traveling easy, to volunteer
- it can allow a person to help an organization that serves a cause or issue of great importance to the person but for which there are no onsite opportunities in his or her area
- it can allow a person to help a geographic area that he or she cannot travel to
- People who volunteer online don't volunteer face-to-face
False. According to research by the Virtual Volunteering Project in the late 1990s, as well as anecdotal evidence since then from various organizations, the overwhelming majority of online volunteers also volunteer in face-to-face settings, often for an organization in their same city or region, and often for the same organization they are helping online.
- People who volunteer online do so for organizations that are geographically far from them
False. Most online volunteers are people who also volunteer onsite for the same organization; for instance, a volunteer designing an annual report may go onsite to meet with staff but perform most of the donated service via his or her home or work computer. Also, most people who volunteer online look for opportunities that are in their same geographic area -- just as do people who want to volunteer onsite. Indeed, there are thousands of online volunteers who look for remote online volunteering opportunities, and the UN's Online Volunteering service is an excellent avenue for them to find such.
- People who volunteer online are mostly young, affluent and living in the USA
False. Online volunteers come from all age groups who can use the Internet independently (usually starting when a person is over 13), from various educational and work backgrounds, and from various geographies and ethnicities. The breakdown of online volunteers from the UN's Online Volunteering service is telling: more than 40% are from developing countries. Ofcourse, each organization that involves online volunteers will have a different breakdown as far as online volunteering demographics; in short, one cannot make sweeping generalizations about who online volunteers are.
- People who volunteer online are very shy and have trouble interacting with others
False. As noted earlier, according to research by the Virtual Volunteering Project in the late 1990s, as well as anecdotal evidence since then from various organizations, the overwhelming majority of online volunteers also volunteer in face-to-face settings. In fact, online volunteers tend to be excellent at interacting with others -- it's that hunger for interaction that often drives their volunteering, on or offline.
- Online volunteers engage primarily in technology-related tasks
False. Online volunteers engage in a variety of non-technology-related tasks, such as advising on business plans, human resources development, fund-raising and press relations, researching topics, and facilitating online discussions. A survey of online volunteering assignments posted to, say, the UN's Online Volunteering service, usually shows 50% of more assignments that are non-tech-specific.
- Online volunteering is impersonal
False. Online interactions are quite personal. In many circumstances, people are often more willing to share information and feelings online than they are in face-to-face. Also, volunteers can more easily share photos of their families, and narratives about their interests, via the Internet than, say, at an onsite volunteer luncheon. Online volunteers with whom I have worked are real people to me, not virtual people. When they have gotten married or graduated from high school or college or had a baby or gotten a job, I have celebrated, and when they have died or lost a loved one, I have cried.
- Interviewing potential volunteers face-to-face is much more reliable than interviewing people online
False. Both methods of interviewing potential volunteers have strengths and weaknesses, and one may be more appropriate than another for a particular situation, but each is effective. I have talked to plenty of people face-to-face who expressed great enthusiasm and interest in becoming online volunteers, and have wanted information on how to get started -- and who never follow-through, while people online must show not only their interest but their commitment and skills almost immediately, by responding to emails promptly and by writing clearly.
- The Internet Is Dangerous and, therefore, online volunteering opens an organization and its clients up to many risks.
False. The Internet is no more, nor no less, dangerous than the offline world. When people, including children, have been harmed as a result of online activities, it has been because they or their parents did not take appropriate safety measures -- it's amazing to me that parents who would never allow their children to go to, say, a bus station to play for the day, allow their children to go into unsupervised chat rooms. There is extensive information on how to ensure safety in online volunteering (and online mentoring) programs at the Virtual Volunteering Project.
- The biggest obstacle to online volunteering is lack of Internet access
False. For organizations, the biggest obstacle to involving online volunteers successfully, or at all, is lack of experience in basic volunteer management practices. If an organization doesn't know how to involve onsite volunteers effectively, they won't be able to do it online.
- Much more needs to be done to get people to volunteer online
False. There are plenty of people who want to volunteer online, far, far more than there are opportunities for them. Instead, much more needs to be done to help build the capacity of organizations regarding volunteer management, and to incorporate information about online volunteering into this capacity-building.
- Online volunteering is a very new concept
False. Online volunteering has been going on probably has long as there has been an Internet (which itself is more than 30 years old). Tim Berners Lee, in an online appearance at the United Nations Volunteers' event at Un Open Day in Geneva in 2001, noted the role volunteers had played in his development of the World Wide Web -- people donating their time and experience to a cause they believed in, working together via the Internet.
Also see this list of research about online volunteering undertaken by various organizations and individuals.
Return to my volunteer-related resources
Reprinted by permission from http://www.coyotecommunications.com/volunteer/ovmyths.html. Article authored by Jayne Cravens of Coyote Communications, a consulting service and online resource for mission-based organizations, located at www.coyotecommunications.com. If you intend to use these materials or to quote her, please contact her.