Micro-volunteering: worth the hype?


Micro-volunteering: worth the hype?

Micro-volunteering has been heralded as a way to benefit a worthy cause on your own terms to suit your lifestyle with ‘absolutely no commitment’. Can this really be true?
Heather Sturgess

Micro-volunteering has been heralded as a way to benefit a worthy cause on your own terms to suit your lifestyle with ‘absolutely no commitment’. I decided to try this out and see if I could make a difference micro-volunteering at short notice, without leaving the comfort of my own home.

I was surprised at the range of activities available and the different tasks I was able to contribute to. In one evening I counted penguins in the Antarctic, identified animals in the Serengeti, and timestamped debates in parliament without leaving my sofa. I enjoyed working on the different projects; the activities were really straight forward and made me curious to learn more about these organisations and investigate for myself. Conveniently, the projects provided links to more information, so I dived in.

To my surprise, I actually made a contribution by looking at pictures of cute penguins and learning about animals in the Serengeti. 

These animal micro-volunteering projects help scientists monitor ecosystems and track changes in species population and breeding overtime to help inform conservation policies.

I was less impressed with the video timestamping task for the website theyworkforyou.com. There didn’t seem to be much activity on this site as I quickly realised when I became the ‘top timestamper’ for the past four weeks.

From the website it wasn’t clear whether this was because parliament is currently in recess or whether this project had finished. This led me to thinking of the downsides of micro-volunteering online: there is little interaction and communication with other volunteers or staff members.

For me one of the best things about volunteering is meeting and working with different people. Volunteers don’t like feeling forgotten. Even when we are “micro”-volunteering, we are as eager to receive feedback as we are to make a contribution. In this case lack of interaction made it harder to see the bigger impact that my contributions were working towards.

Fortunately for me offline micro-volunteering can lead to meeting new people as I found out when I micro-volunteered with my Student Union. They organised lots of volunteering opportunities where students could sign up to time slots for different activities. This could be a one-off volunteering experience or - as I found when I signed up to volunteer with refugees teaching English- can lead to more regular volunteering.

This was a great way for me to get involved and meet new people. It also gave me the flexibility to reduce my commitment when I had big coursework deadlines. I really enjoyed volunteering and it was rewarding to see people’s confidence in speaking English grow even just over the course of one session.

After trying different ways to contribute to something bigger through micro-volunteering, I have developed a healthy scepticism of the benefits of choosing to volunteer this way.

The merits of some of the options available seemed to be overstated. I came across actions such as signing petitions, or posting off a solitary glove which someone will then pair up and sell with the proceeds going to a not-for-profit – which are activities that I wouldn’t describe as volunteering.

But I could well be in the minority with this opinion. A recent survey by helpfromhome.org of their micro-volunteers found only nine out of 238 respondents stopped micro-volunteering because they didn’t feel like they were volunteering. I guess this is the beauty of micro-volunteering; everyone can find something to their liking.

I enjoyed seeing the different options available for micro-volunteering and will definitely be searching out new projects to take part in. I like the idea of being able to use my spare-moments such as my journey to work to benefit research projects online.

However, the motivations for micro-volunteering are very different to the traditional voluntary roles that I am used to. With micro-volunteering there is no social side or opportunity to build on your CV. Although the projects can give you a sense of contributing to something much larger, I am unsure whether this is enough incentive for someone to micro-volunteer regularly on the same repetitive task.

Perhaps an advantage of micro-volunteering is that by attracting large numbers, returning volunteers are not a requirement for success. Yet, organisations need to keep in mind that micro-volunteering still requires oversight. Whilst some projects may be easy to set up, in order to continue to attract contributors, the ongoing management of projects is crucial for maintaining momentum.

Submitted by omotolani sulu (not verified) on 17 Aug 2016


I am with you on the fact that micro-volunteering gives a sense of contributing to something much larger when you do not have the opportunity of time to spare doing the traditional voluntary roles.

Submitted by Mike Bright (not verified) on 17 Aug 2016


Thanks for mentioning Help From Home. You highlight one of the lowlights of microvolunteering, ie volunteer interaction. It's a bit of an issue for people who are used to more traditional volunteering activities, but for people who may be shy, have social interaction issues, or who may not be able to get to traditional volunteering activities, eg mobility impaired, then home based microvolunteering is a very good option for them. So, can people be persuaded to participate in microvolunteering? Our (almost yearly) impact report (http://bit.ly/1kmmZnd) seems to show that people do microvolunteer in large numbers, as well as achieve quite a bit of impact. Not bad for 10 minutes possibly sitting on your sofa.

Hi Mike,

I agree micro-volunteering is a great way to get involved and volunteer especially for people for whom more traditional voluntary roles are unsuitable.
Thanks for link to the impact report, its interesting to see what projects people are contributing to. I think it would be really interesting to look at some of the reasons why people micro-volunteer and whether these differ from more traditional voluntary activities.

Submitted by Mike Bright (not verified) on 18 Aug 2016

In reply to by Heather Sturgess (not verified)


Hi Heather
We've conducted various surveys over the years, which includes very similar questions to the one you asked. Here's the links, if you're interested:

And, here's a link to our current survey that also poses similar questions relevant to the question you asked. The results will be published in January, 2017.

Hope the above helps.

Submitted by Jayne Cravens (not verified) on 18 Aug 2016


Terrific article. It just goes to show what so many of us have been saying for years: the fundamentals of effective support and management of volunteer engagement apply to ALL forms of volunteering: onsite groups, virtual volunteering, episodic/micro volunteering, leadership volunteering, and on and on. No volunteering, onsite, online, for several days or for several minutes, feels worthwhile if you don't know why the task is important and where the task fits within the mission of the organization, or if you aren't supported and appreciated. I love creating micro assignments for volunteers, but I find that it's because volunteers I work with want to work for a while and then take a break, then come back in a few weeks and do more, and I make a point to build a relationship with those volunteers - not every manager of volunteers does, including those that manage volunteers in traditional settings. Thank you so much for sharing!

Thanks for your comments Jayne.
It's good to hear someone putting in the effort to build and maintain relationships with micro-volunteers as I think this can sometimes be a difficult task. It would be interesting to hear whether you find you can manage micro-volunteers in a similar way to more traditional volunteers or if you have to adopt a different approach. Great to hear from you!

"It would be interesting to hear whether you find you can manage micro-volunteers in a similar way to more traditional volunteers or if you have to adopt a different approach."

As we detail at length in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, every model of volunteer engagement requires some adjustment - group volunteering, episodic/micro volunteering, virtual volunteering, leadership volunteering, etc. - but also requires the application of certain basic fundamentals in volunteer management. We detail how best to work with online volunteers, both those taking on leadership roles, those taking ongoing roles and those taking on micro tasks, in our book. It's available for purchase from Energizeinc.com

Submitted by Laurie Goudot (not verified) on 18 Aug 2016


It’s essential that charities and organisations explain the difference microvolunteering makes to their supporters.
The MND association launched their microvolunteering offer – SnapAction – in April this year. On Microvolunteering Day, we asked people to share some infographics about Motor Neurone Disease on social media. In total, it was seen by over 240,000 people. It’s safe to assume that a large majority of them would have been introduced to MND for the first time through SnapAction thus raising awareness. This incredible success was shared on our social media channels as we thought it was extremely important to recognise how invaluable the support of our microvolunteers is. We are now looking at ways of recognising personal involvement (e.g. electronic badges etc...)

Submitted by Pippa Block (not verified) on 23 Aug 2016


Great article highlighting the motivations to become a micro-volunteer and the ways we can develop our microvolunteering offers further. But where do we draw the line on what is volunteering or microvolunteering? Can signing a petition be seen as volunteering now or in future? Or do we need to label it at all? Whatever we call it, I agree that we need to make these changes now to get ready for the future (which has already begun), where people have less time to give and this type of volunteering becomes increasingly popular. At the end of the day, surely it’s all about supporting a cause and showing how someone’s time benefits that cause.

Since the term microvolunteering became popularised from 2008 onwards, many people have asked the same question about the label that could be applied to tasks like petition signing and the like. For us here at 'Help From Home', we've found some people and orgs latch on to the term microvolunteering because of what it conveys in terms of flexibility and time commitment, compared to the perception of greater involvement in a more traditional volunteering role. The bottom line: some people may well be encouraged to start volunteering because the 'label of microvolunteering was the 'hook' they needed to test the waters, whilst other people may ignore it and be 'hooked' in by other terms, eg virtual volunteering.

Submitted by Angela Wilson (not verified) on 24 Aug 2016


This article gives the impression that micro volunteering is almost always about online activity. Is that the case? I think people can give a couple of hours of fundraising time (shaking a tin with a co-micro vol...weeding a garden in a community centre) - all of which give opportunity for social interaction, with other vols and the public. More satisfying, perhaps? Also worth e your noting: not everyone is motivated by expanding social networks, the majority of academic studies have found the most common motivation for volunteering is humanitarian reasons - feeling they are doing something worthwhile. I think this can be gained from online activities too. Appreciate your thoughts on how vol-involving org's feedback to their micro online vols about how they've contributed. Thanks.

Here at 'Help From Home', we've found that vol centres have a tendency (when they create a category for micro-opps) to mostly promote offline micro opps, ie they're labelling the very opps you describe above, as microvolunteering. Nonprofits on the other hand (when they create a category of micro-opps) promote a mixture of offline and online micro-opps. And then there are other vol involved orgs that purely deal with online micro-opps, eg CrowdCrafting.

As for feedback, we created a category of actions that provide impact / feedback stats for a volunteers contribution, which encompasses both online and offline actions. You can find this here http://bit.ly/1elMUrf half way down the page under the section, 'Impact Tracking'.

Submitted by Penelope McMillan (not verified) on 28 Aug 2016


Microvolunteering can be social in an online way. I belong to a microvolunteering FB group where people get to know each other and share some of the more rewarding or enjoyable microvolunteering opportunities. Also, occasionally, I will be part of a microvolunteering effort that online friends are also doing.
Additionally, microvolunteering is sometimes undertaken by offline groups, such as a school class or a workplace.
I enjoy it.

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