[July 2007 | Abby Lenehan, The Centre for Volunteering]
You can do it in your PJs, in the dead of the night when you can't sleep, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, inside or out. All you need is a computer with Internet access and you can do online or digital volunteering. Online volunteering has presented an opportunity to thousands of people who otherwise had only the desire to help but didn't really know how. To those who decree "I don't have time to volunteer", the same may ring true for you. After all, online volunteering still takes time and you must commit to it. But it does make it easier for you.
Today, over 50% of The Centre for Volunteering's workforce gives their time online. Why are so many people now volunteering in the online world? This article outlines firstly the advantages of online volunteering and, secondly, the technology that enables volunteering online. Firstly, online volunteering doesn't rely on being in a certain place at a certain time, which you can't do if a last-minute meeting is called at work or if your babysitter cancels and your kids are killing each other. For Jennifer Hayes, 38, an animal lover who has volunteered for numerous animal welfare organisations near her home in Texas, USA, it was a question of geography. She could easily volunteer with local animal shelters but, when it came to the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah that she supports, it was more difficult. She said: "The distance and expense of volunteering 'in reality' means it can be only an annual experience...[online volunteering] allows me to help make a difference to an organisation that I personally support even when I am unable to be there."
But online, Jennifer, currently unemployed, can spend several hours a day volunteering for Best Friends. As the Texas community team leader, her work includes researching and writing articles, networking with other animal welfare organisations, posting animal-oriented events on the calendar, maintaining an online forum, finding helpful links to post on their site, promoting the Best Friends Network and a host of other duties. And all this happens from the comfort of her own home while tending to four cats and a husband!
For people who have no transport, a disability that restricts them or who live in the country, which is the case for many otherwise willing Australians, switching on a computer can break these barriers down. The same can be said for people who want to help a remote community elsewhere in the world. An expensive fortnight volunteering to help build a school in an African village or deliver medication to AIDS-affected orphans is all very well but what happens when you get home?
If you are able to volunteer in person, online volunteering can complement your experience. Both Jennifer and Mary Jo Smith, 44, also a team leader for the Best Friends Network, volunteer in person for other animal welfare organisations at fundraising events, animal shelters or by attending home visits. Mary Jo, a research associate, has also found that online volunteering for 10–30 hours per month has given her CV a boost and allowed her to use skills she wouldn't normally exercise in her full-time job.
Secondly, Eugen Bodolak's experience with Skype technology highlights how online volunteering has taken off in the last few years. Eugen,a computer programmer living in the Middle East, felt that something was missing from his career. He said: "I am working in a big company and a big team and you know when you have a big team, you have a small, small part in it, so you don't feel it's yours." Eugen discovered the Canadian charity Macdonald Youth Services (MYS), a healing and support agency for young people, while searching the Internet and volunteered to do some work for them. MYS online volunteer program developer Randy Tyler said: "I am pleased that we were able to offer Eugen online volunteer programming opportunities which allowed him to use more of his skill set and thus have more of a sense of ownership."
These days, two people with Internet access anywhere in the world can now have a real-time conversation for free by downloading communications software such as Skype. Even if one of the people conversing has a landline and not Skype, by using the Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), you can have a lengthy conversation for just a couple of dollars. Instant email conversations via Skype or an email provider such as MSN Messenger make real-time conversations free and easy no matter where you are in the world. And when email isn't enough, you can Skype or even record an audio file which can then be sent via email and transcribed.
If it all sounds a bit too technical and involved for you, you might be wondering about the old-fashioned sociable side? By volunteering online, do you miss out on the feeling of being part of something special? Jennifer suggests that phone calls and emails can be less personal, and thus, unless she attends an event for an article, she has minimal contact with the animals.
But with the benefits of choosing your own hours, working from home and having no dress code, there is a huge online community out there waiting to welcome you. "The network has been extremely supportive. I really enjoy the online atmosphere," she said. "And I'm virtually 'meeting' people from all over the world."