Mike Bright on Micro-Volunteering’s “Quandaries”

Micro-VolunteeringWith the launch of Sparked.com a few weeks ago, microvolunteering is getting a lot of buzz these days from organizations, companies, and technology experts.

To date the interest has focused on the enormous possibilities of the format — how nonprofits and NGOs can use new platforms and tools to turn broad audiences volunteers into completed crowd-sourced projects.

But in a sign of the rapid evolution of micro-volunteering, more attention is now being paid its risks and “quandaries.”

Over at Energize’s excellent online journal e-Volunteerism, Mike Bright has written a detailed article examining the history and issues surrounding micro. Bright is founder of UK’s Help from Home, a Web site for micro-volunteering, one of the most comprehensive databases of microvolunteering opportunities on the Web.  After itemizing micro’s “greatest hits,” he then points out micro’s many negatives, which often get lost in news reports.

As he writes, micro has some challenges for organizations:

  • Because most micro-actions are performed by an individual acting alone, it could be perceived as a lonely occupation and will not appeal to everyone
  • Micro-actions are small tasks which, when combined with other people’s actions, produce an end result.  Each volunteer is therefore divorced from seeing the whole picture and the ultimate outcome, which could be a bit frustrating if you’re the type of person who wants to see instant results
  • There is usually no contact with the recipients of your action. You don’t get to see their smiles when you have helped them out. You have to be self-motivated to know that you are doing some good, and not everyone is.
  • Even though your actions are combined with others and you are therefore engaged in teamwork, there is rarely any direct interaction with fellow micro-volunteers. So, you may not feel part of a team and lose that satisfaction.
  • With traditional volunteering opportunities, you can normally see proof for yourself that a result has been achieved with your actions. With micro-volunteering there are limited ways to “see” success or prove results reported on a Web site.
  • From the organisation’s point of view, there is less control over and interaction with the people they are reliant upon to help them out. It may take more effort to convince, motivate and encourage people to participate in their micro-action.
  • Micro-volunteering is not exactly well known yet, so people aren’t aware that micro-action can benefit worthy causes and don’t go looking for them. Organisations that want to benefit from people performing micro-actions have an uphill struggle to gather a pool of people to help them out. The time spent encouraging and finding micro-volunteers may be better spent on other things with more effective results.
  • It is quite possible that we could become frantically busy doing a lot of stuff that does make the doer feel great – which is important – but doesn’t add up to the systemic change needed in communities. Does busy mean the same thing as impact?

Bright also points out the risks of micro for volunteer managers:

“There’s a danger that if we now go in and start pitching volunteering that takes less than 10 minutes, we’re going to make it even harder to win over staff round and get their mindsets changed. “

Bright also describes three challenges to organizations: concerns about screening, health/safety of volunteers, and retention. At Help at Home, Bright screens projects from NGOs to minimize risk to minors. Policies like his may make micro less of an option for organizations that help at-risk populations.

Meanwhile, organizations that may have stout policies for the health and safety of volunteers and staff on their premises tend to avoid the issue when it comes to micro. As he writes:

“… A cursory spot check of some of the initiatives featured on Help From Home reveals that most organisations do nothing about heath and safety issues, perhaps because it is just not necessary due to the way in which initiatives set up their micro-volunteering actions….”

Finally, a big part of the promise of micro has been that it represents an easy first rung in the ladder of engagement of supporter and an organization. And yet, early reports show that retention is a serious challenge for many organizations investing in micro.

Bright quotes Jacob Colker of The Extraordinaries (producers of Sparked.com), talking about their first ventures in 2008 and 2009:

“Like any website, there’s a natural churn of users after a while. In the past, with image tagging for example, there’s only so much image tagging one person is willing to do before they get bored.”

In addition to some great insights by Jayne Cravens, a pioneer on virtual volunteering, the article also produces a bullet list from Randy Tyler, an early advocate for micro, on the serious questions organizations should ask as they explore where microvolunteering fits in.

It’s a thorough report on one of the most innovative trends in volunteer engagement today. Click here to read the article, and then please share your thoughts with us.

(Photo by iphonepic)