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Connecting for Change: An Online Volunteering Series

Working RemotelyVolunteer Management

Today, we are excited to bring you a brand new TechSoup Canada series called Connecting for Change. Over the next several weeks, we will be doing a deep dive into the energizing and inspiring world of online volunteering––exploring its origins and evolution, sharing stories and strategies, and outlining some of the latest ways that you can harness the power of online volunteering to make a difference in your community and in the world.

The surge of community solidarity that has accompanied the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has once again shone a light on the importance of people-powered care. Initiatives continue to proliferate around the world, from Canada’s ‘caremongering’ groups to the rise of mutual aid pods and the sewing of facemasks.

Yet even before the pandemic, networks of passionate volunteers were hard at work providing vital support to children, the elderly, newcomers and many other valuable members of our society. Now that social distancing and lockdown measures have fundamentally changed the way we meet, work, and travel, many volunteers are finding creative ways to continue providing support by relying on technology to keep connections (and commitments) alive. In the next section, we’re going to introduce online volunteering and provide some examples of how people are coming together to lend a hand during COVID-19 and beyond.

What is Online Volunteering?

Online volunteering is the practice of donating one’s time and skills in support of a cause, task, or group of people through the use of technology, social media and other digital tools. The practice itself is not an entirely new concept, though it is certainly undergoing a renaissance as many turn to volunteering as a way to offer support during these unusual times and  support their own mental health as well.

While we do not have exact records of its origin, one of the earliest examples of online volunteering dates all the way back to the 1970s, with the founding of Project Gutenberg in the United States. The project’s mission is to create electronic books (eBooks) from titles available in the public domain. Volunteering tasks include anything from proofreading to producing ebooks, as well as bridging the digital divide by relying on volunteers to mail CDs or DVDs to those without internet access. To date, the project’s digital library boasts over 60,000 items in its collection and its offerings continue to grow and adapt to our changing habits (including, for example, the addition of audiobooks to the collection).

What Do Online Volunteers Do?

Of course, technology has evolved by leaps and bounds since the 1970s so people looking to volunteer their time online can now participate in an impressive range of activities. Here are a few ways people are contributing their time and talent these days:

  • SCIENCE: online volunteering has been a popular option for those interested in supporting citizen science projects or participating in scientific research. Through Zooniverse, anyone can “take part in real cutting edge research in many fields across the sciences, humanities, and more.” Skype a Scientist connects scientists with grade-school age kids and their teachers for an interactive 30-60 minute session, while Fold.it hosts a crowdsourcing computer game that enables participants to contribute to important scientific research (including one on coronavirus!)
     
  • CULTURE: museums are evolving to harness the power of online volunteering, offering opportunities for engagement through transcribing, such as at thSmithsonian Museum, or by centralizing data from natural history collections like at the Australian Museum.
     
  • EDUCATION: if you are passionate about education, there are several ways to volunteer your time online. You could lead a learning circle on P2PU’s platform, which offers an extensive catalogue of free online courses, or help ESL speakers in Manitoba practice their English through Live&Learn.
     
  • INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT: if you’d like to use your time to connect with people in countries outside of Canada, you can find many opportunities through the United Nations online volunteering program as well as CUSO’s e-volunteering portal.
     
  • MENTORING: Together Project connects Canadians with newcomers and refugees and helps them offer remote social support––anything from practicing language skills to navigating online services, socializing, and answering questions about COVID-19 guidelines.
     
  • MENTAL HEALTH: through StoriiTime, children volunteer to read a story to isolated seniors, while adults can send emails or letters of encouragement to nursing home residents through the Adopt a Nursing Home program. Those interested in providing emotional support to the broader community can do so through 7 Cups or by volunteering to answer texts for the Crisis Text Line.
     
  • TRANSLATION: for those with a passion for languages, Translators without Borders offers many opportunities to get involved in the translation of various documents, tasks, and projects.
     
  • ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY: with Bookshare, volunteers scan or edit books for people with reading disabilities, while Be My Eyes allows volunteers to lend their eyes to blind and low vision people who need help solving tasks in their daily life.
     
  • HUMAN RIGHTS: Amnesty International has developed several ways for volunteers to donate their time and skills online. The Decoders program provides an opportunity to support Amnesty’s researchers sift through pictures, information and documents to expose human rights violations. Volunteers can also help with other campaigns in various increments of time through their dedicated volunteer page.
     

… but the list doesn’t end there! Online volunteers have a lot to offer to nonprofits who are looking for support with their everyday operations or programming––indeed, they can be a valuable asset to a nonprofit’s team, especially during these challenging times! And the good news is that you do not need a special portal or custom app to recruit, manage, and engage with online volunteers. Their involvement can be as simple as communicating by email or sharing access to cloud-based tools like the Google Suite, Box or Dropbox.

Looking for ideas to get started? Here are a few examples of the kinds of support that online volunteers can offer nonprofits:

  • EDITORIAL SUPPORT: moderating discussion boards or social media/blog comments; editing web content; translation; proofreading; research; proposal writing;
     
  • OUTREACH: promoting or managing campaigns; contributing to social media maintenance and/or communications strategy; fundraising; network-building; mentoring; volunteer management;
     
  • OFFICE SUPPORT: supporting staff with day-to-day tasks; correspondence; special COVID-19 needs; data hygiene and document archiving; archiving documents;
     
  • TECH SUPPORT: troubleshooting glitches; designing materials; performing web main- tenance; coding & development; back-ups.
     

In short, there are no limits to what an online volunteer can do. With a little creativity and help from digital technologies, the list of activities is virtually endless! Stay tuned for our upcoming posts to learn more about how to make the most of what online volunteering has to offer. We’ll be covering tips and resources from the perspective of both volunteers and nonprofits.

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Does your organization rely on online volunteering in any way? Do you see an opportunity to integrate online volunteering into your work in the future? What are the biggest needs your nonprofit is facing right now? Drop up a note in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!