A free resource for nonprofit organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations,
public sector organizations, and other mission-based agencies

Jayne Cravens, www.coyotecommunications.com

Microvolunteering & Crowd-Sourcing:
Not-So-New (but important) Trends in
Virtual Volunteering/Online Volunteering
Back in the 1990s, when the Virtual Volunteering Project at the University of Texas at Austin was documenting best practices in involving and supporting volunteers via the Internet, one of the methods for involving online volunteers was creating what I called byte-sized volunteering assignments. These are assignments that:

  • -- do not take long to complete (a few hours over one day, or just a few days, maybe even two weeks, but no more).
  • -- do not involve high security or handling of proprietary data
  • -- do not require much supervision.
  • -- are important, as all volunteering activities should be, but not immediately or highly critical (as in, if volunteers do not get these tasks done within the next two weeks, it will not bring your organization to a screeching halt, it will not cause a huge problem at the organization, etc.).
  • -- can be done by a person on his or her own, rather than requiring an organized team with different members relying on the work of others in order to complete their part of the assignment.

    Now, the hot-new term for this is microvolunteering or micro volunteering (sometimes with space, sometimes without, and sometimes with a hyphen). Some people include offline activities in microvolunteering. Others narrow the definition even further than I have, and say the activity has to be mobile-ready, something that can be done on a smart phone.

    At its heart, microvolunteering no different than offline episodic volunteering; just as volunteers who come to a beach cleanup or participate in a Habitat for Humanity work day don't undergo a criminal background check, don't receive a lengthy pre-service orientation, don't fill out a lengthy volunteer application form and may never volunteer with the organization again - they feel like they just show up and get to work - online volunteers that participate in a microvolunteering may get started on their assignment just a few minutes after expressing interest, if your organization has the right, tried-and-true volunteer management standards in place.

    What does online volunteering as microvolunteering or a byte-sized assignment, really look like? Most sites that talk about microvolunteering don't offer any specifics on what microtasks look like. He's the longest list you will find anywhere of microvolunteering in action - but note that this list would be very shorter if your definition of microvolunteering is mobile-ready volunteering (the task can easily be done on a mobile phone):

  • -- Translating just a few paragraphs into another language (as opposed to an entire web page, or entire brochure).
  • -- Gathering online information on one very specific topic (identifying nonprofit organizations in a large city focused on children, finding conferences in the next six months focused on human resources management, finding samples of volunteer policies online, finding samples of company social networking policies online, finding Twitter accounts for organizations focused on Internet safety for children, etc.).
  • -- Editing a press release, newsletter, or new Web page (just one - not an entire web site).
  • -- Posting a request by a nonprofit to the volunteer's various networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), to see if anyone could answer or help ("We need a free meeting space for 30 of our volunteers to do a this Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m." or "We need a meeting table that could accommodate at least 10 people. Does anyone know of an organization that is looking to get rid of such? or "We have a survey for teenagers on our web site regarding what program activities they would be interested in. Please help us get the word out!").
  • -- Providing feedback on a graphic or event theme.
  • -- Providing feedback on a short strategy or proposal.
  • -- Setting up an account on an online social networking site for an organization, such as FaceBook, Twitter or Change.org
  • -- Analyzing information on a short spreadsheet or looking at a bit of data and offering a short narrative on what the data might mean.
  • -- Doing a Web search to seek out resources and activities that are needed for clients in a specific geographic location: summer camps, vocational training, child care, government programs to help a particular group of people, etc.
  • -- Checking grant proposal submission guidelines on the Web sites of various potential funders, such as foundations or corporations (although this often requires a greater commitment than just a few minutes).
  • -- Creating a new Web page on an existing site (putting up a newsletter article as a new Web page, for instance).
  • -- Web site testing to make sure the site works on a variety of computers and Web browsers, and identifying any problems so that IT staff can take action to make a site more accessible.
  • -- Compiling a list of online communities relating to a particular field of expertise, a specific topic, a specific geographic area, etc.
  • -- Compiling a list of blogs relating to a specific topic.
  • -- Compiling a list of Twitter accounts of people or organizations that tweet regularly on a particular topic.
  • -- Compiling a list of Facebook pages of people or organizations that post information regularly regularly on a particular topic.
  • -- Researching which Web sites link to your organization's Web site, and researching which Web sites should link to your organization's Web site but do not currently.
  • -- Identifying which groups on Flickr or another photo-sharing web site your organization might want to sometimes post photos to, in order to get the word about your work and events.
  • -- Adding new tags to photos already uploaded on a photo-sharing web site, such as Flickr, to ensure they will come up on a search of certain keywords.
  • -- Reviewing the work of other volunteers engaged in microvolunteering.

  • Again: these are tasks that will take just a few minutes or a few hours to complete, and can happen in one day or over a few days, even a couple of weeks. Note that some require a bit of expertise: a person might have to be fluent in two languages, or know about web accessibility, or be terrific at finding very specific information online. To ensure success with such short-term tasks, any microvolunteering assignment should have:
  • -- Written descriptions (the more detail, the better)
  • -- Deadlines (by when does this assignment need to be done?)

  • Mid-assignment reporting requirements might also be necessary if the deadline is a week or more after the assignment is given - many times, organizations can't just assume people are working on assignments, only to find out, once they need the work, that the volunteers didn't do it.

    A volunteer can complete one of these assignments and then walk away from every volunteering with you again. However, your goal with these assignments is much more than to get work done; it is to create such a positive experience that the volunteer stays interested and takes on another small task, or a task with more responsibility or greater time commitment, as well as becoming a fan of your organization, talking about your good work to colleagues, friends and family. You might even turn such a volunteer into a financial donor!


    Part of the microvolunteering phenomena is crowd-sourcing, a practice that is as old as the Internet itself (which makes it more than 30 years old). This is when a task or question is offered up online to anyone who would like to take it on, without that person having to sign up to participate as a volunteer. It can be as simple as writing, "How would you handle the following situation..." to an online community of volunteer resources managers. Or asking "How could we improve the our online volunteer orientation" to your online community of volunteers. Or asking on an online community for HR managers, "Would anyone be willing to share their company's dress code? We're looking for ideas." Or writing all of your current volunteers and saying, "What do you think of our new logo?" It is also called "distributed problem-solving."

    Before the World Wide Web, a popular Internet tool was USENET newsgroups, which were online communities put together around various interests, professions and topics, and much of the activity on these was what we now call crowd-sourcing (soc.org.nonprofit was a particularly popular crowd-sourcing resource for nonprofit representatives).

    Crowd-sourcing is not just for discussion questions. For instance:
    Crowd-sourcing can involve people who are not a part of your organization -- anyone visiting your web site, anyone on an online discussion group run by another organization, etc. -- or it can be reserved only for vetted volunteers on your online discussion group for such.

    What About the Ice-Bucket Challenge?

    As long as someone was including the name of the organization that this was supposed to benefit (usually the ALS Association) from the ice bucket challenge, and the web site address so people could donate more money, sure, I would consider this micro volunteering. But you have to be careful with these types of campaigns - a lot of people uploaded videos of themselves dumping ice water on themselves without ever naming the charity it was supposed to benefit, and that means it was just slacktavism or slackervism.

    It's Always About Building Relationships.

    A misconception about microvolunteering and crowd-sourcing -- and, indeed, about all volunteering, including in its most traditional forms -- is that the goal is to get work done, or to get work done for free. These are old paradigms regarding volunteering that so many of us have worked for a very long time to move away from. Volunteering is about so much more: it's about building relationships with the community, increasing the number of people advocating for your organization and even supporting it financially, demonstrating transparency, and even targeting specific demographics for involvement in your work.

    The biggest advantage to creating microvolunteering and crowd-sourcing opportunities isn't getting work done; rather, it's giving current volunteers more and different ways to participate (believe it or not, many of your volunteers want to do more for you!), and allows you to cultivate new supporters. Never think of the primary goal of microvolunteering as getting work done. Your goal should always be to cultivate new supporters. You want to turn people who answer your question on a discussion group or take on a small online volunteering assignment into long-term supporters, people who tell family and friends about your organization, who have their perception changed about a particular issue your organization is involved with (why people are homeless, why the arts are important to teens, why there are misunderstandings about HIV/AIDS, why increasing literacy improves women's health, etc.), who take on more assignments for your organization and, hopefully, are so moved by your work that they make a financial donation.

    Therefore, if your organization decides to make microvolunteering or crowd-sourcing activities available to people beyond your corps of vetted volunteers, make sure you have ways to capture their key contact information and provide followup to them regarding the project or issue they contributed to. Encourage these contributors to complete the briefest of online volunteering applications, to join an online discussion group, and/or to subscribe to your email newsletter.

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    Also see

    My academic / research work at my profile on academia.edu. Most of the academic articles that have cited my work regarding virtual volunteering are listed at my Google Scholar account.