Micro-volunteering: worth the hype?

Micro-volunteering has been heralded as a way to benefit a worthy cause on your own terms to suit your lifestyle with ‘absolutely no commitment’. Can this really be true?
Heather Sturgess

Micro-volunteering has been heralded as a way to benefit a worthy cause on your own terms to suit your lifestyle with ‘absolutely no commitment’. I decided to try this out and see if I could make a difference micro-volunteering at short notice, without leaving the comfort of my own home.

I was surprised at the range of activities available and the different tasks I was able to contribute to. In one evening I counted penguins in the Antarctic, identified animals in the Serengeti, and timestamped debates in parliament without leaving my sofa. I enjoyed working on the different projects; the activities were really straight forward and made me curious to learn more about these organisations and investigate for myself. Conveniently, the projects provided links to more information, so I dived in.

To my surprise, I actually made a contribution by looking at pictures of cute penguins and learning about animals in the Serengeti. 

These animal micro-volunteering projects help scientists monitor ecosystems and track changes in species population and breeding overtime to help inform conservation policies.

I was less impressed with the video timestamping task for the website theyworkforyou.com. There didn’t seem to be much activity on this site as I quickly realised when I became the ‘top timestamper’ for the past four weeks.

From the website it wasn’t clear whether this was because parliament is currently in recess or whether this project had finished. This led me to thinking of the downsides of micro-volunteering online: there is little interaction and communication with other volunteers or staff members.

For me one of the best things about volunteering is meeting and working with different people. Volunteers don’t like feeling forgotten. Even when we are “micro”-volunteering, we are as eager to receive feedback as we are to make a contribution. In this case lack of interaction made it harder to see the bigger impact that my contributions were working towards.

Fortunately for me offline micro-volunteering can lead to meeting new people as I found out when I micro-volunteered with my Student Union. They organised lots of volunteering opportunities where students could sign up to time slots for different activities. This could be a one-off volunteering experience or - as I found when I signed up to volunteer with refugees teaching English- can lead to more regular volunteering.

This was a great way for me to get involved and meet new people. It also gave me the flexibility to reduce my commitment when I had big coursework deadlines. I really enjoyed volunteering and it was rewarding to see people’s confidence in speaking English grow even just over the course of one session.

After trying different ways to contribute to something bigger through micro-volunteering, I have developed a healthy scepticism of the benefits of choosing to volunteer this way.

The merits of some of the options available seemed to be overstated. I came across actions such as signing petitions, or posting off a solitary glove which someone will then pair up and sell with the proceeds going to a not-for-profit – which are activities that I wouldn’t describe as volunteering.

But I could well be in the minority with this opinion. A recent survey by helpfromhome.org of their micro-volunteers found only nine out of 238 respondents stopped micro-volunteering because they didn’t feel like they were volunteering. I guess this is the beauty of micro-volunteering; everyone can find something to their liking.

I enjoyed seeing the different options available for micro-volunteering and will definitely be searching out new projects to take part in. I like the idea of being able to use my spare-moments such as my journey to work to benefit research projects online.

However, the motivations for micro-volunteering are very different to the traditional voluntary roles that I am used to. With micro-volunteering there is no social side or opportunity to build on your CV. Although the projects can give you a sense of contributing to something much larger, I am unsure whether this is enough incentive for someone to micro-volunteer regularly on the same repetitive task.

Perhaps an advantage of micro-volunteering is that by attracting large numbers, returning volunteers are not a requirement for success. Yet, organisations need to keep in mind that micro-volunteering still requires oversight. Whilst some projects may be easy to set up, in order to continue to attract contributors, the ongoing management of projects is crucial for maintaining momentum.

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