How charities can benefit from the power of micro-volunteering

With digital platforms taking charitable initiatives to global scales, micro-volunteering could be the solution to increasing the number of volunteers in the future. Emily Burt explores the challenges and opportunities of bite-sized action

Peacock butterfly (Photograph: Getty Images)

When it comes to giving time or money to charities, the adage "less is more" might not be the most obvious sentiment that springs to mind. The sector is immersed in the merits of "more": of raising more funds, hitting higher targets and pushing for measurable progress that will ultimately improve lives.

But with digital tools and demand for opportunities that circumvent barriers to volunteering flourishing in equal measure, small interventions are now producing significant results, and experts believe it’s time for charities to buy in to the value of pint-sized action.

Micro-volunteering describes a low-commitment approach to giving time that people can perform in an easy and flexible way: signing a petition, sharing a hashtag, picking up plastic on a beach. It’s by no means a new concept; a 2013 research paper from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Institute for Volunteering Research touted the value of volunteering opportunities with "no commitment to repeat and with minimum formality, involving short and specific actions that are quick to start and complete".

Five years ago they wrote that micro-volunteering "personifies the key changes to the volunteering landscape", reflecting a growing interest in short term or one-off volunteering efforts, and a desire to work in flexible and responsive ways.

More recent reports bear this argument out. The latest Community Life Survey from the Department for Culture Media and Sport found that the percentage of adults who said they formally volunteered in the past year remained at the lowest level since 2012. However, prominent micro-volunteering platforms are reporting a surge in the number of people offering their time.

The video app Be My Eyes (left), which pairs sighted volunteers with blind and low-vision people to help fulfil daily tasks, currently has more than two million registered volunteers; micro-volunteers have made more than 86,000 contributions to the Missing Maps Humanitarian OpenStreetMap platform; and United Nations Volunteers benefits from 12,000 online volunteers a year across 187 different countries.

It is the expansion of the digital landscape and the global reach of online platforms that have transformed micro-volunteering into an "active gig economy" for the charitable sector, according to Andy Haldane, founder of Pro Bono Economics, a charity that matches volunteer economists with charities.

‘Ease and flexibility’

"[Micro-volunteering] adds ease and flexibility to the act of volunteering, expanding the potential scale of volunteer numbers and the amount of time they are able to donate," Haldane said during Pro Bono Economics’ 10th anniversary lecture this summer.

"Evidence also suggests that micro-volunteering is habit-forming, with around two-thirds of micro-volunteers willing to repeat their experience within the year."

Shortage of time is a well-established barrier for potential volunteers: almost half (49 per cent) of respondents to the 2018/19 Community Life Survey said work commitments prevented them from volunteering formally, and 35 per cent cited a lack of time in general. Navigating this barrier is at the core of many well-established micro-volunteering initiatives. Ease of access and simplicity are the key features of Be My Eyes, which enables volunteers to take a specific and granular approach to offering their time – and sight – and rewards them with an instant, definable result. "The tasks we ask people to do are extremely clear and executable," says Will Butler, vice president of community at the not-for-profit.

"There’s a big difference between signing up to volunteer with an organisation for homeless children only to find yourself in a dark basement putting stamps on envelopes for 12 hours, and directly using your eyes to help a person with an immediate response. It taps into that desire to help another person and to see the effect of that help."

The instant gratification of tech not only facilitates a sense of immediacy among volunteers, but also, by pairing them with the appropriate digital tools, can lead initiatives that are both global and collaborative. In 2014 the British and American Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières UK and the non-profit Humanitarian OpenStreetMap addressed a mutual need for mapping and disaster-relief tools with the creation of Missing Maps (above), a project that has transformed the traditional approaches to international humanitarian aid.

"During times of crisis, we worked with volunteer communities that mapped as part of the response effort, so we were talking to each other about how we could collaborate on common tools and techno-logy," Paul Knight, GSI and mapping analyst at the British Red Cross, tells Third Sector.

"During the prolonged Ebola outbreak in west Africa some years ago, we were aware that if we had the names of villages or decent maps to start with, it could have assisted with the crisis.

"So we wondered whether, if we knew something might happen in a remote location, we could prepare for that disaster, work with the communities to develop an understanding of maps and resilience, and aim to mitigate that risk using mapping."

Missing Maps volunteers use satellite imagery to remotely map geographical information for vulnerable and developing rural locations onto the Humanitarian LocalStreetMap platform. Crucially, they need only a laptop and basic coding skills to participate. Once trained in how to map, they can do so in their own time, or at organised mapathons hosted by charities, universities or other independent groups.

Sustainable structures

The data is then verified by volunteers on the ground, which helps to build sustainable structures in the communities involved, and any international aid body or local NGO can use the maps to assist them with disaster relief. In the past five years micro-volunteers from across the charities and beyond have edited more than 41 million buildings and more than a million kilometres of road onto the HOSM platform, with more than 49 million edits having been done in total.

"By harnessing thousands of global volunteers, we can focus on creating a map of the world in one place that other aid agencies can use in the future," says Rebecca Firth, head of charity partnerships at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap.

"We could map something as part of an MSF project and, if there was a disaster in that location later, the BRC could respond without having to create a new map. If the map was internally generated, other charities would not be able to use that original data or benefit from each other’s work."

Information generation and gathering can be an easy opportunity to make resources available for short-term volunteers, with projects such as Butterfly Conservation’s annual Big Butterfly Count generating about 100,000 contributions in 2018. "There’s an increasing focus for charities on how they gather and manage their data, and also on new ways of gathering data," says Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation.

He points to Cancer Research UK as a standout example: it successfully embraced the "citizen science" approach to micro-volunteering with a series of projects that led to more than 500,000 global volunteers enabling research into four different types of cancer. By playing smartphone-based puzzle and adventure games, micro-volunteers produced upwards of 11 million new analyses, all through their smartphones.

"Data-gathering, analysis and processing can lend themselves very well to micro-volunteering," says Davies. "They’re really big factors in coming up with new drug discoveries. By distributing the information across lots of different people you can get far wider variations than you would otherwise."

As well as offering wider opportunities for charities, micro-volunteering can open the door to volunteers who might not be able to get out and about shaking buckets: more than one in 10 (11 per cent) of Community Life Survey respondents said they were prevented from volunteering by illness or disability.

"I have an iPhone, but I’ve never used it to its potential," writes one Be My Eyes volunteer, who suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic connective tissue condition that causes her to suffer from pain and limited mobility. "It seemed fantastic that I could be handy for somebody else… I could talk to anybody in the world and they could use the one bit of my body that’s still working."

And the sheer volume of volunteers – anywhere from a five-to-one to a 100-to-one ratio of volunteers to visually impaired people, depending on the country – allows blind and visually impaired beneficiaries to benefit from new levels of independence. "Our blind users can use the app unlimited times and never ask the same person for help more than once," says Butler, who is blind himself.

"Even if you have a partner or a family member in your immediate vicinity and you could borrow their eyes, there’s a finite number of times you can do this until they start to feel burdened or before you start to feel that you’re burdening that person.

"We give people a tool that allows them to get a pair of human eyes without any sense of burdening, because it comes from someone who will never see them again."

For Davies, micro-volunteering encompasses a wider trend towards a decentralised way of working and living, tapping into the desire to get involved with causes but not necessarily commit to one organisation. "Figuring out how you can apply that approach to the sorts of problem charities are dealing with could be a potentially massive area for growth," he says.

Changing expectations

Shaun Delaney, volunteering development manager at the NCVO, argues that the trend mirrors the changing expectations people hold for their working lives. "People have a lot more opportunity to volunteer, but also a lot more going on in their lives, and they want to be able to give flexibly," he explains.

"Baby boomers had this sense of the ‘job for life’, which extended to attitudes towards volunteering. But now people are dipping in and out of their careers, trying new things, and I think that’s reflected in volunteering as well."

But although Davies acknowledges a potential wariness on the part of charities that the trend could undermine more traditional volunteering experiences and shift too much in the direction of screen-based activities, he believes this fear is unfounded. "Look at any analysis on the value of charity shops and you’ll see the value of the goods they shift is only one relatively small bit of it," he says.

"All the rest of that value is for the people volunteering, and the focus of it is as a community activity: you have to take into account what volunteering is actually for and why it adds value before you get rid of it and do it all online."

Be My Eyes’ Butler agrees that any charities or not-for-profit organisations that want to invest in micro-volunteering should not obsess over technology as the catch-all solution, but instead think about finding a simple initiative to solve and consider how it can tap into the innate desire of people to help. "All our app does is initiate a video feed," he says. "It’s the idea of helping another human being that appeals, rather than the technology.

"We figure out the need that exists and how the volunteers can deliver a solution at a micro level. We leverage the stigma that is still attached to blindness today in order to recruit interest. And then, because 99 per cent of the population can see, they fulfil a very simple task. It’s as simple as that."

And with experts predicting that the rise of automated solutions such as chatbots and other devices will lead to new ways of working and mediums to work with as what some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues, Davies believes the lines between paid work and volunteering will begin to blur, something charities will have to take into consideration.

"If you buy the argument that traditional salaried work is going to decline, the question of what everyone does in a post-work future arises," he says.

"I think charities and the wider civil society have a massive role to play in navigating that and thinking about what a worthwhile life looks like in a world where you don’t – or can’t – have that traditional nine-to-five salaried job."

So although some charities might have reservations about whether branching out into shorter-term commitments could inhibit people from forming longer-term meaningful relationships with their organisations, Delaney believes it’s the right time for third sector organisations to fundamentally rethink the way they approach volunteering.

"Charities have traditionally structured their volunteering around the idea of the job for life, but the expectation that it should resemble more formal work might cause people to balk against the idea of dipping in and out of volunteering," he says. "But I do think it’s a reflection of the way things are changing."

And although micro-volunteering comes with a different set of expectations from the more traditional approaches, there is no reason for it not to open routes into longer-term commitments.

"Instead of expecting a volunteer relationship to go from nothing to something, consider that this idea of ‘trying before you buy’ can be an easy way to start building a relationship with a volunteer, who could then go on to support your charity, financially or with their time, for the rest of their lives," Delaney says. "We should think of micro-volunteering as a great first step."

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