Micro-volunteering: Fast food for the Big Society?

April 4, 2011 at 10:39 pm 8 comments

By Leonie Shanks

While doing some research recently into the barriers and incentives to civic participation, I stumbled across a section of Vinspired’s website advertising the possibilities of micro-volunteering: ‘Make a real impact from the comfort of your own home with these quick and easy opportunities that only take a couple of minutes!’ Do you notice anything remarkable about this phrase? No? Neither did I – but a few days later, scanning my empty kitchen in the rather fruitless search for some culinary inspiration, my eyes fell on an almost identical phrase emblazoned across the front of a leaflet for the local pizza delivery service. It promised ‘tasty food delivered in minutes!’, and instructed me to ‘order food online for fast, convenient meals brought straight to your front door!’  

I was too busy that night enjoying my Vegetable Delight pizza with extra fries to worry too much about what the advent of the micro-volunteering phenomenon has in common with takeaway deliveries. But the recent flurry of media interest in the potential of technological innovations such as Orange’s Mobile Volunteering application to inspire and enable ‘social good’ by allowing people to donate their time in bite-sized chunks, anytime and anywhere, has subsequently given me (for want of a better phrase) considerable food for thought. Will our 21st century gadgetry equip us with the necessary means to overcome the most common barriers to meaningful civic engagement, enabling us – as one Guardian article suggested in February – to build a Big Society ‘app by app’? My hunch is that it will not. In fact, I fear that it will do quite the opposite.

Let me be clear – I am not trying to suggest that all micro-volunteering is useless. There are plenty of activities – such as signing petitions, raising awareness of charities, and sharing information and expertise – that can be carried out swiftly and efficiently through the use of digital tools. KnowHow NonProfit, for example, is an impressive new Wiki platform that allows volunteers to share best practice in charity work by uploading How To guides that can be used by people working right across the third sector. It would be difficult to argue with the value of this kind of knowledge exchange and online community building: ‘snapshot volunteering’ does have its role to play in the arena of civic participation.

But I do think that we need to tread carefully. If you take a look at the Vinspired website, you will notice that ‘emailing a terminally sick child’ is listed as one of the micro-volunteering options, accompanied by the same cheery encouragement that comes with the invitation to fill out a trivia quiz: ‘it only takes a few minutes and can make a massive difference!’ Um, let’s take a second here – if, that is, you have a second – to think about this. A child is dying, and the message here is that two, five, ten minutes of our time is sufficient to make a ‘massive difference’ to the remainder of his or her life. Regardless of whether or not this is true (and, let’s face it, most volunteer messengers will never know, given that this child will remain for them little more than an idea floating around somewhere in the virtual ether), does this not miss the point of volunteering entirely? Shouldn’t we volunteer in a spirit of giving and generosity, rather than constantly thinking about how we can stretch, squeeze and prod volunteering to slot neatly and conveniently into our lives?

I believe that the phenomenon of micro-volunteering not only reflects but also risks feeding into a broader, deeper problem that has for a long time been implicit in the question of how and in what ways to engage more people in social action – the concept of volunteering is becoming increasingly wrapped up in the culture of consumerism, converting the idea of ‘social good’ into a commodity, a box to be ticked or an accessory to adorn a CV. The government and the media consistently bombard people with the message that there is a clear link between volunteering and employability (‘Volunteer to Help Yourself’ was the title of one Guardian article in July last year). But worryingly, a series of interviews that I recently conduced with the leaders of volunteer organisations indicated that this ‘carrot on a stick’ method of getting people to participate means that people – particularly young people – often sign up to formal volunteering opportunities with a sense of entitlement. As one Volunteer Co-ordinator told me, ‘they join us with the expectation that they we will help them to advance in their careers or contribute in some way to their professional and personal development. Of course we accept that we have to value our volunteers’ time and try to offer something back – but the reality is that we often don’t have the capacity to devote as much time or resources to this as people would like. And when they realise this, commitment becomes flaky…we see this time and time again.’ In other words, we are breeding a generation of young people who confuse the give and take of volunteering with the buy and sell of consumerism; that is, they assume or even demand that, if investing their time in something is not likely to reap a financial or tangible reward, then it must be as quick and painless as possible. 

Volunteering: the fine line between flexible and facile

As someone who has volunteered throughout my life, I recognise the importance of making volunteering accessible and flexible for everyone. We should, for example, offer people more support to find volunteering opportunities that are close to their homes and places of work. We should make efforts to match them up with positions that make use of their particular skill sets, and allow them to choose the frequency with which and dates on which they volunteer. But I do not believe that volunteering should be easy. We need instead to encourage the perception that the rewards of volunteering are inherent in its very challenges. Whether we have to find the time, somewhere in our busy schedules, to visit the local school or care home once a fortnight, interact with people that we might not ordinarily come across, or overcome the emotional difficulties involved in dealing with the sick, the weak, the lonely and the dispossessed, it is in thus stepping outside of our comfort zones that we experience some of the trials – but also many of the tribulations – of enriching voluntary experiences. After all, if people are not prepared to be resourceful and creative in overcoming these minor hurdles, how will volunteering ever be really effective in driving real, positive social change?

The rise of technology has meant that we do not merely want everything to be easy, comfortable, convenient and quick; we expect it to  be so. Let us not allow this expectation to invade our thoughts and debates about volunteering. After all (and at the risk of stretching this fast food analogy a little too far), as anyone who has ordered one too many a takeaway will tell you, it may fill a hole for a little while, but it won’t be long before you are hankering for something a little more…well…satisfying. We don’t want to encourage the perception that volunteering opportunities should literally be dropped into people’s laps with a cherry on top. So the really interesting question is this: how can we harness technology to satisfy people’s appetite for civic engagement in a useful, healthy, fulfilling and sustainable way? Answers in 140 characters, please.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Hannes Jähnert  |  April 5, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Dear Leonie

    Thank you for your critical thougts about micro volunteering as “fast food for the big society”. I think you’re right to dun a critical view at this very new varity of engaging people. Their is realy a lot of hysteria around it.

    But to answer your closing question very short I would say it is a realy good thing to catch people where they are — at home or at work and in most cases online. What cames after this first micro or online volunteering is a question of volunteer management.


    • 2. leonieshanks  |  April 5, 2011 at 7:57 pm

      Thank you for your feedback Hannes. I agree with you that it’s necessary to take a balanced – not hysterical! – view of these new innovations. And it may be true that micro-volunteering will form a good initial ‘hook’ for those who wouldn’t ordinarily engage in civic participation – the challenge, I think, will be around converting this engagement into a genuinely sustained and useful form of social action.

  • 3. Paul Brewer  |  April 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    This is exactly my anxiety with online micro-volunteering. For me technology should be used to re-connect communities together, face to face, around the notion of “help”. I have blogged about this and am working on a project (i-canhelp.org) which is all about getting people in neighbourhoods to help each other – breaking up that alienation. I think this will feed directly into better civic engagement including participation in the democratic process.

    • 4. leonieshanks  |  April 5, 2011 at 10:09 pm

      I wish you all the best with i-canhelp.org Paul. I agree that technology should be used as a platform to facilitate more community-based, face-to-face interactions – which are in the end more rewarding and fulfilling for both volunteer and beneficiary.

  • 5. Rob Jackson  |  April 5, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Hi Leonie,

    This is a very good analysis of the weakness of microvolunteering.

    Personally, I think the idea has some merit but currently seems to be being driven by the fact that it is possible given the technology we have at our disposal rather than being a truly impactful way to volunteer. And I see no evidence that microvolunteering leads to any kind of deeper volunteering relationship.

    What worries me slightly is the observation from the volunteer co-ordinator that you quote as saying “of course we accept that we have to value our volunteers’ time and try to offer something back – but the reality is that we often don’t have the capacity to devote as much time or resources to this as people would like”.

    Effective volunteer engagement is a balance between the needs of the beneficiary, the organisation and the volunteer. If that balance is disrupted in any direction then the potential for problems increases. For me, if a volunteer manager doesn’t have the capacity to meet their volunteers’ need then they shouldn’t be engaging volunteers any more than if they didn’t have the capacity to enable volunteers to meet beneficiary needs.

  • 6. leonieshanks  |  April 5, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Thanks for your comment Rob. I agree that community and voluntary organisations should take into account volunteers’ needs and try to make their experiences as positive as possible – but I think there is an issue around the disjunction between what volunteers often expect from an opportunity, and what the organisation can realistically deliver. Often the most rewarding aspects of volunteering are inherent in the experience itself, regardless of whether or not there are formal volunteer support and development systems in place.

  • 7. Jayne Cravens  |  April 7, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    I am thrilled with this editorial! I have been promoting online volunteerism for many years, grounded in the fundamentals of quality volunteer engagement, which focuses on building relationships and making a real difference within the cause of an organization – not just getting work done or giving a volunteer a feel-good moment. That’s put me in a clash with most promoters of micro-volunteerism for all of the reasons you have cited in your article. Yes, micro-volunteering can be worth while – but it is preposterous to promote it as a way to make a “massive difference” in the life of a terminally-ill child. One day beach cleanups are nice, putting a sign on your front lawn saying you support this or that cause is nice, spending one day building a house for Habitat for Humanity is nice, voting in an online poll is nice, answering a question once on an online community is nice – let’s keep doing those things – but let’s remember that little bite sized volunteering that completely stands-alone doesn’t build relationships, doesn’t educate about issues, doesn’t address the underlying causes of issues, doesn’t make a “massive difference” and is a just feel-good moment that come at great expense to the organization that has to come up with all these no-commitment micro-assignments, review work completed, etc. To me, micro-volunteering is like a one-night stand: interesting/fun in the moment, but often quickly forgotten. Such *might* lead to something more substantial, but usually, it won’t – and that means it’s not for everyone. Not saying it isn’t worthwhile to do, but if micro-volunteering doesn’t focus on building relationships and making a real difference within the cause of an organization, it’s just a five minute thrill – not anything that makes a “massive difference.”

  • 8. Mike Bright  |  April 9, 2011 at 6:55 am

    I promote microvolunteering thru Help From Home and I agree with almost everything that has been said above.

    I believe that microvolunteering will never replace trad volunteering and can only ever sit alongside it, for the forseeable future at least.

    Microvolunteering fulfils several criteria in my mind, a few of which are mentioned below.
    1) It provides opportunities for people to be introduced into volunteering and therefore make them think about it, where otherwise they might not get involved because of the commitment factor associated with trad volunteering. Making them think about it is better than not making them think about it.
    2) It allows those people who are already volunteering to squeeze in a bit more, if they so wish, which trad volunteering cannot provide as most opps are set in stone via set times and places

    However microvolunteering needs to become more socially interactive if it’s going to challenge the buzz that you can get out of trad volunteering. Having said that, Leonie mentions about writing to sick children. Has she ever written to one – and then got a reply back? Try it and see what buzz you get out of it – it works for me because you know you’ve touched not only the sick child but their family as well, as well as the people that read their blogs about all the letters these sick children receive. As for making a ‘massive difference’, I believe vinspired may have been a little too enthusiastic with their wording here. Of course, it doesn’t make a massive difference if just one person sends a letter, but it might make some impact on the child if many people do and I’m saying this in the context of raising a child’s spirits during the course of their illness, which incidentally are not all terminal on Postpals.

    The bottom line to me is that microvolunteering serves its purpose as a niche within the overall volunteering umbrella. It is producing impact on a macro scale, but where it needs to pull it’s socks up are on the micro scale to enable someone to see what impact they themselves are making and then to make that impact more of an incentive to come back and microvolunteer again. This is happening (slowly) as more and more orgs are realising this and as more and more creative ways are sought to provide more interaction.

    Look out for something along these lines later on in the year from Help From Home – assuming I can get funding or a collaboration working with another org for an idea (that’s already drawn up) that makes microvolunteering more impactful, more socially interactive and which can be taken into schools, businesses, community orgs etc. Anybody want to collaborate with me on this or find out more?


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