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History of Microvolunteering

Microvolunteering has been around for ages, ever since nonprofits requested people to take part in actions that took about an hour-ish or less to complete, eg being a volunteer taxi driver for a blind person, or doing an hour shift on a charity stall. They just weren’t labelled as such.

The more common association of the term microvolunteering, ie online, bite-sized with no commitment has its roots in virtual volunteering which has been in existence probably since the start of the Internet, as in USENET, which itself was publicly established in 1980, where online users were helping other users. Perhaps the first recognised type of formal online volunteering – inviting people to contribute to a not-for-profit project – was Project Gutenberg, which recruited online volunteers to convert public domain books into electronic versions.

It’s roots began in 1971, when the creator Michael Hart typed in the first 100 books himself in the first 20 years of Project Gutenberg’s existence. When the internet became popular in the early to mid 1990s, Hart began co-ordinating the work of volunteer typists from many different countries, all via the burgeoning internet at that time. The early 1990s also saw the birth of USENETs soc.org.nonprofit group, where nonprofits were posting online tasks for virtual volunteers to participate in.

In 1995, Impact Online (now Volunteer Match) began promoting the idea of virtual volunteering; by 1999, its Virtual Volunteering Project had identified almost 100 organisations that involved online volunteers and published The Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Applying the Principles of Real-World Volunteer Management to Online Service.

The concept of ‘crowdsourcing’ volunteer tasks has been attributed to journalist Jeff Howe, who in a 2006 article in Wired magazine described crowdsourcing as “the process by which the power of the many could be leveraged to accomplish feats that were once the province of the specialised few.”

An early example of both microvolunteering and crowdsourcing is ClickWorkers, a small NASA project begun in 2000 that engaged online volunteers in scientific-related tasks that required no scientific training, but just common sense and perception in analysing online photos of Mars to identify craters. In true microvolunteering style, the volunteers were neither trained nor screened before their participation.

2006 – 2009

9th May, 2006 – The first known instance of the term “microvolounteering” appeared within a response to a blog post on the U.K. mySociety platform.

13th July, 2006 – The term ‘micro-volunteerism’ appeared in a response to a blog post about ‘What makes people work for free?’

23rd November, 2006 – The first internet organisation to register the term microvolunteering, albeit the Spanish equivalent, was Microvoluntarios via the WhoIs domain name register

September, 2007 – The first English language microvolunteering website called Microvolunteering.org, was registered via the WhoIs domain name register. It’s potential use ‘for people to contribute in small ways to their community’ was first discussed here

November, 2007VolunteerGuide promoted actions that could be completed within 15 minutes, as evidenced by a snapshot of their website from the WayBack Machine. Whilst they were not calling it microvolunteering, it appears to be the first known instance of a website having created a category specifically to encourage people to volunteer in bite-sized opportunities.

April, 2008Microvoluntarios offered volunteering tasks that were uploaded by nonprofits and which would take between 15 minutes to 2 hours to complete – arguably the world’s first microvolunteering network.

April, 2008 – mobile phone app that crowdsourced bite-sized actions first mooted online by Ben Rigby CTO and co-founder of The Extraordinaries (now known as Skills For Change)

December 2008Help From Home started promoting purely microvolunteering opportunities, sourced from 3rd party initiatives, in an attempt to use those micro-actions to spread awareness of what people could achieve in the spare moments within their perceived busy lives.

Spring, 2009 – The Extraordinaries introduced their mobile phone app that allowed small volunteer tasks to be completed in small snatches of time, ‘on demand and on the go,’ under the label of ‘micro-volunteering.’ Although the app gained a lot of initial users, it didn’t gain traction in the market. The Extraordinaries changed strategy and in November 2010 launched a platform similar-ish to the Microvoluntarios model, under the name of Sparked, that among other functions also included the ability for microvolunteers and nonprofits to interact with each other and arrive at a crowdsourced answer.

The popularity of the microvolunteering concept can be mostly attributed to Sparked and to a lesser extent Help From Home. Other organisations took note of this growing trend of bite-sized volunteering tasks and developed platforms catering to different sectors of society.

2010 – 2011

A brief list of the early adopters from 2010 to 2011 is compiled below:

January 2010 – ivo (formerly known as i-volunteer): first volunteering involved organisation to embrace microvolunteering via regular articles

August 2010 – vInspired: first volunteering involved organisation to create a seperate category for microvolunteering

December 2010 – ChangeMachine: Microvolunteering for students (concept that never reached the market)

December 2010 – InternCloud: Microvolunteering for interns (concept that never reached the market)

March 2011 – Orange Do Some Good: UK based smartphone app for ‘snack-sized’ volunteering (now defunct)

April 2011 – Troopp: Indian based microvolunteering network (now defunct)

June 2011 – BrightWorks: UK based microvolunteering network (closed down in 2013, but resurrected in 2014 via BrightOne)

August 2011 – Spots of Time: UK based offline microvolunteering for care homes

2012 And Beyond

The year 2012 saw more microvolunteering platforms set themselves up, including ZiviCloud and Sozialer Funke, both from Germany. However, 2012 also saw the rise in competition entries with a microvolunteering flavour to them, including:

Vayanihan: Microvolunteering portal in The Philipines

On Your Way Home: encouraging people to help others in bite sized chunks on their way home from work

Raise 5: raising money for charity via microvolunteering actions

Skillville: matching job seekers with professional development opportunities through microvolunteering on city projects in San Francisco

2013 has continued on in much the same vein, ie new microvolunteering platforms being set up, eg Communiteer alongside more diverse entries into competitions, not all of them successful. 2013 has also seen a small but growing trend in nonprofits relabelling tasks that they already had on their books, but described them as microvolunteering ones, eg Thanks & Giving event by Cenovus.

Microvolunteering in it’s early days was speculated to be a passing fad, by voluntary sector commentators. It seems the fad still shows no signs of being a passing one!

First published in August, 2013

Contributions are welcome if you feel the article does not accurately reflect the history of microvolunteering, from your point of view.