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Virtual volunteering. (Perspectives).

Needed: An idea researcher

Details: To research amazing cultures/belief systems in the world so GLEAN (Girls Global Education and Action Network) can prepare expeditions to learn more about them

Skills Needed: Ability to gather information through various sources, organizational skills, self-starter, interest in world cultures and belief systems

The pay offered is a little low: zero dollars. But the rewards from this assignment--which was recently posted by a Santa Monica, Calif., nonprofit on VolunteerMatch--are personal satisfaction for a job well-done and an opportunity to put your talents to work for a worthwhile purpose. And there's no transit or parking hassle--you'll be working right out of your home or office.

Welcome to the world of virtual volunteerism!

Creative efforts in the nonprofit sector have harnessed the Web to let willing volunteers provide their time and talents online. CompuMentor (http://www.compumentor.org), a San Francisco nonprofit formed in 1987 to tap IT personnel as mentors for nonprofits new to computing, was the pioneer in this field. It has since passed the baton to others as it has developed additional technology-related services such as TechSoup.com and DiscounTech.

At least 1,000 organizations in the U.S. alone used online volunteers in 2000, according to the University of Texas--Austin's Virtual Volunteering Project. Generally, virtual volunteers help by providing technical assistance to an organization or direct service to its clients.

Everyone Benefits

According to Susan J. Ellis and Jayne Cravens, authors of The Virtual Volunteering Guidebook (http://www.energize inc.com/download/vvguide.pdf), "This innovative use of technology ... is adding both to the quantity of service contributed and to attracting people who have not necessarily volunteered before."

Organizations that use the Web to list opportunities and recruit volunteers save money on hard-copy communications and postage, and can tap into a contingent of "nontraditional" volunteers. These are people who travel too much to volunteer in person, have conditions that interfere with their mobility, have unusual work schedules, and possess special expertise. For their part, volunteers can easily screen opportunities for the causes that interest them, the kind of work they enjoy doing, the length of engagement, and the time they have available.

Among the activities a virtual volunteer can undertake are advocacy, "visiting" with the homebound, Web site design or maintenance, and virtual librarian duties such as researching current-awareness artides for the staff. Organizations may have meetings and training sessions online, but many states have not yet updated their laws to allow for virtual board meetings.

The Internet also gives volunteer managers a greatly expanded toolkit for inter-and intra-organizational communications; inexpensive audio and video training; and functions such as report-writing, maintaining calendars, and record-keeping.

Finding Volunteer Assignments

A recent Network for Good search for virtual volunteering opportunities yielded 612 in the Arts and Culture category, 501 in Animals and Environment, 885 in Children and Youth, 1,304 in Civic and Community, 992 in Education and Technology, 100 in Faith-Based Organizations, 648 in Health, 952 in Human Services, and 83 in Public Safety & Disaster Preparedness.

These included opportunities to work for local, national, or international organizations as an "idea person," accountant, grant writer, e-mentor, software engineer, Bible-study leader, insurance benefit advisor, Spanish translator, senior advocate, and class organizer, among many others. Each opportunity is labeled for Youth, Seniors, Groups, or Kids. More information is provided in subordinate screens. The Network for Good matching service is powered by VolunteerMatch (http://www.volunteermatch.org).

A Few Examples

Most virtual volunteering opportunities are with traditional nonprofit organizations like the local United Way. But some are unique to the Web, such as labeling craters on Mars for NASA (http://clickworkers.arc.nasa.gov), contributing to the Internet's Open Directory Project (http://www.dmoz.org), and posting photos and information on abandoned pets available for adoption from animal shelters for Animal Match Rescue Team (http://www.amrt.net).

One interesting group called CyberAngels (http://www.cyberangels.org) has trained adult volunteers worldwide to respond to questions regarding online privacy and harassment and to monitor chat rooms for inappropriate behavior. CyberAngels has now established a global "Teenangels" program to train teens to serve as resources for their peers.

Perhaps the most ambitious grassroots cybervolunteer project is an effort by Little League Baseball to recruit and train "information officers" for each of its 200,000-plus teams, leagues, and districts in 106 countries to use a unified Web-based information and communications system called myteam.com (http://www.myteam.com). The site handles everything from scheduling to scores, practice cancellations, and registration.

The United Nations has fully embraced the Internet for many of its human services endeavors to fight poverty, hunger, and disease. Its NetAid.org, a joint project of the United Nations Development Program and Cisco Systems, recruits volunteers for Web-based projects such as document translation and moderating discussions among health and development specialists.

Volunteers who want to keep a record of their experiences may do so in a secure, password-protected area on the Network for Good site (http://recordofservice.networkforgood.org). There, they can track both the time they contribute and the nature of each part of the experience.

American Volunteerism

Virtual volunteerism is one of many trends transforming the volunteer world as we used to know it. The Ladd Report, a 1999 book by the late political scientist Everett Carll Ladd (a former director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research), addressed the alarm over the loss of America's precious "social capital." This idea had been stimulated by the 1995 publication of the "Bowling Alone" interview with Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam (http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/journal_of__democracy/v006/putnam.html).

Using data from the Roper archives, Ladd demonstrated an actual increase in public participation. "We are building up our supply of social capital," he wrote, "not depleting it." While traditional forms of volunteer work might be in decline, Ladd claimed, other aspects of civic life are thriving. "The engagement of individual citizens in a vast array of groups and voluntary service and charities is generating social capital as never before," he concluded.

Indeed, studies by the Independent Sector forum and others document the steady growth and new shape of volunteerism in the U.S.

Contributing to a transformation of volunteerism in the last quarter-century are changing demographics, emerging concepts of enlightened corporate self-interest, two-income families, the large contingent of active seniors, new ways to express patriotism, acceptance of experiential learning in formal education, widespread access to technology, professionalization and growth of volunteer management, and recognition of new kinds of pressing planetary issues.

Estimates vary widely on the number of adults who contribute volunteer time in the U.S. A definitive national study conducted in 2000 by the Independent Sector found that the 44 percent of American adults who volunteer did so an average of 3.6 hours per week.

Some 85 percent of nonprofit organizations and 92 percent of religious groups use volunteers, according to the Independent Sector. The average time each volunteer spends per week has been decreasing, but the number of volunteers has increased 10 percent each year since 1995. An infrastructure of state volunteer offices, local volunteer centers, volunteer-management trainers, corporate social responsibility networks, and local chapters of national organizations support and coordinate local volunteer efforts.

Yet for all its contributions, the volunteer sector is often ignored or under-appreciated, perhaps because it's hard to ascribe a monetary value to its impact. The Independent Sector study estimates that the 89.3 million American adults who volunteer contribute the time equivalent of $239 billion a year--this is equal to 9 million full-time employees.

In the past year, volunteerism received a boost from the current administration's policy of relying on voluntary and faith-based groups to share the responsibility of helping people in need with the support of federal dollars. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush encouraged each citizen to contribute 4,000 volunteer hours over a lifetime (the equivalent of 2 years) and established the USA Freedom Corps as an umbrella for four previously separate federal volunteer programs. The president has also been campaigning across the country to mobilize the public.

Volunteerism is a quintessential American value. Americans' practice of banding together to meet a civic need was noted in the 19th century by Alexis de Tocqueville. The Web has already significantly expanded the potential impact of this tradition, encompassing many new ways of sharing time and expertise with much wider universe of urgent needs and worthy causes.

RELATED ARTICLE: Select List of Online Resources for Volunteers

Online Volunteer Recruitment Sites

GlobalVolunteers.org

http://www.globalvolunteers.org

Idealist.org

http://www.idealist.org

Network for Good

http://www.networkforgood.org

United Nations Volunteers

http://www.unv.org

VolunteerConnections

http://www.volunteerconnections.org

VolunteerMatch

http://www.volunteermatch.org

Virtual Volunteering Projects

NetAid.org

http://app.netaid.org/OV

NetMentors

http://www.netmentors.org

The Virtual Volunteering Project

http://www.serviceleader.org/vv

U.S. Government Volunteer Programs

USA Freedom Corps

http://www.usafreedomcorps.gov

AmeriCorps

http://www.americorps.org

Citizen Corps

http://www.citizencorps.gov

Peace Corps

http://www.peacecorps.gov

Senior Corps

http://www.seniorcorps.org

Publications

E-Volunteerism

http://www.e-volunteerism.com

The Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

by Susan J. Ellis and Jayne Cravens

http://www.energizeinc.com/download/vvguide.pdf

Important Studies

Giving and Volunteering in the United States, 2001

Independent Sector Study on Philanthropy and Volunteerism

http://www.independentsector.org/programs/research/GV01main.html

Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey

Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

http://www.bettertogether.org

United Way of America State of Caring Index

http://national.unitedway.org/stateofcaring

Wallys W. Conhaim is a Minneapolis-based independent consultant who provides research, planning, and analysis in the field of interactive services. Her e-mail address is wconhaim@conhaim.com.
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Author:Conhaim, Wallysw W.
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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