Micro-Volunteering: Is There Hope Yet for People to REALLY Do Some Good?

14 Dec

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about a form of volunteering that’s been creating a lot of buzz over the last few weeks. Many online groups have been slamming micro-volunteering, a form of volunteering that allows “people who do not do anything for anyone” to “absolve themselves of that shame by clicking buttons on their smart phones.” I highly agree with Full Contact Philanthropy here  because seeking this form of volunteering does in no way foster any real sense of community engagement with service users. While this form of volunteering may link volunteers with common interests to a common cause, it does not adequately link all stakeholders of the cause together. See The Extraordinaries for an example.

I am reminded of the term “armchair activism” when I reflect on the many reasons why this form of volunteering is so popular. As expressed by Full Contact Philanthropy, this form of volunteering is a “placebo” for its users to feel like they’ve really made a contribution towards a particular effort.

“The only thing The Extraordinaries have been able to get their users to do is tag photos for online archives maintained by museums like the Smithsonian. This is all fine and good, but hardly worth much praise, or investment, and clearly not a game changer, like was claimed by the Huffington Post. What has me so in a tizzy about this company is their claim that they are a “Social Enterprise” focused on both providing social value and earning profits. Frankly, I see them achieving neither….”

Sure, micro-volunteering has the potential to exponentially expand service outputs of a particular cause, such as the number of volunteers attached to the cause and the volume of activity they produce, which, however tangible it may be, is not meaningful. What I question is the number of volunteers engaged in the cause and the outcomes of their activity.

One champion of micro-volunteering is Karen Quinn Fung of Countability Infinite.  After following a model from Urbantastic, a group championing micro-volunteering as an opportunity to link different organizations, Karen had the following comment to make:

“Their model sees them hooking organizations up with “micro-volunteering” – a term referring to skilled labour that professionals can donate to an organization in lieu of direct service or money, fueled by a well-articulated ask.”

I have highlighted key terms in this definition of micro-volunteering which seem to be missing from other definitions of the concept that have appeared in recent articles and blogs. This definition boasts that micro-volunteering can be successful as long as the effort attracts skilled labour and is well articulated. In order for a micro-volunteering project to be of this high caliber, the links between the activity and the proposed outcomes have to be clear, and have to be possible. I am keeping my eyes peeled for micro-volunteering projects that fit this description, and truly hope they can be models that make micro-volunteering a promising option for volunteer engagement that benefits all stakeholders of such activities. My recommendation for now is for volunteers attracted to micro-volunteering to find links between their micro-volunteering efforts and work in their communities, not to treat micro-volunteering as an alternative to community work.

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