‘Micro-volunteering’ – terms and conditions

Joni Browne worked at NCVO’s Institute for Volunteering Research until December 2014. Joni has now left NCVO but her posts have been kept here for reference.

Earlier this month, we published the findings of our micro-volunteering research project (full report here) which included our definition of ‘micro-volunteering’.

Formulating this definition was not easy. We started by mapping out activities that organisations were calling ‘micro-volunteering’. The examples we found were broad and diverse – they included activities related to campaigning and communication, fundraising, research and practical help (see full report for examples). To draft the definition, we drew on the key common features of these examples, as well as our discussions with volunteer-involving organisations, volunteers and non-volunteers, policy-makers, researchers and infrastructure bodies. We went through multiple iterations, testing out the definition and refining it several times. We finally decided on this definition:

“Micro-volunteering is bite-size volunteering with no commitment to repeat and with minimum formality, involving short and specific actions that are quick to start and complete”

And after all that, it’s not perfect.

The problem is that it is not always so clear what is and is not a micro-volunteering action. We say it must be short and quick but we do not specify how short or quick because there was no universal agreement among those we interviewed. We say in our report that micro-volunteering can be online or offline but for some organisations we spoke to, it was absolutely synonymous with online and for others it had to be face-to-face. Some organisations were sure that activities such as ‘liking’ a Facebook status update were acts of volunteering; others argued they were acts of ‘supporting’, and distinguished between the two. We spoke to organisations that said they were not offering micro-volunteering, only to find that when we prompted them, they had several examples that demonstrated they were doing so. And we spoke to organisations that said they were offering micro-volunteering activities, only to find that the volunteers doing them disagreed.

In the report, we wrote quite confidently that street collection is a micro-volunteering action. It had been given to us as an example several times. But recently in a workshop, a staff member at one of the case study organisations argued that a street collection is not ‘micro’ because it involves money-handling and processes associated with this. This is a further complication of formulating the definition: what a volunteer might perceive as a small action might be a complex activity in the eyes of an organisation.

It was interesting to find that awareness of and satisfaction with the term ‘micro-volunteering’ was low among volunteers. While organisations are increasingly promoting micro-volunteering as a distinct and separate offer from their long-term, regular opportunities, some are choosing to avoid the  term ‘micro-volunteering’, instead using alternative labels (e.g ‘taster sessions’). Regardless of how people felt about the term, the key features of micro-volunteering included in our definition (short-term, one-off, low-formality activities) were well-liked by those we interviewed.

One of the aims of our project on micro-volunteering was to understand its nature and scope and describe some of the activities on offer. We have met this aim in our report but we are not suggesting our definition is or should be final. Instead our definition is a necessary stake in the ground – a solid starting point for policy-makers and researchers, but particularly for volunteer-involving organisations to help them think about their current volunteering offer.

[Postscript: when I initially drafted this post, it was titled ‘What’s in a word?’, but then coincidentally Rob Jackson used that exact title for his very interesting post about the issues with re-branding activities as ‘micro-volunteering’].

Some definitions of micro-volunteering from Twitter

This is how Ali, a theatre stage manager from London and regular volunteer sees it:

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