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Online Volunteering: Factors for Success

(July 31, 2006) A new study examines the potential benefits of cultivating online volunteers and the necessary infrastructure and capacity organizations need to effectively employ these volunteers.

Involving International Online Volunteer: Factors for Success, Organizational Benefits and New Views of Community surveyed organizations that employed online volunteers and were named as “Outstanding” by the United Nations (UN) Volunteers program, part of the UN Development Program.

While most nonprofits don’t involve online volunteers, these organizations often rely on such volunteers extensively for a variety of tasks and projects. In addition, most felt that these volunteers greatly enhanced their diversity, provided new perspectives, often cut down on costs and were not only part of an organization’s “community,” but part of the organization’s staff.

What is Online Volunteering?

Online volunteering, also known virtual volunteering or cyber service, refers to the volunteer working for the nonprofit via the Internet at a home, work or public access computer. Some examples of the sorts of activities that online volunteers are engaged in include:

  • Research
  • Translation
  • Website design
  • Data analysis
  • Database construction
  • Writing, including articles, proposals and other materials
  • Publication design
  • Online mentoring and tutoring

Despite the anonymous nature of the Internet, most organizations involved in the study reported that they have seen their online volunteers. In fact, a majority of online volunteers support their organizations on the local level and volunteer onsite as well as online.

Obstacles to Success

According to the study, the biggest impediment to successfully engaging and employing online volunteers has nothing to do with technology, but simply an organization’s capacity to involve any volunteers effectively. Organizations that successfully manage onsite volunteers often find that they can translate that experience to the online world with few challenges.

Other key challenges and disadvantages to using online volunteers included:

  • Volunteers dropping out after receiving an assignment;
  • The amount of time needed to orient and support online volunteers;
  • Volunteers don’t spend enough time familiarizing themselves with the organization and the community it serves;and
  • Volunteers want more communications and tasks than the organization can provide.

However, as the study points out, all of these challenges are often cited as challenges and disadvantages to working with onsite volunteers as well.

What an Organization Needs

Organizations involved in the study identified a number of attributes that were critical to online volunteering success. Two key areas were communications and management.

Communications

  • Responding to communications immediately and in a professional manner and following up quickly with volunteers.
  • Valuing feedback and attending to volunteer problems and questions immediately.
  • Maintaining openness and establishing trust.
  • Requiring regular reporting on the part of volunteers and reviewing outcomes on a regular basis.

Management

  • Creating a support system/protocol early on for managing online volunteers.
  • Requiring candidates to go through a fairly strenuous review process so that the organization would know that the volunteers who remained were committed to the organization.
  • Keeping tasks simple, informative to the volunteers and not too time-consuming.
  • Not recruiting without being ready to involve responders immediately.
  • Involving online volunteers in teams.

Most other recommendations related to ensuring that volunteers are highly committed, and that organizations have a compelling mission or program that encourages support. 

About the Study

Involving International Online Volunteer: Factors for Success, Organizational Benefits and New Views of Community was written by Jayne Cravens, who recently directed www.onlinevolunteer.org, an initiative of the UN Development Program and UN Volunteers, and was a manager of the UN Information Technology Service.

The study was published in The International Journal of Volunteer Administration, Volume XXIV, Number 1.

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