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Microvolunteering: Relabelling & Diversifying?

Are nonprofits appropriating the word ‘microvolunteering’ from the initiatives that first popularised the term, to suit their own purposes?

Microvolunteering is most commonly associated with online actions that involve no commitment, and which can be completed within a short space of time, usually anything below an hour or so. More often, an action is conducted via crowdsourcing techniques, and can be offered on an ‘on demand, on the go basis’. The term ‘microvolunteering’ was popularised by Sparked (now Skills For Change) and to a lesser degree Help From Home between 2008 / 2009.

However, microvolunteering has been around well before 2008, since maybe when nonprofits invited people to take part in actions that took about an hour-ish or less to complete, eg tidying up after an event, or doing an hour shift on a charity stall etc. These actions weren’t labelled as microvolunteering, just traditional roles that took a short time to complete.

During the course of 2013, I’ve noticed a small but growing trend of nonprofits from a variety of countries relabelling bite-sized traditional roles and actually promoting and describing them as microvolunteering ones, all seemingly independent from each other. So, actions like tidying up after an event, or doing an hour shift on a charity stall etc, appear to be getting the microvolunteering treatment. Seem familiar to the roles just mentioned above?

I’m not sure what the reason is behind this relabelling. Maybe nonprofits are experimenting by trying to tap in to what the word ‘microvolunteering’ conveys (no commitment, little time, on demand), perhaps to see if they can ‘recruit’ more volunteers for an event. Maybe nonprofits have been noticing the continuing momentum of the microvolunteering concept around the world, and want to convey a ‘with it’ organisation that is in touch with some of it’s volunteers who want smaller, no commitment roles, as discovered by the 2013 Millenial Impact Report. Who knows.

Examples

Whatever the reasons, it’s possibly an interesting direction for volunteer managers and trend spotters alike to take note of. Here’s some examples to back up my observations of offline, traditional, no commitment, bite-sized tasks actually being labelled as microvolunteering actions, where the links take you to the webpage of the action / event in question:

US based Mariner Management uses microvolunteering to attract people to sign up to roles at the various events they organise. Roles include Greeters (to welcome attendees), Registration Clerks (signing in attendees), Set-up and tear-down (assembly and disassembly of an event), Social Media Guides (help attendees to log-in to LinkedIn etc), and Photo, Video & Blogging (to capture the event). Mariner Management stated in a recent article that microvolunteering builds loyalty at their events.

Canadian based Cenovus described their September, 2013 challenge that encouraged volunteers to assemble 1000 food bags for the homeless in the space of twenty minutes, as a ‘2013 Thanks & Giving Microvolunteering’ event. Apparently it worked, as they achieved their goal in …. twenty minutes, and went on to state that it was a “High-impact result from a small, collaborative effort.”

In June 2013, Coventry Volunteer Centre in the UK held a microvolunteering event in Coventry City Centre, where they invited the public to participate in microvolunteering activities that included seed planting, quilt making and card making.

UK based Daisy’s Dream requested microvolunteers to help with fundraising / ‘bucket collectors’ for their charity in September 2013. The role was described as lasting ‘a couple of hours’

The American Bar Association recognises that the traditional membership experience of volunteering for committee and board service may no longer be viable for some of their younger members. Jill Eckert McCall, director of the ABA Center for Continuing Legal Education explained, “Their talent is lost to us unless we make it easy for them to integrate volunteer activity into their busy lives”. Some of the microvolunteering actions that she believes may come to the rescue are:

  • making phone calls to welcome or check in with new members and to collect data or get feedback from existing members;
  • visiting, writing, or calling policymakers during political action campaigns
  • greeting and hosting new members and prospects at events
  • helping out at annual meetings and conferences.

The Jane Austen Festival in Australia, back in April 2013 offered discounted tickets to microvolunteers if they physically helped out at the festival for a minimum of 1 hour

Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow in the UK set up the 7Days4Stow project in January, 2013 to encourage people to microvolunteer the equivalent of one week out of the 365 days per year to help improve the local community. Tasks ranged from providing support to households in debt, attending a pop up Kitchen or their foodbank, or challenging the local legal loan sharks.

During the Summer of 2013, RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum in the UK) supported contemporary art interpreters as part of a microvolunteering project that looked at new ways of enabling audiences to engage with artwork that they may otherwise have not considered.

The students of Israeli based Claremont College operate a microvolunteering project called CSIMicrovolunteer to encourage pupils to spread awareness about the state of Israel through social and educational events. Microvolunteering tasks include booking a venue, creating fliers, contacting speakers, etc.

US based payITforward(cville) matches local nonprofits in Charlottesville, US with local IT volunteer professionals willing to travel to nonprofit offices to work on (mostly) offline, bite-sized technology based tasks

The Future

Newly created Australian based microvolunteering platform, Communiteer is in beta stage at the moment, intending to go live in approximately 3 – 6 months. Its’ global remit, as I discovered from a dialog with it’s Founder, is to embrace amongst other microvolunteering action types, these bite-sized offline roles that otherwise might fall under the traditional label.

The Final Word(s)

Microvolunteering does seem to be gaining ground around the world, even to the point where it is now being taught in courses focussing on Volunteer Leadership (University of Oklahoma), and training for Volunteer Managers (Voluntary Action Harrow).

I was recently asked by Robert Rosenthal, VP of Communications and Media at VolunteerMatch whether this was a watershed moment for non-profits who feel they may be missing out on a trend? Whilst this seems to be potentially marking a new direction in which some non-profits are trying to recruit volunteers, ‘watershed’ is perhaps too strong a word for it at the moment. In my opinion, a ‘strong trend’ would be more appropriate. Ask me again in six months time though – I might have probably changed my mind.

First published October, 2013