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Is signing an online petition really volunteering?

Shamleen/www.shutterstock.com

Is signing an online petition really volunteering?

Shamleen/www.shutterstock.com

Every year, more than 21m people volunteer in the UK at least once a year – contributing an estimated £23.9 billion to the economy annually. Since 1984, volunteers and volunteering have been celebrated during an annual volunteers’ week, with award ceremonies and recruitment events being run up and down the country.

This year, the campaign has been extended from seven days to 12 (June 1-12), and comes at a time when researchers and activists are focusing on the rise of much shorter volunteering opportunities, known as micro-volunteering.

This involves donating time or participating in activities for a short period of time – often as a one-off. It is often conducted online, such as through signing an online petition or contributing via crowd-sourcing.

Participating in a fun-run or counting the birds in your garden have also been identified as “offline” micro-volunteering activities by the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR).

But it’s still unclear whether reduced levels of volunteering of this nature result in reduced benefits to the volunteer and the organisation.

Value of volunteering

The organisers of the Help from Home micro-volunteering site claim that you can “change the world in just your pyjamas”.

Personally, I don’t think the volunteer, organisation or cause really benefits as much from micro-volunteering as they do from “regular” volunteering activities. The benefit of volunteering is a social one: when organisations get closer to their supporters they develop their understanding of why they become involved. In turn, volunteers can meet new people and see the outcomes of their contribution first hand.

According to the IVR the most popular “traditional” volunteering activities are as follows:

Benefits to the volunteer

An individual’s motivation to volunteer regularly is often underpinned by an acknowledgement that they personally benefit from doing so. As well as increasing employability and developing new skills, volunteering is reported to improve people’s sense of well-being and be beneficial to their mental health.

By using technology to provide micro-volunteering activities, organisations and volunteers are finding new ways to quickly and flexibly engage with one another. It is apparent that there are certain activities for which micro-volunteering is not appropriate – such as befriending people, or delivering meals on wheels. So organisations need to consider whether an activity is appropriate for short or one-off volunteering events.

Micro-volunteering is particularly focused on volunteering in which volunteers share knowledge and skills that they already have, such as designing a logo or editing text. In such cases, the charity may often not have the time to provide opportunities for volunteers to learn new skills through volunteering activities and from coming in to contact with others. So they are unable to offer the benefits to their volunteers that more “traditional” volunteering can.

Sitting at a computer at home also provides few opportunities to develop social networks with other volunteers, employees of the charity or organisation, and the “recipients” of the volunteering which can be such a valuable aspect of more traditional forms of volunteering. So while the organisation benefits from the volunteers’ micro engagement, the volunteer does less so.

There is clearly a space for micro-volunteering, but whatever people’s age or circumstances, they should also think about developing a long-term constructive relationship with an organisation or cause. That way, everyone benefits.