Volunteer Management in a Microvolunteering Environment
Back in October, 2011 Help From Home (HFH) was asked a series of questions on volunteer management within a microvolunteering environment, as part of a report for a European Study. We feel our answers should see the light of day, rather than be stored away out there in the ‘ether’.
Our answers below should be read in the context that HFH considers itself in some respects rather like a high street volunteer centre, in that it acts as an intermediary between Joe and Jane Public and third party initiatives running microvolunteering opps.
We therefore don’t actually come face to face with volunteers or third party initiatives - everything is conducted online. Therefore our experience is limited to feedback we receive from volunteers and a general ‘feel’ for how initiatives manage their actions within the microvolunteering arena. We therefore claim to be no expert in the field of volunteer management. The answers below should be read in the context of the non-specialised microvolunteering actions that HFH promotes, which may be different to the type of actions that other microvolunteering networks promote.
Anyway, here’s our answers for the benefit (hopefully) of anyone who reads them.
Q1) Do you feel good practice happens for those people undertaking short term or one-off projects?
Yes and no!!
All of the actions featured on HFH are primarily intended as home based, therefore the environment in which an action can be conducted is something that cannot be controlled by the initiative running an action. Although the initiative does their best to impart their instructions to perform an action, it is ultimately down to the volunteer to carry out the action remotely.
So from HFH’s experience, good practice is adopted by initiatives but whether that good practice filters down to the volunteer is another matter – and that is something that initiatives cannot control. Having said that, nearly all of the actions can only be conducted within a confined set of instructions, so if anybody steps outside of these criteria, the action becomes invalid anyway. In effect then, an initiatives good practice should filter down to a volunteer.
HFH has seen some ‘rogue’ initiatives and from a good practice point of view at our end, HFH does not include such initiatives on its database.
Q2) What kind of good practice?
From an initiative’s point of view regarding good practice, there are several issues to consider.
Most of the microvolunteering opportunities on HFH have been purposefully chosen because they do not need a screening process, in an attempt to make this type of volunteering as accessible as possible. They have been set up as a self contained, do-it-by-the-book system, whereby if you step outside their procedures, your actions will not be counted or be effective, as with online petitions or click-to-donate websites.
For some microvolunteering opportunities, the lack of screening procedures has been replaced by safeguards to protect minors from unsuitable correspondence. Postpals is an initiative that encourages people to write cheery e-mails or letters to very sick children in the UK to uplift their spirits through a very difficult time. The organization assures that all such correspondence is first screened by friends or family members, before it reaches the child.
Another example of different ways to overcome the screening process is the method adopted by Distributed Proofreaders. This organisation spawned from Project Gutenberg and provides a Web-based method to ease the conversion of public domain books into e-books. By dividing the workload into many pages, many volunteers can work on a book at the same time. There is no meaningful screening process, although volunteers do have to register their most basic of details, ie name and email address. To ensure that public domain books are accurately converted, the organisation puts all the pages through many layers of increasingly more adept proofreaders. Their philosophy appears to be that many eyes will weed out any mistakes made by volunteers.
Health and Safety Issues
How do you monitor health and safety, risk assessment, equal opportunities and insurance cover for a home based microvolunteer opportunity? Along with screening procedures, these are the questions most often raised by organizations. Of course, there are no universal answers, although the public seems to embrace microvolunteering without getting hung up about red-tape policies.
In general, those who develop and support volunteer engagement have certainly put effort into learning and practicing risk management to protect both volunteers and the people they serve. Yet a cursory spot check of some of the initiatives featured on HFH reveals that most organisations do nothing about heath and safety issues, perhaps because it is just not necessary due to the way in which initiatives set up their microvolunteering actions.
Lou Jaap, the founder of Loving Hands, a group of charity knitters who make clothing, toys and teddies for worthy causes, expresses this argument in response to putting safety labels onto the items they make:
‘If you are sitting in a slum in India with flies buzzing around your head and malaria-fuelled mosquitoes nipping at your skin, are you really going to be thinking what you could be catching something from a beautifully made toy from the UK????‘
They do, however, look carefully at any item submitted before sending it overseas.
This approach is perhaps indicative of microvolunteering sites’ perspectives in general and in light of the home environment where these micro-actions are being conducted, is this nonsense or common sense? There is simply not enough room to discuss the issues surrounding red tape policies in this article. But from the very circumstantial evidence HFH has gleaned from the microvolunteering world, it seems that initiatives are falling on the common sense side of the fence rather than going down an excessive red tape route.
Security of Personal Information
There’s quite a few actions that don’t require you to sign up or provide any details about yourself, eg. click-to-donate websites, so security of information is not an issue with them. The only bit of information they might be able to glean from someone is their ip address, and what use that is to a worthy cause is extremely debateable.
Where initiatives require someone to login to perform an action, the briefest of details is normally required, if only to distinguish a volunteer from another volunteer, so that each volunteer can see who else is volunteering. The information could also used by the initiative to collate information on when and how many volunteers are helping them. This information is normally restricted to a person’s email address or the name by which they want to be known as (and not necessarily their real name). Personell from HFH have participated in quite a few microvolunteering actions of this type where login details are required and they’ve not once been spammed or contacted unnecessarily. This does not say it happens, HFH has just not heard about it.
HFH has not analysed every single microvolunteering initiative’s T + C’s, so we can’t say 100% that every initiative has an equal opportunities policy in place. However from what HFH has seen, there has been no discrimanatory text on an initiative’s website. In fact it’s quite the opposite, because initiative’s play on the fact that microvolunteering actions can be conducted anywhere, at anytime, so as a consequence, savvy websites make a point of this and describe how all-inclusive their action is to people, including those that may have some form of disablement or mobility issues.
Insurance / Risk Assessment
HFH has not seen one initaitive that states that their insurance will cover a microvolunteer’s action. This is not to say that they don’t cover a volunteer, it just means to say that HFH has not purposefully looked for it. Microvolunteering actions by their very nature can be carried out at a person’s home and this normally places the onus on a volunteer to adequately cover themselves, insurance wise.
However, there is no one comprehensive answer to this. Volunteer managers, as decent people may feel some kind of moral obligation to ensure the safety of people they engage with, whether paid or volunteering. However, that could depend on the nature of the organisation and the work that a volunteer manager does, and what expectations the organisation as well as any external stakeholders may have.
HFH has seen an example of a volunteer manager be requested by an insurance company to visit a person’s home to conduct a risk assessment of their volunteering environment. They came away satisfied that everything was order, but she did say that she could not say what happened after she left the house as the volunteer could have left pc cables strewn across the room they were volunteering in, which would then become a Health & Safety issue.
One responsibility of the volunteer co-ordinator/manager is to protect the organisation they work for and in this regards providing a checklist of what a safe working environment is, and then asking the volunteer to send a filled in copy is a good start. Other measures could include providing handouts that give advice for example about the length of time looking at a computer screen, or how often to take breaks and move around – anything really that may be regarded as a health and safety risk and how that risk can be minimised.
In relation to a home based microvolunteering environment, where volunteeers may live half way around the world in housing conditions which are not like those in the Western world, it’s open to debate as to how practical any of this would be.
For the time being, those initiative’s that do cover themselves insurance wise have various packages to choose from, including public, cyber and employer liability. In the context of the microvolunteering arena, these would appear to be adequate cover – although the devil is always in the detail!
What About HFH’s Responsibility To Good Practice?
For a microvolunteering action to be included on our database, good practice needs to happen at our end as well as at an initiative’s end. From our end, we screen initiative’s using the following criteria:
- is it a registered charity with a recognised national charity body eg. Charity Commission in the UK, 501(c) registered in the US etc?
- the longevity of the scheme. Some HFH personell have been involved in the microvolunteering arena since 2006 and over time a picture has been built up of what ‘good’, some initiatives are achieving eg. Distributed Proofreading
- initiatives that promote religion, military or political parties for the sake of promoting such issues are not included, eg The Bible Site, whilst those where the initiative is religion, military or politically based that do good for the sake of doing good are included eg. Tools With A Mission
- obviously no pornography or sites that include such adult nature are included: period.
- is an initiative’s website well laid out? A poorly laid out one rings alarm bells regarding the dedication and commitment to their cause and therefore warrants deeper investigation.
- is there a contact address or email where participants can contact the initiative with a question or a problem?
- do they publish stats on the amount of ‘good’ they have achieved eg. amount of money raised or perhaps amount of petitions signed?
- each website is personally checked and where applicable, registered with to check it’s functionality or appropriateness beyond the initial ‘gloss’ of it’s homepage.
- websites are checked on a weekly basis to determine whether they are still current or indeed have not been transferred, sold or taken over by a web domain that promotes inappropriate content. If there is a problem with the website it is monitored for a further month and if the problem still persists, omitted from HFH (unless of course it is discovered straightaway that’s it’s displaying inappropriate content, in which case it is omitted immediately).
- if a website or initiative doesn’t feel ‘right’ or doesn’t stack up to the above criteria, they are then contacted via email or very occasionally by Skype. If no response is received, they’re not included on HFH or if their responses don’t stack up, they’re also not included.
- 99% of the initiatives are sourced by HFH either from blogs or media articles. The credibility of the source of info about an initiative in turn lends weight to the credibility / suitability of an initiative, eg. initiatives have been sourced from articles from The Guardian (UK) or the Huffington Post (US). If the source is a blog and other people have commented on their experience in a positive way with an initiative, then this will also lend weight to it’s credibility.
- if a website has too many adverts on it’s action pages, then it might be omitted. The Greater Good Network click to donate actions are on the borderline of this criteria, but are included on the HFH site because of the enormous ‘good’ this organisation achieves.
- has the initiative won any awards and where appropriate, who are they funded by?
- how many followers do they have on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter? Are their messages about selling a product or purely about promoting a cause.
Q3) What are the main disadvantages / advantages for a volunteer manager?
HFH has seen some disquiet lately (December, 2011) about the length of time that a volunteer manager and an initiative needs to spend, to engage a volunteer in an action that may only take 10 minutes to complete. Should they really be spending hours upon hours encouraging people to volunteer, if a volunteer is only going to spend 10 minutes on an action. It seems disproportionate timewise and money not well spent.
HFH believes these dissenters are missing the point, because it’s the delivery of such actions to volunteers that needs to change. The internet and social media allows volunteer managers to promote actions to a national and global audience (and microvolunteering actions are nearly all not restricted in geographical area), so the equivalent time spent recruiting volunteers in a traditional format, ie volunteer centres could well result in reaching a larger audience if the same amount of time was spent on advertising the role through online social media. Reaching a larger audience may mean potentially more volunteers. More volunteers to participate in an action that lasts 6 minutes may achieve the same results than if only a few people were to volunteer for hours at a time in a traditional format.
The bottom line here is that there needs to be a mindshift to think globally. In each scenario, the time spent recruiting and actually signing up volunteers may become proportionate to the audience they can reach, as in traditional recruiting tends to be more local resulting in fewer volunteers, compared to microvolunteering recruiting which tends to be more global and therefore may result in more volunteers signing up. Here’s a very simplified hypothetical table to illustrate the above point and it must be born in mind that no studies have been conducted to prove or disprove this issue:
Time spent recruiting = 10 hours
Potential audience reached = 10,000
Volunteers signed up = 4
Time spent volunteering per person = 10 hours
Total volunteer time = 4 x 10 hours = 40 hours
Time spent recruiting = 10 hours
Potential audience reached = 1,000,000
Volunteers signed up = 400
Time spent microvolunteering per person = 6 minutes
Total volunteer time = 400 x 6 minutes = 40 hours
On another issue, if a Volunteer Centre can encourage people to participate in microvolunteering actions that may not necessarily benefit the community they work in, then despite this, this is a good thing as the volunteer centre has been able to introduce that person to the world of volunteering who may later go on to volunteer in the traditional way that benefits the local community. That person may never have entertained the idea of volunteering, if it hadn’t have been for a ‘quickie’ microvolunteering action! This is a very simplified model of a debate that could run and run and run.
That said, there is no evidence to suggest that microvolunteering leads to somebody going into more traditional volunteering roles, whilst also lest it not be said, the opposite is also true. The evidence is simply not there at the moment one way or the other, simply because it has not been sought out. As of December 2011, there are various studies being carried out that touch on this subject, one by HFH and one by Institute of Volunteering Research – results for both, due early 2012.
In terms of a volunteer manager promoting microvolunteering actions to a potential volunteer, here’s some pros and cons that a volunteer manager may need to take into consideration about a microvolunteering action itself:
- it can be conducted anywhere and at anytime, which means you can control the environment and the place where you microvolunteer. This means it is essentially safer to participate in.
- most micro-actions are non-committal, which means you can dip in and dip out whenever you want to. This means that it will fit around your lifestyle rather than you having to fit around a pre-arranged organised activity.
- it can empower you to make a difference on your own terms rather than being confined within the constraints of a time frame as per a traditional volunteering set up.
- it can be conducted for example while watching TV, on the bus or in your pyjamas which means volunteering can go wherever you go.
- there are a huge diversity of actions that traditional volunteering tasks simply do not cover, which means that you have a greater choice to achieve more good.
- if you’re disabled, housebound or of a similar disposition with a philanthropic mindset, then microvolunteering will enable you to benefit worthy causes from your own home and even from your own armchair. No longer are you confined to more traditional physical activities like a river clean up, if you want to do some good.
- because many microvolunteer actions are internet based, this means that you are no longer confined to benefitting worthy causes just in your local area. You now have a choice of regional and country specific worthy causes to choose from.
- there are usually no requirements for security checks with micro-actions which means there is one less hurdle and one less layer of bureaucracy to overcome. This should allow you to participate in as many microvolunteer actions as you want, instantly, without having the delay that a security check inevitably entails.
- practically all microvolunteering tasks require the minimal of training, if at all. Just read the rules and go!
- Because most micro-actions are performed by an individual acting alone, it could be perceived as a lonely occupation and will not appeal to everyone
- Micro-actions are small tasks which, when combined with other people’s actions, produce an end result. Each volunteer is therefore divorced from seeing the whole picture and the ultimate outcome, which could be a bit frustrating if you’re the type of person who wants to see instant results
- There is usually no contact with the recipients of your action. You don’t get to see their smiles when you have helped them out. You have to be self-motivated to know that you are doing some good, and not everyone is.
- Even though your actions are combined with others and you are therefore engaged in teamwork, there is rarely any direct interaction with fellow microvolunteers. So, you may not feel part of a team and lose that satisfaction.
- With traditional volunteering opportunities, you can normally see proof for yourself that a result has been achieved with your actions.
With microvolunteering there are limited ways to “see” success or prove results reported on a Web site.
- From the organisation’s point of view, there is less control over and interaction with the people they are reliant upon to help them out. It may take more effort to convince, motivate and encourage people to participate in their micro-action.
- Microvolunteering is not exactly well known yet, so people aren’t aware that micro-actions can benefit worthy causes and don’t go looking for them. Organisations that want to benefit from people performing micro-actions have an uphill struggle to gather a pool of people to help them out. The time spent encouraging and finding microvolunteers may be better spent on other things with more effective results.
- It is quite possible that we could become frantically busy doing a lot of stuff that does make the doer feel great – which is important – but doesn’t add up to the systemic change needed in communities. Does busy mean the same thing as impact?
Q4) Do volunteers get support? If so how, i.e training etc?
The type of action being conducted will almost always determine the level of instructions / induction training required to perform that action. From what HFH has seen, every bit of instruction / training is as precise as its needs to be for a volunteer to carry out an action. So, training wise, HFH feels that each initiative covers itself adequately in this department, albeit online and not face-to-face (although occasionally HFH has come across training that could be conducted over the phone).
How those instructions are interpreted is another issue and from what HFH has seen, there’s always a point of contact in an initiative to where a volunteer can glean some answers to their queries. This may take the form of an email address, a phone number or forum where other participants can offer to help out with a person’s queries.
As mentioned before, the instructions for microvolunteering actions tend to be quite precise purely because an initiative needs to leave no stone unturned due to the lack of contact with a volunteer. Therefore, even though support systems are in place, HFH can’t imagine they are that well used – but that depends on the action a microvolunteer is engaged in.
Financial support is not normally provided by a microvolunteering initiative. It is voluntary work and by it’s very nature does not command payment. Out of pocket expenses are also not normally paid. As microvolunteering can be conducted over the net, mileage expenses just don’t come into the equation. It is also expected that materials to carry out some microvolunteering actions, eg. craftwork is born out of a volunteers own pocket.
Grievance and complaints procedures would normally be covered by an initiative’s method of contact with them. However, HFH has no experience in this and therefore cannot comment on it.
Q5) What kinds of topics are covered for short term / micro / one-off volunteering opportunities?
Too many, but here’s a few:
- citizen science / archive projects
- click-to-donate schemes
- search-to-donate schemes
- writing letters to sick children / prisoners
- craftwork, eg. hats, teddy bears
- cause awareness
- play games that donate money for free or for scientific research purposes
- helping psychologist with questionaires
- webcam monitoring for criminal activity or anomalous events
- photo tagging / describing / taking of
- distributed computing projects
- crowdsourcing / collaborative projects
- genealogy research / archiving
- micro / ethical lending
- using ‘do good’ smartphone apps for citizen reporting projects
- wildlife / insect / bird studies
- translating / transcribing
- contribute to support groups
- donating knowledge / expertise
- proofreading / scanning documents, books
- recycling miscellanea
- signing petitions
- and on and on and on!
Answers to questions posed by Warrington Volunteer Centeer in October, 2011 as part of a report for a European Study.