Myths About Virtual Volunteering


There are a lot of myths about virtual volunteering that impede some organizations from embracing online volunteers and cause confusion about working with volunteers online. Author Jayne Cravens keeps track of these myths, through conversations with nonprofit organizations and volunteers, through feedback at her trainings, and through monitoring online discussion groups. She often opens her workshops about virtual volunteering with a review of these myths, so the conversation can move as quickly as possible to how to engage volunteers online. Before you read The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, it's a good idea to review these myths (and in many ways, the entire Guidebook serves as a debunking of these):

  • 1) Virtual volunteering is a very new concept.
  • False.
  • Online volunteering has been going on probably has long as there has been an Internet (which itself is more than 30 years old). More about the history of virtual volunteering.

  • 2) Virtual volunteering is great for people who otherwise don't have time to volunteer.
  • False.
  • This is probably the biggest myth out there about the practice. Volunteering online requires real time, not virtual time. If you don't have time to volunteer offline, you probably also do not have time to volunteer online. Online volunteering should never be promoted as an alternative approach for people who don't have time to volunteer face-to-face. Rather, the appeal of online volunteering for individuals is that:
  • It is an additional way to volunteer to help the community or a cause.
  • It often doesn't require a volunteer to have to travel somewhere just to volunteer.
  • It is an additional way for volunteers to help an organization they are already helping onsite.
  • It is a way for someone with time to volunteer, but who cannot physically leave home or work to do so.
  • It allows volunteering by people who have physical disabilities, problems with mobility, or no easy transportation options.
  • It permits people to help an organization, cause, or issue of great importance to them, but for which there are no onsite opportunities in their geographic area.
  • It can allow a person to help a geographic area anywhere on the globe, even where physical travel would not be possible or advisable.

  • 3) People who volunteer online don't volunteer face-to-face.
  • False.
  • According to research by the Virtual Volunteering Project in the late 1990s, as well as anecdotal evidence since then from thousands of volunteers and organizations, the overwhelming majority of online volunteers also volunteer in face-to-face settings, often for an organization in their same city or region, and often for the same organization they are helping online.

  • 4) There are online volunteers and there are onsite volunteers, but these are entirely separate groups
  • False.
  • As stated in the previous myth, rarely will you find an online volunteer who doesn't also volunteer onsite, or an onsite volunteer that doesn't use the Internet in some way to interact with the same organization. They are all volunteers, and do not self-identify into separate online and onsite groups. This myth is one of the primary reasons we've called the second edition of our book The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. Going forward, we hope that books, trainings and discussions about volunteer management will now always include discussions of the Internet to support and involve volunteers, rather than consider online volunteers as an entirely separate subject.

  • 5) Working with online volunteers is completely different than working with onsite volunteers.
  • False.
  • The key to success in working with online volunteers is the application of basic volunteer management standards—the fundamentals that make any traditional volunteer involvement work. All volunteers, whether online or onsite, need support, feedback, guidance and recognition.

Some virtual volunteering is short term or episodic, which also has its roots in onsite service. People who come out for a one-day beach cleanup do not undergo a criminal background check, receive a long pre-service orientation, or fill out a lengthy volunteer application form, and they may never volunteer with the organization again. Similarly, online volunteers who participate in a
micro-volunteering task may get started on their assignment just a few minutes after expressing interest. But just as offline episodic volunteering like beach cleanups is more about building relationships, creating cause awareness, and cultivating loyal supporters, micro-volunteering needs to have the same goals, has to be worth doing, and works only when established, tried-and-true volunteer management standards are in place.

  • 6) People who volunteer online do so for organizations that are geographically far from them.
  • False.
  • Indeed, there are thousands of people who look for virtual volunteering opportunities to engage with people far away (one great example is the United Nations Online Volunteering service). But most online volunteers are people who also volunteer onsite for the same organization (for instance, a volunteer designing an annual report may go onsite to meet with staff but perform most of the donated service via his or her home or work computer). Also, most people who volunteer online look for opportunities that are in their own geographic area, just as people who want to volunteer onsite.

7) Online volunteers engage primarily in technology-related tasks.
False
Online volunteers engage in many tasks completely unrelated to technology, such as advising on business plans, human resources development, fundraising, media relations, researching topics and facilitating online discussions. A survey of online volunteering assignments posted to the
UN's Online Volunteering service usually shows 50% of more assignments that are non-tech-specific.

  • 8) People who volunteer online are mostly young, affluent, and living in the U.S.A.
  • False
  • Online volunteers come from all age groups. Once someone can use the Internet independently (usually starting at age 13), they can volunteer online. Online volunteers come from various educational and work backgrounds, and from various geographies and ethnicities. The breakdown of online volunteers from the UN's Online Volunteering service is telling: more than 40% are from developing countries. Of course, each organization that involves online volunteers will have its own diversity, but it is not possible to make sweeping generalizations about the demographics of online volunteers.

  • 9) Online volunteering is impersonal.
  • False.
  • Online interactions are quite personal. In many circumstances, people are often more willing to share information and feelings online than they are face-to-face. Also, volunteers can more easily share photos of their families and narratives about their interests via the Internet than, say, at an onsite volunteer luncheon. As author Jayne Cravens notes, "Online volunteers with whom I have worked are real people to me, not virtual people. When they have gotten married or graduated from high school or college or had a baby or gotten a job, I have celebrated, and when they have died or lost a loved one, I have cried."

  • 10) Interviewing potential volunteers face-to-face is much more reliable than interviewing people online.
  • False.
  • Both methods of interviewing potential volunteers have strengths and weaknesses; one may be more appropriate than another for a particular situation, but each is effective. The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook talks at length about why it is never a good idea to base your screening on face-to-face, gut reactions to volunteers, and how to use tried-and-true volunteer screening for virtual volunteering. Note that it is becoming easier and easier to interview people at a distance using Internet voice and webcam platforms—truly face-to-face, even if not in the same room.

  • 11) People who volunteer online are very shy and have trouble interacting with others.
  • False
  • According to already-cited research, the overwhelming majority of online volunteers also volunteer in face-to-face settings. In fact, online volunteers tend to be excellent at interacting with others—it's that very hunger for interaction that often drives their volunteering, on or offline.

  • 12) The Internet is dangerous and, therefore, online volunteering opens an organization and its clients up to many risks.
  • False.
  • The Internet is no more or less dangerous than the offline world. When people, including children, have been harmed as a result of online activities, it has often been because they or their parents did not take appropriate safety measures—they share information that they would never share to random strangers at a bus station, for instance. There is extensive information on how to ensure safety in virtual volunteering in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

  • 13) The biggest obstacle to online volunteering is lack of Internet access.
  • False.
  • The “digital divide” still exists but is rapidly disappearing as more and more people, of all income levels and around the world, are able to obtain computers or mobile devices at decreasing cost. For organizations, the biggest obstacle to involving online volunteers successfully, or at all, is lack of experience in basic volunteer management practices. If an organization does not know how to involve onsite volunteers effectively, they won't be able to do it online.

  • 14) Online volunteering requires building a dedicated online platform or using a specific tech tool.
  • False.
  • If an organization has e-mail, the organization can involve online volunteers. Organizations can effectively involve and support online volunteers with Internet tools already in place (e-mail, instant messaging, an iVisit or Skype account, etc.), and there are many free Internet tools to support all volunteers (not just online volunteers), such as Yahoo! Groups or Google Groups. And organizations recruit online volunteers via the same offline and online avenues as their onsite, face-to-face volunteers. The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook details the various Internet tools available, and how to use them.

  • 15) Microvolunteering and crowdsourcing are completely different than virtual or online volunteering
  • False.
  • A rose is a rose. There is no consensus on vocabulary in this arena and new technology also evokes new words to match. During the time of the 1990s Virtual Volunteering Project, the term was byte-sized volunteering: online volunteering tasks that take just a few hours or a few days to complete. Recently the hot new term for this is micro-volunteering, introduced when service via smartphone became an unexpected reality. Crowdsourcing is perhaps the oldest term of all. See the discussion of vocabulary in chapters 1 and 3 of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

  • Any form of volunteering in which service is provided online is virtual volunteering, whether a short “just show up once and help” gig or a longer-term commitment.

  • 16) Much more needs to be done to get people to volunteer online.
  • False.
  • There are plenty of people who want to volunteer online—far, far more than there are opportunities for them. Instead, much more needs to be done to help build the capacity of organizations regarding volunteer management and to incorporate information about online volunteering into this capacity building -- another reason for The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.


These myths are reprinted from Appendix A, "Virtual Volunteering Myths,"
The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook by Jayne Cravens and Susan J. Ellis, copyright 2014, Energize, Inc., pp. 177-80.

The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook has complete, detailed information on how to create and manage all kinds of online volunteers. The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook is available for purchase as a paperback and an ebook from Energize, Inc.

This wiki is a collaborative space for sharing resources regarding virtual volunteering. Jayne and Susan would like to maintain this wiki in partnership with a nonprofit or university.