Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community

Help Sheet

Online volunteering: A new way to increase your reach

Including a "virtual" element to your existing volunteering program could expand the benefits of your organisation's work by enlisting additional talent and resources. It may allow more volunteers to participate and in some cases, to volunteer in new areas.

Virtual or online volunteering means providing community service electronically via the internet using a home or work computer.

It should never replace face-to-face, on-site volunteering but for those people with time or distance constraints, lack of mobility or simply a preference not to leave the home or worksite, virtual volunteering can be a way for them to get involved. One North American virtual volunteer noted that when volunteering online, "People see me, not the (wheel) chair".

Virtual volunteers use fewer resources - they don't need work space or a parking spot in your office or work-site. They don't use your stationery, telephone and computer systems.

The only things virtual volunteers need to start work are a computer, reliable access to the internet and an email address.

What do virtual volunteers do?

Not surprisingly, a large percentage of virtual volunteering activities are computer-related. Frequently, virtual volunteers have more sophisticated computer equipment and software or programming skills than the organisation they are assisting - and they may be willing to use these resources on your behalf.

Tasks assigned to virtual volunteers can include creating and/or maintaining websites for an organisation, performing online research, providing technical assistance to staff and people who use your group, and helping with online marketing and communications.

Other online work can involve writing grant and sponsorship proposals, refining strategic and operational plans and developing budgets and a range of other activities.

Sometimes agencies will combine on-site and online volunteering as part of their volunteering mix. Some assignments may require volunteers to complete a combination of online research, engage in both email and face-to-face interaction and attend on-site staff meetings.

Organising a virtual volunteering program

The factors that contribute to the success of face-to-face volunteering programs are those that are also operating in successful online volunteering programs - you need to apply the same processes and personnel. They are not separate programs but two sides of the same coin.

In fact it is unwise to launch into establishing a virtual volunteering project if your group has little or no experience in successfully involving volunteers in traditional, face-to-face settings, either assisting staff and/or working directly with your community.

Just because the program involves the use of technology, it should not be managed by your IT department. Your virtual volunteering program needs to mirror the processes that are already working for your face-to-face volunteer programs. These include:

Special needs of virtual volunteering programs

There are of course some special requirements and processes that need to be put in place before your organisation starts posting online volunteering positions.

Virtual management of volunteers

Electronic systems can also be used by community organisations to interact with their volunteer teams. Computer technology allows volunteer managers to stay in touch with their volunteers more often, more quickly and more cheaply than through previous means.

Some organisations have set up systems where they send relevant materials, solicit feedback, provide program updates, and send meeting reminders via email to volunteers. In return, volunteers use email to submit time sheets and progress reports.

Other organisations have set up secure "chat groups" for their volunteers, so that they can network with each other via the internet. In this way, ideas and evaluations can be written down and with participants' permission, be used to form the basis of grant proposals and reports.



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