Thursday, August 13, 2009

Where will micro-volunteering take us?

There is quite a bit of online and conference chatter about micro-volunteering these days. Like many news ideas, there are those that support it and those that loathe it. Supporters see it as a means of utilizing a theoretically large pool of potential volunteers that are not currently involved, albeit for brief periods of time. Detractors recognize that not all volunteering can be done remotely and some point out a need for volunteer training and some form of volunteer commitment.

People also seem divided on the issue of whether the concept is one that will take hold or fade away into oblivion. Some that see the concept as a passing fad look at it from the technological angle where many tech ideas sound hot at first but don’t last. If there isn’t a positive effect generated, people will lose interest. Social media blogger, Allison Fine, writes this about microvolunteering: "It is quite possible that we will become frantically busy doing a lot of change stuff that does make the doers feel great — which is important — but doesn't add up to the systemic social change needed in communities. Does busy mean the same thing as impact?" Support from those that see it as the next big thing recognize the fact that with each passing month, more and more people are connected. The UN reports that 60% of the world’s population now has a cell phone. According to the Wireless Association, more than 87% of American’s have cell phones. Not every cell phone currently has access to the internet but given the revenues that being connected generate for phone companies, they soon will.

So where might all of this take us? I think to a very exciting place. Supporters are pushing the envelope and coming up with innovative solutions sometimes faster than we can recognize that we had a deficiency. Naysayers are pointing out the areas that might have been missed in the concept and need to be addressed. I think it is important to recognize that micro-volunteering is in its infancy as and as such, will change as it matures. How it changes will come from the inputs (hopefully more collaboratively the chest pounding) from all stakeholders.

As micro-volunteering matures, new ways of making use of it will evolve. In some cases such as tagging photos for a museum or cataloging playground sites ( it has the potential to create ways of volunteering that have not previously existed. Who knows what new creative ways to contribute that the volunteer sector might think of as it we explore the possibilities further. Other cases that I believe are worth our consideration are ones where the micro-volunteering concept can open up more effective and efficient ways that volunteers could engage in activities they are already doing.

The concept of micro-volunteering is tied heavily to the concept of crowdsourcing, a term coined by Jeff Howe ( in his book by the same title which inspired the work of micro-volunteer pioneers, the Extroidinaries. (Jeff’s book is our book of the month this month and I highly recommend it.) As a new concept, its precise definition is in flux but according to Wikipedia, it is generally considered to be “taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor (to which I add ‘or volunteer’) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community…”. The concept of mico-volunteering however will reach a great potential if it is considered both in the context of crowdsourcing and as well in the context of flexible scheduling.

When we phone in an order to Pizza-Pizza, a large pizza chain, our call is most often routed not to a call centre, but to an operator working from home. What if, distress centers could adopt similar technology so that the number of volunteers helping others at any one time was more a function of how many calls were coming in rather than how many volunteers were filling a shift at the distress centre. Once trained, the system could route calls to volunteers at home or even on their cell. Volunteers could let the system know when they were or were not available to answer the call. In time of low demand, volunteers time would not be wasted waiting for the next call. In periods of higher demand, volunteers could help for very short periods of time. What forms of volunteering could you offer to trained and committed volunteers on a short burst basis from home or possibly mobile? The very basics include proof reading, audio transcription, research and updating social networking content. Given the creativity and energy of the volunteer sector though, I believe that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Many of you are likely already aware of volunteering that could be including under a broad adaptation of micro-volunteering. Although not used as frequently given current communications capabilities, a telephone tree is one example of this. Volunteers, if they happen to be available when the calls need go out, call their list of people who, in turn call their list of people. It might be a little as 10 minutes of volunteering.

For those of us old enough to remember the world without the internet, we can recall how it was first used in the volunteer sector. In many cases it was a simple website that was rarely updated and a single info@ email address. Over the course of the past dozen or so years, some things have been tried and abandoned. Some have stuck with us right away and others became reworked and reworked in a maturing process. Who knows what micro-volunteering might come to mean as we explore it further? Who knows what doors technology might open related to how people can volunteer in short bursts? Who knows what the beneficial impact of utilizing this otherwise untapped resource? I don't have the answers but I am convinced this is a concept that deserves our collective trial-error-and-learn exploration.