The myths of micro-volunteering

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.

As technology evolves and patterns of volunteering shift, we have seen an increased interest in bite-size, one-off volunteering opportunities. These opportunities tend to be referred to as ‘micro-volunteering’. Last year, we published a research report exploring what people understood by the term, as well as what advantages and challenges it presents to volunteer-involving organisations and volunteers. Along the way we busted some common misconceptions around micro-volunteering.

Here are some of the myths that we tackled…

1. ‘Micro-volunteering is new’

Many volunteer-involving organisations have been offering short, low-formality, one-off activities for a long time:

  • baking a cake for a fundraising event
  • knitting a hat for a baby
  • taking part in a sponsored silence.

These all meet our definition of ‘micro-volunteering’:

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

Nevertheless, micro-volunteering has been changing, with technological developments leading to new ways in which volunteers can engage with organisations and causes. The internet, smartphones and social media allow people to source volunteering opportunities and to participate online. Someone can now ‘like’ a Facebook post, retweet a message, sign an online petition or write a blog on behalf of an organisation wherever they are, whenever they like.

2. ‘Micro-volunteers are not committed’

During our research project we did not find any evidence to suggest that micro-volunteers have a lower level of commitment to, or interest in an organisation or cause than other volunteers. Instead micro-volunteering is one way for people to show their support when personal circumstances prevent them from taking on a long-term, regular role. Many micro-volunteers repeat activities or participate in more than one type of activity – sometimes for more than one organisation.

3. ‘Micro-volunteering is only for new volunteers’

Micro-volunteering appeals to some people who have not volunteered before. We also found that existing volunteers are often interested in short-term, one-off opportunities either to supplement their current activities or because they want to change their participation.

4. ‘Micro-volunteering is always inclusive’

Micro-volunteering can draw-in people who could otherwise not volunteer such as those prevented by poor health or other life circumstances. Some opportunities are accessible to a broad range of people because they do not require specialist skills or experience. However, not all activities are inclusive – for instance, online micro-volunteering excludes those who do not have access to, or knowledge of digital technology.

5. ‘Micro-volunteering could replace long-term, regular volunteering’

Micro-volunteering cannot replace long-term volunteering because it does not suit every organisation or activity –e.g. it is not appropriate for activities requiring long-term commitment such as mentoring, or which require disclosure and barring checks. Additionally, it is not suitable for every volunteer such as those looking to gain new skills or receive training. Instead of replacing long-term, regular volunteering, micro-volunteering diversifies and complements an organisation’s volunteering offer by explicitly acknowledging that there are different ways people may be able to give support.

What next for micro-volunteering?

On 15 March this year is the first ‘Micro-volunteering Day’, reflecting the swelling interest in this form of participation. Micro-volunteering will continue to grow, with increasing numbers of volunteers seeking short-term, one-off opportunities, and increasing numbers of organisations promoting such activities as a separate offer. It is clear from our research that, when adopted and supported appropriately, micro-volunteering offers some important and unique benefits to organisations and volunteers. The guidance we published this month aims to help organisations to think through micro-volunteering and understand whether it is appropriate for them.

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5 Responses to The myths of micro-volunteering

  1. Anne Layzell says:

    Nice clear article – thank you!
    Who is behind Microvolunteering Day? It’s not obvious from the website, and their ‘contact’ facility isn’t functioning at the moment. It sounds like a good opportunity for, in particular, campaigners, to promote their cause AND volunteering.

  2. Joni Browne says:

    Hi Anne, thank you for your comments. ‘Micro-volunteering Day’ is being organised by Help From Home – you could contact them via their webpage here: http://helpfromhome.org/contact-us. The founder, Mike Bright, has been a fantastic champion of micro-volunteering.

  3. Some nice clear definitions here.

    My experience is this short-term or ‘micro-volunteering’ can provide a good gateway for longer commitment.

    I think the key thing is making volunteering accessible in order to engage people for the first time, at which point it is easier to get them coming back!

  4. Carrera-Leigh Dix says:

    Great article. Having recently taken on a new role, I’ve been trying to think of ways to involve micro-volunteers in our work, but had an idea of what this was that did’t reflect the many possibilities. My new found knowledge should help me to make those opportunities a reality a little faster!

    Thank you.

  5. Joni Browne says:

    Thank you Carrera-Leigh, I’m delighted to hear that.

    If you haven’t already seen it, I recommend the ‘Help From Home’ website as another source of useful information on micro-volunteering: http://helpfromhome.org/. Please keep us updated on your experiences of developing micro-volunteering, and good luck.