Does It Matter How Microvolunteering is Defined?

Over at the blog, the team formerly known as The Extraordinaries is having a great time sharing the innovative and supercool microvolunteering challenges that nonprofits are posting. These are heady days for micro, and the astonishing array of projects that are being shared on the Sparked platform points the way to a bright future for it.

Interspersed among the posts, Ben Rigby has shared some provocative ideas about micro and his company’s theory of change. This week I’ve been looking closely at two related posts Rigby put up last week, particularly Rigby attempts to clarify how Sparked is defining “microvolunteering”.

As impetus, Rigby pointed to two articles we recently published, including this guest post by Mike Bright from Help From Home, and this post on corporate uses of micro that we published in Volunteering Is CSR.

As Rigby — bless his soul — writes, “…There is a heckofa lot of excitement around the concept. But there is also some confusion as to what exactly it is….” He goes on to share what he sees are four key characteristics of microvolunteering:

Convenient. It’s volunteerism that fits into your schedule when you have time – typically (but not necessarily) via an internet connected device such as a mobile phone or personal computer…

Bite-sized. Volunteer tasks are broken into small(-ish) pieces, so that you can complete a task in the time that you have available (whatever that time may be)…

Crowdsourced. The nonprofit that needs help asks a large(-ish) group for assistance…

Network-managed. The time demands of the manager (e.g. a nonprofit staffer) are reduced by distributing as much of the project management and quality review as possible to the network of micro-volunteers. This work management method differs from a top-down model of project management.

Concept vs. Implementation

As Rigby sees it, while most folks are cheering for the new technology, some of the voices that are rising above the pack are actually talking something different.  Rigby says what’s going on is that some are confusing the “concept” of microvolunteering with a “particular implementation” of it (kind of like those who think Kleenex when they should be thinking tissue paper).

I think Rigby has a good point. It would be a mistake, for example, to limit microvolunteering’s future to what we see today at OR Help From Home. Who knows where micro will go, after all — these are early days, and only time will tell what sticks, what doesn’t, and what new forms of work will be enabled by the technology.

But I do wonder whether with his fourth characteristic — the idea that micro must to be network-managed — Rigby might be falling into the same trap.

Don’t get me wrong: anything that can help reduce the workload of a busy nonprofit manager while increasing the quality of the end result is good thing. For nonprofits, one of the innovations of Web-based crowdsourcing is the chance to have a volunteer’s work reviewed by his or her peers rather than having to do it all yourself. And indeed peer review is a fairly common feature in other crowdsourced work platforms. But there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why crowdsourcing the work would necessarily need to be accompanied by crowdsourcing the review of the work as a requirement.

The Lingering Debate over Virtual

Of course, micro is a new approach to volunteering, and it’s tempting to shrug off the debate as inevitable for any new and rapidly emerging technology, and soon to pass. But these debates have a way of sticking around, with competing definitions becoming (if anything) more entrenched as time passes.

This mirrors the debate that took place around the definition of “virtual volunteering” in the late 1990s. Back then, a few folks in the space (including VolunteerMatch) worked hard to come up with a shared definition of “virtual volunteering.” Today, while VolunteerMatch essentially uses the phrase to describe any volunteer opportunity that doesn’t require any particular location, other prominent voices use the term to describe volunteering that’s done via the Internet.

No doubt, our definition takes its form from our own particular implementation of it. For example, the search engine gives users the choice to either type in a location (city/state/ZIP/etc.) where they’d like to work or else select a check box that would limit the search to “virtual opportunities” – that is, where the location can be virtually anywhere. Meaning, even nontechnical, non-Web enabled, lo-fi volunteer work like knitting, baking cookies, or polling voters is considered virtual by our system if volunteers can do it from anywhere.

Again, the definition works great for VolunteerMatch because it essentially reflects how our technology works.

Point being, more than a decade on, many of the major players in Web technology for volunteer engagement are still  conflating their definition of virtual volunteering with their particular implementation of it. And this old debate is even coloring discussions of micro, with Rigby, for example, also pointing out “You could reasonably make a case that microvolunteering… should be also called ‘virtual volunteering.'” Getting all that?

Will micro get stuck in Definition Purgatory for quite so long? Only time will tell. But the good news is that this is all inside-baseball stuff: For the vast majority of people who want to make a difference, they don’t care what it’s called. They’re just happy to be able to help.

What do you think? Does it matter to you how new forms of volunteer engagement are defined?  Share your thoughts here on the blog.

[1/17/11 – I edited to clean up typos and reinforce some lame initial draft language. 98% still untouched, RR]