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Making a Big Difference with Microvolunteering

Working RemotelyVolunteer Management

Over the last several weeks, our Connecting for Change series has explored the world of online volunteering from the perspective of both nonprofits and prospective volunteers. Today, we focus on another exciting way to make a difference online: microvolunteering.

What is Microvolunteering?

Microvolunteering is a form of volunteering done in short bursts of time, which makes it an ideal option for people who would like to lend a hand but who may not have consistent amounts of free time to dedicate to a project or task. As Volunteer Canada’s Eric Shirley explains in this article published by Local Love, “the key points [to microvolunteering] are the timeframe (not exceeding one to two hours), the lack of required commitment, doing it on one’s own and contributing a small piece to a larger project.”

Given its flexible nature, microvolunteering is an especially creative and ingenious way to turn even idle moments like commuting or waiting in line into an opportunity to help others and make a difference. As Local Love writes, “this kind of volunteering fits into those slots in your day when you’d otherwise have a snack, drink another coffee or swipe through social media posts that—let’s be honest—you’ve probably already seen. Even better, it’ll leave you with the fuzzies instead of a sugar high, caffeine jitters or FOMO.”

How Does It Work?

Sometimes known as byte-sized or speed volunteering, the microvolunteering concept is simple: leveraging digital tools to put moments of personal spare time in service of community, performing tasks in small increments of time. This type of engagement has been especially useful in broadening the reach and inclusivity of community service, offering an opportunity for involvement to groups who may otherwise be excluded from traditional forms of volunteering or may be limited by time constraints.

Typically, this type of involvement does not require an application or training process, which can be a win-win for all involved: volunteers get to lend a hand on their own terms, while nonprofit organizations who may otherwise be intimidated by the process of setting up a formal online volunteering program can receive support while freeing up valuable time.

As this article by The Guardian explains, over 80% of microvolunteering tasks take place online, ranging from signing a petition or retweeting a message to raising funds for a cause. “And micro-volunteering really does make a difference”, they write. “Galaxy Zoo [now Zooniverse], which asks volunteers to study photographs of space, reports that as of January 2015, 53 scientific papers have been published as a result of the work of hundreds of thousands of volunteers”.

How To Get Started Microvolunteering

If you are a nonprofit interested in experimenting with microvolunteering, the initiatives below may serve as inspiration to brainstorm what types of approaches might work for your organization. If you are an individual with some time to spare but don’t know where to get started microvolunteering, here are some ideas on how to lend a virtual hand:

  • Charity Miles: is an app that tracks your physical activity (think: running, walking, dancing, biking…) and lets you put that effort in support of the causes you’re most passionate about. For every mile you move, you help earn money for your charity from the app’s corporate sponsorship pool or your friends.
  • If you prefer to run in digital spaces, the American Cancer Society has been partnering with Second Life since 2004 and has so far raised $3.2 million in the fight against cancer. Team members participate in a virtual relay event where they walk 3D world laps, light virtual luminaria, and make donations within the platform.
  • Free Rice: is an online game and app developed by the United Nations’ World Food Programme that raises funds with every right answer you score. In the game, these payments are represented via grains of rice, which benefit families and children in need around the world. Bonus: the game now also features a new section to help you learn COVID-19 facts while contributing to this important cause.
  • Phone Pals: is a Toronto-based service matching volunteers with isolated elders who receive companionship and social contact through a phone call. It is estimated that more than 1.3 million seniors in Canada suffer from chronic loneliness, and even a short call can do much to combat social isolation.
  • For those with 4 continuous hours available, the American Red Cross collaborates with online volunteers to track social media in the aftermath of an emergency to find people who might need assistance from the organization.
  • Missing Maps: Each year, disasters around the world kill nearly 100,000 and affect or displace 200 million people. Missing Maps is an open, collaborative project through which you can help to map areas where humanitarian organisations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people.
  • BookShare: helps people with print disabilities read by connecting them with volunteers who offer support with anything from scanning to proofreading, describing images, and more.
  • eBird: if you’re a fan of the outdoors, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s platform allows you to contribute your real-world sightings as a way to contribute to hundreds of conservation decisions, peer-reviewed papers and student projects worldwide.
  • UpChieve: is a free, online platform that connects low-income high school students in the US with volunteer coaches in an “ultra-flexible” schedule format.
  • IBM’s World Community Grid: lets you donate your device’s spare computing power to help scientists solve the world’s biggest problems in health and sustainability––including COVID-19. “You choose a research area, download a toolkit called BOINC and join the thousands of volunteers helping to chart the microscopic jungle.”

Looking for more microvolunteering ideas? Check out the first post in our series for more ideas and options!

Tips for Nonprofits

If your organization has been considering a formal volunteering program but is not sure where to start, microvolunteering may be a great way to test whether this form of engagement is a good fit for you. Inspired by the possibilities that microvolunteering affords? These recommendations by The Guardian offer guidance on how to set up a pilot program:

  • Make sure it’s right for your charity: “if you do decide that microvolunteering has a place in your charity, think through what resources you’ll need to set it up and keep it running. That could involve how long it will run for, how much supervision is required.”
  • Make the assignments useful but fun: “make sure the assignments are short – usually no more than 30 minutes – and not location-specific. If you’re promoting them online, they might be completed from anywhere in the world.”
    • Pro Tip: “Micro-volunteers are not interns, so don’t give them boring or administrative tasks; make them engaging, interactive and clearly making a difference”. Support your microvolunteers: “this can be solved as easily as providing simple instructions along with your task: while people love the freedom to get on with things, there still needs to be a clear set of engagement rules”.
  • Measure impact: “don’t just think about success in terms of numbers”––success could be counted as number of volunteers engaged, number of tasks or projects supported, media exposure, and lots more.

Curious to learn more about the world of microvolunteering? International Microvolunteering Day (which is recognised on April 15th each year) has lots of information on its history, best practices, and impact!

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Does your nonprofit already work with microvolunteers? What projects are you supporting through this type of engagement? Share your story with us in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!