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History of Virtual Volunteering
Virtual volunteering is
a new concept - the practice has been widespread for many years.
Virtual volunteering has been going on probably as long as there has been an Internet (which itself is more than 30 years old
). The first instance of organized virtual volunteering is probably Project Gutenberg
, a volunteer effort that began in 1971 to digitize, archive and distribute written cultural works. Most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books, such as works by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain. These works continue to be typed in and proofread by online volunteers
Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web, made an online appearance at the
United Nations Open Day in Geneva in 2001
, during which
he noted the role online volunteers had played in his development of the Web
a decade earlier
In 1995, a then-new nonprofit organization called Impact Online, based in Palo Alto, California, began promoting the idea of
, a phrase that was probably first used by one of Impact Online's co-founders, Steve Glikbarg. In 1996, Impact Online received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation
to launch an initiative to research the practice of virtual volunteering and to promote the practice to nonprofit organizations in the United States. This new initiative was dubbed the Virtual Volunteering Project, and the Web site was launched in early 1997
. After one year, the
Virtual Volunteering Project
moved to the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and Impact Online became
The New York Times
, on 13 May 1996, published
Taking in the Sites; Now, It's Philanthropy Surfing on the Internet
, an article about the proliferation of web sites that facilitated online giving or online volunteering in some way. The article included this part: "One nonprofit group, Impact Online, was created to help charities use the Web. The group, in Palo Alto, Calif., uses its site to match what it calls 'virtual volunteers' with organizations that need them, and has begun a data base of group logos and missions." This might be the first use of the term
in a newspaper, but any article about Project Gutenberg in the 1990s would be about virtual volunteering, even if it doesn't use the term.
The first two years of the Virtual Volunteering Project were spent reviewing and adapting telecommuting manuals and existing volunteer management recommendations with regard to virtual volunteering, as well as identifying organizations that were involving online volunteers. By April 1999, almost 100 organizations had been identified by the Project as involving online volunteers and were listed on the Project's Web site. By the end of 1999, as the numbers grew exponentially, the Project stopped listing every organization involving online volunteers and instead identified only those organizations with large or unique online volunteering programs. The Project used its research about these organizations to continually create and refine guidelines for engaging and supporting online volunteers.
Until January 2001, the Virtual Volunteering Project listed all telementoring, e-mentoring and teletutoring programs in the USA (in which online volunteers mentored or tutored others, through a nonprofit organization or school). At that time, 40 were identified. This was the first and only effort to list
such programs, and to track what made them successful.
There is, unfortunately, no longer any current research measuring how widespread the practice of virtual volunteering is in the USA or worldwide, and so this edition of the
Virtual Volunteering Guidebook
offers no statistics on such. Instead, we focus on what practitioners and academics have identified as essentials for the successful involvement of online volunteers. Readers can find links to research articles and projects relating to virtual volunteering, including lists of organizations involving volunteers, in the appendices.
The archived version of the 2001 list can be found at
In 2013, Jayne Cravens researched virtual volunteering in the EU for the the European Commission/Joint Research Centre/Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (
). Her final paper included the following information about the early days of virtual volunteering in Europe:
An archived version of the Virtual Volunteering Project web page from December 2000 listing organisations outside the U.S.A. engaging online volunteers
lists five organisations in Europe that contributed information to the project regarding their involvement of online volunteers... The project did not record how many online volunteers from Europe these initiatives were involving. Below are excerpts from that web page. Note that the web pages referenced below may no longer function, and that these organisations may no longer involve online volunteers:
Barcelona 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures,
“...has online volunteers performing research to find online discussion groups for topics relating to the forum's mission (peace, sustainability and cultural diversity), disseminating information about the Forum (online 'ambassadors'), and developing and maintaining the Virtual Forum's online activities.” This web site was launched four years before the forum actually took place.
Samaritans and Befrienders International,
“Trained 'listening' volunteers who provide support via phone to people who are suicidal or despairing, and who work to increase public awareness of issues around suicide and depression. Some of the centres also provide support via e-mail.”
German Charities Institute,
“This organization was one of the first to provide information to the Virtual Volunteering
Project about its involvement of online volunteers.” The specifics of what information this organisation provided are not listed on the project's web site.
“YouthOrg UK's virtual community and web site are entirely managed, developed and published by volunteers. Online volunteers also maintain a Web-based bulletin board, answer technical inquiries and design graphics.
In 2000, NetAid, a joint online initiative by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Cisco Systems, launched an online volunteering matching service, in partnership with and largely managed by the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme based on Germany. The service encouraged and allowed NGOs and UN-affiliated projects serving the developing world to recruit and involve online volunteers (NetAid 2000
). UNV, a part of UNDP, took over the service entirely in 2004, relaunching it at
. While online volunteers from Europe were involved via this initiative in assisting organisations online, neither UNDP nor UNV have records currently available regarding how many online volunteers from Europe were involved.
Hacesfalta.org was posting online volunteering opportunities as early as June 2001
Enciclopedia Libre Universal en Español, a Spanish language wiki encyclopedia, was launched in 2002 by online volunteers formerly associated with Wikipedia20 in the U.S.A. (Wikipedia History 2013)
In December 2002, Ismael Peña-López of Universitat Oberta de Catalunya published “Voluntarios virtuales” in ABC Nuevo Trabajo, regarding the involvement of online volunteers by El Campus for Peace (4P), a programme at the university (Peña-López 2002).
In October 2003, members of the E-VOLUNTAS online discussion group, as online volunteers, finished and published online a translation of The Virtual Volunteering Guidebook into Spanish (E-VOLUNTAS 2003, TechSoup 2003).
Discussions regarding working with remote volunteers “virtually” occurred on UKVPMs, an online discussion group on YahooGroups for managers of volunteers at charities in the U.K., as early as March 2002
, though it is probable that such discussions began earlier, as the group began in 1999, but the YahooGroups archive does not go back farther than 2002.
By the end of 2003, OneWorld, a charity based in the U.K., had extensive experience involving and supporting remote volunteers who served as onsite editors and reporters for the organisation in their respective countries, a fact highlighted by UNV at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, Switzerland, organised by International Telecommunication Union...
Most online volunteers that support Project Gutenberg now do so under the auspices of Distributed Proofreaders,
"Results so far," United Nations Technology Service (UNITeS),
Green, Marc (Fall, 1995). "Fundraising in Cyberspace: Direct email Campaigns, Virtual Volunteers, Annual Fund Drives Online. Does the Information Superhighway lead to new horizons or a dead end?", The Grantsmanship Center Magazine, The Grantsmanship Center.
Cravens, Jayne (February 2001). "who funds the virtual volunteering project?", The Virtual Volunteering Project, University of Texas at Austin.
also archived on the archive.org web site at:
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