The need to swiftly adapt to the ramifications of the current pandemic can be seen in almost every industry, and volunteering is no different. It could easily be argued that charities, and the people they help, require the services of volunteers now more than ever, as people all around the planet are being impacted by the consequences of upheaval in travel and logistics. Virtual volunteers, online volunteers, or e-volunteers are people who assist an organization, free of charge, with services that can be executed entirely online. Though it has been an option since the dawn of the internet, the pandemic has drawn a spotlight on virtual volunteering’s usefulness due to current necessity, but will it be effective in the long-term?
The benefits of virtual volunteering
Having the ability to volunteer from the comforts of one’s own home or office, at any time, has its inherent advantages. The collaboration of knowledge has never been easier. With the advent of virtual meetings, stakeholders in a myriad of locales can have face-to-face interactions to express needs, share ideas, and map priorities. Organizations can potentially access a wider pool of skilled resources while simultaneously casting their net of assistance to a broader audience, effectively anywhere that has access to the internet. This benefit becomes even more instrumental with regards to potential volunteers remaining home due to vulnerability or limited abilities.
Traditional volunteering can be a costly barrier for the volunteer or a smaller corporate partner looking to start an employee volunteer program. This barrier becomes even more apparent in times of travel restrictions if the charity involved is overseas. It is a simple argument that the time and money associated with travel could generally produce better impacts if devoted directly to the charity. Virtual volunteering also makes it easier to dip in and out of a project as needed, rather than expecting all results to be handed over during a particular time frame, thus encouraging sustainability, longevity and commitment.
To summarize, the benefits of virtual volunteering include:
access to a broader pool of volunteers and associated skills;
the ability for the volunteer to be in their own working environment;
volunteers having access to the necessary tools to complete their tasks;
projects can be broken down into smaller, on-going milestones;
finances for travel logistics are no longer required or could be re-routed to the project.
Iris Nikolaisen is the CEO of WAYAWAYA, a Zambian charity aiming to upskill women without access to formal education. The associated social enterprise produces luxury leather goods in the tourist capital. Due to their proximity to the Victoria Falls, they often have people wanting to volunteer their services in person. She noted that even before the pandemic started, virtual volunteers produced more significant benefits for the charity while using less of the limited management time resources. As the charity does not have the means for a dedicated volunteer coordinator, much of management’s time needed to be redirected towards ensuring the volunteers were comfortable while also balancing their desire for sight-seeing.
The drawbacks of virtual volunteering
Although virtual volunteering has widespread advantages, it does not come without its pitfalls. When social distancing has become a necessary norm, creating the sense of community and involvement that volunteers craved may be challenging to replicate. Therefore, the desire for engagement should not be taken for granted as, like all workers, volunteers seek affirmation and pride in their accomplishments regardless of their altruistic nature. As with any volunteer program, management of the timeline, deliverables, and expectations of virtual volunteers needs to be prioritized to ensure a successful project for all involved. None of these drawbacks are insurmountable, but they do need to be acknowledged so that all participants continue to work towards a common goal.
Virtual volunteer programs might look a bit different than what is traditionally thought of as volunteering. However, the benefits far outweigh the risks in most cases, particularly during this time of limited mobility. Managing the potential positive impacts that a volunteer can make are the same, whether they are on-site or sitting in front of a computer in their favorite flannel pajamas.