Micro-volunteering might be small but it’s got big potential

Micro-volunteering is one way we could adapt our approach to volunteering to make it fit for the future. Exploring the potential of micro-volunteering challenges us as volunteer managers to reflect on how we do things. To consider how we can shift more power and control to volunteers, engaging them in shaping and developing new kinds of roles that work for them and their lifestyles.

What our research told us

In 2013 we published research and guidance aimed at developing understanding about the potential of micro-volunteering. That is, volunteering which is small, bite-sized, with no commitment to repeat and with minimum formality. It usually involves short and specific actions that are quick to start and complete.

The report showed demand for micro-volunteering appeared to be growing, with 57% of organisations surveyed identifying that demand has increased in the last five years. Supply appeared to be growing too, coming from a range of different organisations and community groups.

Organisations were certainly interested in the research and its findings, but when I discussed it with people it seemed that micro-volunteering was perhaps part of a more long-term plan in the development of their volunteering offer. Not something they needed to look at now.

What has changed?

Almost two years later I think there has been a shift. We haven’t repeated the research but there is evidence to suggest more organisations are interested in developing micro-volunteering opportunities.

For example, I worked with Team London on the development of their speed volunteering project which aimed to encourage busy Londoners to give volunteering a try with a role that could fit around their busy schedule, all accessed from a bespoke online platform. Interest in micro-volunteering also extends beyond the capital.

International Micro-Volunteering Day has grown in popularity, their impact report identifies extended reach and impact across the world this year. During Volunteers’ Week organisations across the country decided to run micro-volunteering events. Community Action Derby ran speed volunteering as part of their volunteer fair and Volunteer Centre Lewisham also held a speed volunteering day which encouraged people to try volunteering for the first time.

Volunteer managers I meet seem more familiar with the term and are exploring ways to develop and manage more short-term, flexible volunteering opportunities. I’ve had more requests to speak on the topic and have run several workshops across the country to explore how to develop micro-volunteering with volunteer managers.

What is clear is that good practice cannot be overlooked. This is why we have decided to include micro-volunteering in our new training programme and I’m looking forward to running the first micro-volunteering session in Sheffield on 19 November.

What are the drivers?

1   Demand from volunteers

In other aspects of our lives we enjoy and even expect choice. We choose things that we like and that work with our lifestyles. Volunteering is no different. Volunteers want to be able to find an opportunity that is enjoyable, rewarding and that fits with their lifestyles. The latest data shows that not having enough time is still the number one barrier to volunteering and so making it manageable around other commitments is essential.

2   Opportunities for volunteer involving organisations

As well as seeing the need to respond to this demand from volunteers, organisations are now also seeing the potential benefits of micro-volunteering for their organisation. They are finding that offering micro-volunteering can help them engage new volunteers, raise awareness of their cause and increase the diversity of their volunteer base. It’s also pretty competitive out there so it can be a way for their volunteering offer to stand out in the crowd.

3   Technology

Technology has opened up new possibilities for volunteering, both in terms of how people find opportunities and how people actually carry out their volunteering. People can find a role using their smartphone and social media is a recruitment tool that is helping to tell the story of volunteering. It can also provide that important ‘fun factor’ which can often be overlooked. Short-term and first-time volunteers can have an instant connection to other volunteers and the organisation’s cause.

However, even with an online platform that acts as a slick shop window, the key to getting people to turn up to do their micro-volunteering is investing time in communicating with potential new recruits and developing good quality volunteering opportunities to provide an excellent experience in the first place.

Tell us about your experience

I would love to hear about your experience and how it could have been improved if you have developed micro-volunteering in your organisation or been a micro-volunteer yourself – let me know in the comment section below.


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Kristen Stephenson Kristen is NCVO’s Volunteer Management and Good Practice Manager. She’s interested in raising the profile of volunteer management as a profession, and the development of approaches which can help volunteering deliver for people, organisations and communities.

3 Responses to Micro-volunteering might be small but it’s got big potential

  1. Rob Jackson says:

    Great article Kristen. I couldn’t agree more that Volunteer Involving Organisations and Volunteer Managers need to “consider how we can shift more power and control to volunteers, engaging them in shaping and developing new kinds of roles that work for them and their lifestyles.”

    I’m just not sure micro-volunteering is the knight on the white charger come to save volunteering that it can sometimes be made out to be.

    For starters, not having enough time is not a barrier to volunteering at all. It is, however, the number one excuse.

    [See Tom McKee’s blog post on why not having time is an excuse not a reason – http://www.volunteerpower.com/articles/WhyPeopleQuit.asp%5D

    People don’t think they’ll have time because they assume an organisation will ask for a long term regular commitment on day one (because many still do!). So they say they can’t commit when in fact they could well help if organisation were more creative and responsive to the needs of potential volunteers.

    Microvolunteering is one part of this but it’s not everything.

    As I said in my 2011 blog Microvolunteering (http://bit.ly/1RdkMFE):


    NCVO recently published “Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures” and the following lines from a section on political engagement struck me as relevant to this issue of microvolunteering:

    “The most common reasons for not participating in the 2010 general election were…a ‘lack of time’ or ‘being too busy’. So, whilst the internet gives us greater access to democracy than ever before, without building knowledge and fostering interest it’s unlikely to make a dramatic difference.”

    In other words, as more and more online tools have been developed to help people engage with politics, there is still a problem of people saying they were too busy to vote.

    The cautionary parallel for microvolunteering is that if we don’t tackle the root causes of people’s lack of engagement with volunteering – for example, the reasons for their perceptions of time poverty in regard to volunteering – then we can develop all the whizzy tech tools we want but we won’t ultimately solve the problem.


    And, as Oxfam said in response to the 2011 government Giving Green Paper “…there is a danger that seeking technological solutions [to increasing volunteering] may lead to a focus on mechanisms rather than the quality of the volunteering opportunity. The first priority should be to ensure that meaningful opportunities are a priority.”

    So yes let's discuss microvolunteering and let's see how organisations can get better at incorporating it into their volunteering offer but more crucially how can we tackle the root causes of people's lack of engagement with volunteering? That's a much bigger issue, a more important issue and one that gets all too little attention.

    See also:

    * My blog – http://robjacksonconsulting.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/what-in-word.html
    * My Third Sector blog – http://robjackson.thirdsector.co.uk/2011/08/01/is-microvolunteering-a-digital-knight-on-a-white-charger/

    “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
    ― H. Jackson Brown Jr.

  2. A lot of what I wanted to say Rob has said. I’ll just add that what should drive volunteer engagement is the mission of the organization, as well as a mission for engaging volunteers that goes beyond getting work done for free, or an idea that it’s the number of volunteers involved that shows the success of a volunteer engagement scheme. I don’t care if 100 people want to contribute 15 minutes of volunteering time to my organization if creating 100 15-minute tasks will take me far, far more time than simply recruiting a few volunteers to get those tasks done quickly – it’s certainly easier to review the work of just 5 volunteers than 100. I am driven primarily by the needs of my organization when it comes to engaging volunteers, and if the wants of those volunteers regarding their service doesn’t gel with that, I’ll refer them elsewhere.

    I’m not at all opposed to microvolunteering – (it used to be called episodic volunteering in the 90s – I’ve been promoting the online version since the 1990s, when I called it byte-sized volunteering). I’ve involved hundreds of online volunteers, many of them in micro tasks. I agree that organizations should absolutely explore a variety of ways to involve volunteers – in leadership positions, in high-responsibility positions, in group events, in virtual volunteering, and in episodic/micro volunteering). But not all of those ways to involve volunteers will be right for all organizations – many organizations will tell you, for instance, that creating group volunteering events takes away time that would be better spent involving fewer volunteers in longer-term roles, so that more support can be given clients.

    Also, I have to say that I’m seeing more and more people on online forums saying, “I’d like to make a real difference with an organization. Something deeper, something substantial. Where are these type of high-responsibility roles?” Yes, many want microvolunteering – but many want something that comes with more commitment, more responsibility, more potential for impact.

    For nonprofit staff to create a variety of ways to involve volunteers, and to have the time and expertise to support those volunteers, it takes money. They need training, and they need dedicated time for the task. Are we ready to approach governments and corporations for that funding?

  3. Mike Bright says:

    Referring to Jayne’s comment on people wanting something more substantial and more impact from their roles at a nonprofit, I do wonder how far microvolunteering actions can go to provide this, given the time scale such actions operate under. Microvolunteering is also usually associated with a ‘dip-in, dip-out’ mentality, which means there is usually no in-depth training needed to participate in these actions.

    These two factors may hinder the degree of what people can get out of a microvolunteering action, if they want something substantial from it. It’s probably fair to say that more research is needed to know what level of impact / involvement will provide the right satisfaction / motivation to participate in a microvolunteering role. A few insights into the motivation factors can be found via these surveys into microvolunteering participants http://bit.ly/1CcMa0b (question 4) and http://bit.ly/1Lk5R8s (question 3).

    I concur with Kristen in her article in that I’m seeing more interest in the microvolunteering concept, but at the same time people’s (mis)interpretation of what constitutes a micro-action might well be skewing the numbers I’m seeing.

    For me anyway, it would be great to see nonprofits create microvolunteering actions that have ‘substance’ to them rather than jumping on the bandwagon with ‘Likes’ and ‘ReTweets’.
    In an effort to push this process along, we at Help From Home created a resource section a few weeks ago that links to
    – ‘Microvolunteering How To Guides’,
    – ‘Microvolunteering Action Suggestions’,
    – ‘Microvolunteering Events’ (what other nonprofits are organising),
    – ‘Outreach’ (pointers on holding workshops / discussion panels on microvolunteering).

    Hopefully, it will help nonprofits add ‘substance’ to their micro-actions, and without knowing the content of Kristen’s training session, hopefully will also compliment the information she imparts. Nonprofits can refer to this resource section here: http://helpfromhome.org/for-organisations/creating-a-microvolunteering-action