So what do we know about micro-volunteering?

Over the last few years we’ve seen a growing interest in micro-volunteering – volunteering in bite size chunks. Back in 2010 a discussion provocatively entitled ‘Can micro-volunteering make a difference?’ was one of the liveliest debates we had on the NCVO website. At the time, reactions to micro-volunteering were fairly mixed, but there seemed to be a general consensus amongst contributors that while micro-volunteering may appeal to busy people with little time, opportunities to ‘micro-volunteer’ were lacking.

Three years down the line, we’ve witnessed an increase in micro-volunteering opportunities. Supply has come from a range of sources – charities, unsurprisingly (for example, Marie Curie and Cancer Research) but also companies (for example, Barclays and Orange) and local areas (for example, Walthamstow and Stourbridge). The Help from Home website that provides access to over 800 micro-volunteering actions, gives a good feel for the huge diversity of the micro-volunteering opportunities now available.

Despite this growth, micro-volunteering remains a contested and controversial term. The literature review that IVR (Institute of Volunteering Research) and NCVO have just completed as part of a wider research project on micro-volunteering shows that micro-volunteering is mostly painted in a positive light although some commentators have been quite sceptical and critical of it. Whether positive or negative, what our literature review indicates is that people’s claims about micro-volunteering are rarely substantiated by evidence. In light of this lack of research, the review also looked at the literature relating to current trends in volunteering (such as reflexive volunteering, episodic volunteering and online volunteering) that we thought would increase our understanding of micro-volunteering.

The review concludes:

  • The term micro-volunteering has been used in many ways to refer to a diverse range of volunteering activities. We need to recognise that micro-volunteering is not a singular and fixed entity.
  • Micro-volunteering is often compared and opposed to ‘traditional’ volunteering, however research indicates that an individual can volunteer in more than one way, and that different types of volunteering are not mutually exclusive.
  • While micro-volunteering is often conflated with online volunteering, the two are not synonymous. Micro-volunteering is not new in itself, but the use of technology to engage with people and as a facilitator is driving it in new ways and generating new interest.
  • Whether micro-volunteering can be impactful or not has attracted both interest and criticism. The question of impact remains largely open and is likely to have more than one answer, depending on the activity involved and whether we are looking at the impact of an isolated micro-volunteering activity or the cumulative impact of many.
  • Micro-volunteering is often seen as a way of increasing numbers of volunteers. The focus is often on getting more people to start volunteering. However, in order to encourage people to continue volunteering, we also need to look at how organisations can engage with their motivations and provide quality volunteering experiences that suit their aspirations and lifestyles.

These conclusions will inform and shape the next stages of the project, which will explore micro-volunteering from the perspective of the individual and of organisations that involve volunteers.

We are currently carrying out a short survey to capture organisations’ understanding and experience of micro-volunteering, and it would be great if you could let us know your thoughts. We will be presenting the project’s emerging findings at Evolve13 in a workshop entitled ‘Micro-volunteering: the future or a fad?’ which will involve two case study organisations who will talk about their own experience of developing and providing micro-volunteering opportunities.

There is more information about the project on the IVR website, or contact Jurgen Grotz or myself.

Veronique Jochum’s blog

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Véronique Jochum, head of research, blogs about the latest research from NCVO and other research related topics on civil society.

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