Micro volunteering can help your cause
Originally published: December 2017 | Last reviewed: May 2018
Micro volunteering generally refers to easy, no-commitment, cost-free actions that take less than 30 minutes to complete. There's usually little or no formal agreement needed before a volunteer can get started, and no expectation that the volunteer will return. Micro volunteering is a great way to involve those who can't afford or aren't able to commit to something longer term.
Micro volunteering is sometimes confused with online volunteering. But simple, conscious actions for a good cause can also happen offline: baking a cake for a charity sale, distributing leaflets or planting a tree are all examples.
However, the use of online tools — both to match volunteers to actions and to enable the completion of tasks from anywhere in the world — has prompted a rise in opportunities to get involved in micro volunteering. Many organizations actively promote these (though some use other terms, such as "micro actions" or "taster sessions").
The Institute of Volunteering Research and National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) report that demand for short-term flexible volunteering opportunities is increasing, partly because of busy, unpredictable lifestyles. As of 2016 there were at least 24 dedicated platforms for micro volunteering around the world — from Skills For Change in the U.S. to Collavol in Japan — according to Help from Home (a now-defunct platform for such forms of volunteering), not to mention many more organizations advertising bite-sized opportunities on their own websites. Youth volunteering charity vInspired, for example, allows users to search specifically for micro and one-off opportunities.
Volunteering for charity — another way
For potential volunteers, micro volunteering means convenient and flexible opportunities that fit into their lives. To stress the point, Help from Home used the slogan "change the world from your pyjamas." But micro volunteering is also good for organizations, offering:
- The potential to attract a wider diversity and greater number of people, including those who would otherwise not have the time or inclination to get involved
- A path to longer-term volunteering — an initial taster of your work for those who may later commit
- A way to maintain the motivation of those looking to volunteer longer term, while waiting for formal processes such as reference checks to be completed
- A means to motivate and engage existing long-term volunteers, by offering new and different opportunities
- Access to the expertise of skilled volunteers, including those located far away or employed full-time
Micro volunteering is not a replacement for traditional volunteering
The Institute of Volunteering Research and NCVO highlight some limitations to micro volunteering that make it unlikely to permanently replace longer term volunteering.
For example, although micro volunteering can make it easier to get involved in a charity's work, many micro actions still exclude some people — such as the unskilled or those without access to a computer.
And many volunteers want more than a one-off action from home. They may want more meaningful involvement with an organization or cause, or they may be seeking practical work experience — which usually implies more sustained activity.
Micro volunteering trends
Before you create micro volunteering opportunities, be aware that the practice doesn't suit every organization. Certain activities require a long-term commitment, vital safeguarding checks or in-depth training. Some tasks can't be efficiently broken down into short chunks of time.
You'll also need to consider the risks. How much time will be needed to manage and coordinate the work of many volunteers? What about entrusting work to someone you don't know and haven't vetted?
When it comes to defining tasks, be sure that you're assigning volunteers where help is genuinely needed, rather than packaging up activities for the sake of it. Any volunteer who spends time on something they feel isn't making a difference will be quickly put off.
What types of activities could you outsource through micro volunteering? Start by considering these examples from the Institute of Volunteering Research and NCVO:
Campaigning and communication
- Offline: Signing a petition, taking part in a flash mob, giving a talk, manning a stall
- Online: Liking a Facebook page, providing feedback on marketing materials, writing a blog post, retweeting a message
- Offline: Shaking a tin or ringing a bell on the street to collect money from passersby, running in a sponsored race, placing a collection box in a local shop
- Online: Online sponsorship, crowdfunding
Research and data
- Offline: Completing a questionnaire, providing a case study
- Online: Reporting an issue (such as graffiti), completing a questionnaire, counting birds in your garden, contributing content to Wikipedia
- Offline: Sorting recyclables, taking part in a tree-planting event, baking a cake for sale, collecting goods for donation
- Online: Donating computer processing time, setting up a Facebook event, designing a logo
You can also browse through opportunities listed by other organizations, like vInspired, for ideas. Remember that your action should ideally take less than half an hour, require no training or screening, and require no further commitment beyond the initial project.
Knowhow Nonprofit suggests that well-designed microvolunteering activities should also offer:
- Visible feedback. Show volunteers how they've contributed.
- Communication. Offer volunteers a way to see who else is participating, and a means to communicate with them and with your team.
- Incentives. Offer something in return for their time, whether it's a form of recognition or something more tangible.
Eva Bhattacharyya in the Guardian adds another element to consider: make it enjoyable. "Charities in general have realised that to entice their audience they need to offer the fun element in recruiting volunteers," she writes. "Volunteers now expect something back for their support."
And it's not just about designing the action and recruiting volunteers. NCVO also advises spending time getting other staff on board and thinking through the detail of how you'll manage volunteers and their work. If you're doing this for the first time, your existing frameworks for volunteers may need to be updated. For example, you might need to amend your volunteer management policy.
Volunteering opportunities website Do-it allows potential volunteers to search for micro volunteering options — those interested can use the advanced search option to either search by postcode or look for contributions they can make from home.
Microvolunteering Day is celebrated annually on the 15th of April. This can be a good occasion to test out offering some bite-sized actions, while leapfrogging on the publicity of a global campaign that's promoting micro volunteering.
In the meantime, get exploring. Find out what your current long-term volunteers think of the idea, and if they know others who'd be interested. Contact some of your former volunteers. Would they get involved again if they could take on something in smaller chunks? Speak to your programming teams to understand how micro volunteers could be deployed. Ask your board of directors or trustees for support and expertise. And look to other organizations in your geographic area or sector who are already deploying micro volunteers. What could you learn from them?
NCVO: Microvolunteering might be small but it's got big potential by Kristen Stephenson (2015)
Help from Home: Where to microvolunteer [website no longer running]
Help from Home: Microvolunteering Day: Impact and reach report (accessed 2016)