Micro-volunteering: The Pros and Cons

To clarify; despite the subtle differences between the phenomenon known as ‘micro-volunteering’ and ‘online-volunteering’, I am choosing to speak about the two interchangeably for the purposes of this blog piece. However, if you’re particularly interested in a more concise definition of the two, there are some fascinating pieces around that I’d encourage you to check out.


Generally speaking, micro-volunteering is defined as volunteering that can be completed in short periods of time. In the majority of instances, this is done remotely, online. There are a few notable benefits to volunteering in this way. It certainly addresses the problem most people put forward as a reason they don’t volunteer; that they just don’t have the time. Micro-volunteering allows you to be flexible with your hours, there are no travel expenses incurred, minimal manual labour and no dress code. Let’s face it, volunteering at home in your pjs does sound pretty tempting.


While there aren’t many people who would disagree with these suggested benefits, a slightly more controversial idea, often linked to micro-volunteering, is that doing a little now and again will encourage people down the road to do a lot, and more often. It has been described as a gateway to consistent offline volunteering, introducing people to the concept of performing tasks without being paid. Perhaps more importantly, it has been forwarded as a way for organisations to break out of the so-called ‘civic core’ of regular volunteers. Micro-volunteering is supposed to attract the kinds of people that traditional forms of volunteering do not reach. If this is true, then surely we should not only be promoting it, but clinging on to it for dear life.


But on this point in particular, the jury is still very much out. There is a deficiency of evidence to suggest that micro-volunteering is breeding a new generation of young, dedicated volunteers. This is not to say that the entire concept is flawed, it simply means we need to keep an eye out for more evidence.


Thinking of it logically, there are valid arguments for and against the claim being made. The naysayers rightly put forward the fact that the day to day activities of traditional volunteering are nothing like online/micro-volunteering. The latter does not require the commitment or effort of traditional volunteering. You can’t exactly alter the lives of the sick or elderly from your computer, at least not without great difficulty. Therefore, because someone is an active micro-volunteer, there is no valid reason for thinking that person will take it any further than their bedroom. In fact, some go one step further and argue that online/micro-volunteering will result in fewer offline volunteers, tempting people away from the cold weather and the multiple trips on the bus.


A very apt comparison can be drawn between online/micro-volunteering and the concept known as ‘clicktivism’. Clicktivism is the relatively new phenomenon where people sign up for political causes online to show their support. Their involvement in the campaign usually stops there, unless they feel like donating money in addition. Critics have lambasted this practice for giving the illusion of mass engagement, without actually delivering many results. A rather hard-hitting piece by Micah White of the Guardian states that ‘clicktivism is to activism what McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal’. It may look the same, but will inevitably lack the nutrients needed to produce long-term benefits. It is also cited as a way for campaigns to ‘paint a dazzling self-portrait’ claiming to have thousands of supporters, from a base, quantitative point of view at least.


Being the optimist that I am, I choose to concentrate on what micro-volunteering can do to benefit volunteers and organisations, whilst accepting that there are potential pitfalls. What seems obvious to me is that organisations on the whole do struggle to attract a wide range of volunteers. There is a certain perception of volunteering that needs altering, and it’s going to take innovation, rather than business as usual to achieve this.


My central argument can be summed up as follows: micro-volunteering, if handled correctly, does have the ability to produce a ‘culture of volunteering’ that is potentially game changing. From my perspective as a Volunteer Development Coordinator at a Students’ Union, this culture of volunteering can permeate an already formed community of young people, thinking about their future and worrying about the state of the economy. Micro-volunteering can provide the baby steps needed to convince students that volunteering doesn’t have to be a back breaking ordeal. If they’re happy to donate a couple of hours online, maybe a couple of hours in a hospital or school might not be too bad. If students see what impact a short online session can have, perhaps they’ll brag about it to their friends and grow the network of volunteers we’ve been trying to secure for years, all by themselves. It is up to organisations like student unions to support these innovative changes. Our students might not be sticking around for longer than three years, but a certain way of doing things, no matter how un-quantifiable, tends to linger for a good while.


It may be controversial to sing the praises of micro-volunteering too loudly, but to create real change, we can’t rely on the old, traditional methods forever.


One thought on “Micro-volunteering: The Pros and Cons

  1. Re: your penultimate paragraph.

    Students are already participating in microvolunteering activities. A few examples of student unions and Universities engaging in microvolunteering activities can be found in this article: http://bit.ly/1854vhS

    This webpage also lists a few Universities whose students are engaging in microvolunteering activities – scroll down to the map http://bit.ly/vatiTq

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