Microvolunteering: Quickies, Quandaries and Questions


A new type of volunteering is starting to attract media attention: microvolunteering. It has gained momentum as a creative way to use mobile phones, but in reality it is much more than that. Mike Bright, the founder of Help from Home, a UK Web site focused entirely on microvolunteering, shares his knowledge and unique perspective on this trend in this article. He examines the quick nature of microvolunteering actions, explores the quandaries surrounding the concept of microvolunteering, and poses questions that need to be debated about the microvolunteering arena.

Microvolunteering: What's it all about?

There seems to be a bit of a buzz around "microvolunteering" at the moment. The term is popping up in all sorts of places - America, Canada, United Kingdom and Israel, to name a few - but what's it all about? This article will examine the quick nature of a microvolunteering opportunity; explore the quandaries surrounding the concept; and throw open questions that need to be debated for microvolunteering to develop as a creditable branch of volunteering.


Microvolunteering is defined as .....well, here's our first quandary! There are a few definitions doing the rounds at the moment. Microvolunteering is variously explained as:

1) 'convenient, bite-sized, crowdsourced, and network-managed'

2) 'easy, quick, low commitment actions that benefit a worthy cause'

3) 'the act of voluntary participating in small day-to-day situations that occupy a brief amount of time'

Virtual volunteering, also sometimes called as eVolunteering, online volunteering or micro-volunteering, is a term describing a volunteer who completes tasks, in whole or in part, offsite from the organization being assisted, using the Internet and a home, school, telecenter or work computer or other Internet-connected device, such as a PDAs or smartphone. Virtual volunteering is also known as cyber service, telementoring, and teletutoring, and various other names.

Definition 1 appears to be more prevalent in the United States, largely through the efforts of Sparked, a San Francisco based social enterprise that has been promoting the use of 'social good' for the benefit of charities and nonprofits.

Definitions 2 and 3 appear to be more prevalent elsewhere, especially in the UK, largely through our efforts at Help From Home (with our directory for microvolunteer initiatives), i-volunteer (UK's leading social action network) and, more recently, vinspired (UK organisation promoting volunteering to 14-25 year olds).

Microvolunteering has also been variously described as snack-sized volunteering, small volunteering, casual volunteering, and volunteer-on-demand. It embraces other such forms of volunteering as mobile volunteering (exclusively via smartphones), virtual or online volunteering (exclusively via the Internet) and traditional volunteering (mostly associated with offline volunteering and, in this context, tasks that can be completed in a small amount of time). Other terms in usage, current and historical, are cyber service, telementoring, teletutoring, digital volunteering, byte-size volunteering and e-volunteering.

How micro is micro? What's the smallest and largest length of time that microvolunteering should embrace?

A few initiatives that promote microvolunteering use slightly different time packets as their bench mark for what is or isn't microvolunteering. Help From Home, for instance, concentrates on those actions where the main bulk of the task, if not all of it, can be completed within one or more sessions that last between 10 seconds and 30 minutes. The Volunteer On DemandTM initiative of Volunteer Guide focuses on tasks that can be completed within a window of 15 minutes to a few hours, whereas the Spanish directory Microvoluntarios features actions that could take 15 to 120 minutes.

This article will concentrate on those tasks featured at Help From Home. These tasks demonstrate the distinction between what can be achieved in 30 minutes as opposed to what needs a couple of hours, which seems more akin to the time frame of some traditional volunteering tasks.

Brief History of Microvolunteering

Microvolunteering has its roots in online volunteering which has been in existence probably since the start of the Internet, as in USENET, where online users were helping other users. Perhaps the first recognised type of formal online volunteering - inviting people to contribute to a not-for-profit project - was Project Gutenberg, which recruited online volunteers to convert public domain books into electronic versions. In 1995, Impact Online (now Volunteer Match) began promoting the idea of virtual volunteering; by 1999, its Virtual Volunteering Project had identified almost 100 organisations that involved online volunteers and published The Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Applying the Principles of Real-World Volunteer Management to Online Service.

The concept of 'crowdsourcing' volunteer tasks has been attributed to journalist Jeff Howe, who in a 2006 article in Wired magazine described crowdsourcing as "the process by which the power of the many could be leveraged to accomplish feats that were once the province of the specialised few."

The first organisation to register the term microvolunteering, albeit the Spanish equivalent, was Microvoluntarios - a Whois record, dated 23rd November, 2006 can be found on the net. They went public in May, 2008 by offering volunteering tasks that were uploaded by nonprofits and which would take between 15 minutes to 2 hours to complete - arguably the world's first microvolunteering network.

Using crowdsourcing techniques, The Extraordinaries (now known as Sparked) introduced a mobile phone app in early 2009 (first mooted online in April, 2008 by Ben Rigby CTO and co-founder of The Extraordinaries) that allowed small volunteer tasks to be completed in small snatches of time, 'on demand and on the go,' under the label of 'micro-volunteering.' In Jacob Colker's (CEO and co-founder of The Extraordinaries) words:

"In August of 2008, Ben (Rigby) and I were trying to find a term that would create a pivot from traditional volunteerism. Inspired by Muhammad Yunus (2006 Nobel Laureate) and the phrase "micro-finance," we felt that "micro-volunteering" was a great way to describe the field we were trying to create. Was that the first time the term was used? We don't know. But, we believe that we did coin the term."

This phone app idea is catching hold in many ways. Consider this international iPhone app service example called 'Give Work' from Samasource and Crowdflower (now defunct - Oct 2011):

Give Work lets you support refugees in Dadaab, Kenya - the world's largest refugee site - in minutes by completing short, on-screen tasks. The refugees are training to complete these same tasks and, by volunteering to tag a video or trace a road, you will generate money to support their training as valuable data to help focus future training programs.

When you consider that the number of mobile phone subscriptions worldwide has reached a reported 4.6 billion, the potential is obvious.

Now add in the power of social media. Here are two examples: Facebook has launched Progress thru Processors (allowing members to "contribute to life-saving research simply by sharing your computer's processing power"); and Twitter's Twitcause helps nonprofits get the attention of tweeters by highlighting a different organisation each Thursday.

In December 2008, Help From Home went live with over 450 microvolunteering opportunities available to a microvolunteer. As of October 2011, Help From Home features over 800 current, active opportunities from around the world, with probably another 200 more projected to be added by the end of the year. Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc. (and Editor of e-Volunteerism) has called Help From Home, the 'only Web site at the moment that is pushing the boundaries of microvolunteering'.

Other microvolunteering initiatives that have either tried to reach the market or are now operational are:

December 2010 - ChangeMachine: Microvolunteering for students (still in development)

December 2010 - InternCloud: Microvolunteering for interns (still in development)

June 2011 - BrightWorks: UK based microvolunteering network (operational)

June 2011 - Troopp: Indian based microvolunteering network (operational)

October 2011 - Koodonation: Canadian based microvolunteering network (operational)

Causes and Activities

What causes does micro-volunteering embrace? 'Traditional' online or virtual volunteering, from which microvolunteering arguably stems from, has included providing multimedia expertise such as preparing PowerPoint or other computer based presentations; designing an agency's newsletter or brochure; designing a logo or other illustrations; ensuring that a Web site is accessible for people with disabilities; and so on.

Current micro-volunteering includes all of the above. But with reference to the actions featured on Help From Home, mirovolunteering more specifically invites quick actions such as:

- Donating your hair to disadvantaged children suffering from long-term medical hair loss: 5 minutes - Locks of Love
- Allowing the use of the spare processing power of your computer to predict climate change: initially 5 minutes, then zilch - Climate Prediction
- Completing a survey after which, at no cost to you, a donation will be made to charity: 15 minutes - Opinion World
- Making a micro-loan (roughly £10/$15), change a life and then get paid back to re-loan again: 10 minutes - Deki
- Using free software to reduce the power consumption of your computer and so save the world's resources: initially 3 minutes, then zilch - WatchOverEnergy
- Contributing to abolishing slavery by signing an online petition: 2 minutes - Anti Slavery
- Helping astronomers classify galaxies via the Internet: 10 minutes - Galaxy Zoo
- Participating in plant or bird counts in your own backyard for bio-diversity research projects: 20 - 30 minutes - Sping Alive

At Help From Home, we continually discuss whether or not to list different types of actions that may - or may not - reflect the philosophy of microvolunteering. For instance:

- Should Love Bombs be featured? This is an initiative to muster loads of people to provide supportive, kind comments (a "Love Bomb") on others' blogs in order to uplift their spirits during a crisis or health problem they are experiencing. It only takes 5-10 minutes to complete, but is uplifting someone's spirits enough of a service to be considered 'volunteering'?

- What about asking a person to forage around their home for spare or gently used stationery via Pens of Hope in Davao to donate to a school needing supplies in a developing country? It should take less than 30 minutes to complete, but is recycling/donating such items 'volunteering'?

- Should click-to-donate websites be featured like One Click At A Time? These are sites where you click a 'Donate' button that then takes you to another page that normally features adverts. These advertisers are paying for your eyeballs and a percentage of the generated ad revenue will be donated to whatever cause the Web site is supporting. These actions generally take about 10 seconds to complete, but is giving up your time for 10 seconds too short a time period to be considered volunteering, even though you are helping to raise money for worthy causes?

All these opportunities arguably satisfy at least the minimum recognized definitions of volunteering: helping out an organisation or someone you don't know; giving up your own time; and participating in unpaid work.

I think it's fair to say that there are no set rules yet when it comes to deciding what is or isn't a microvolunteering action. I use a purely subjective review system to decide what is or isn't included in the Help From Home database and it's based loosely around what one U.S. Supreme Court justice once famously said when he couldn't define pornography, but went on to clarify his line of thinking by stating that "I know it when I see it!"

Impact Already in Evidence

What evidence is there that people can make meaningful contributions in such short bursts of time? How do they make a difference to others?

Listed below are various facts and figures I found on each initiative's Web site or blog. Although I have made no attempt to verify the figures, they are worth attention:

- Replyforall (adverts in e-mails, now defunct), September 2008 to December 2009: provided a day of protective services for 10,114 animals, provided a year of clean water for 4,541people, and more.
- Kibblekat (online charity donating quiz), up to October 2010: donated 286,876,650 pieces or 280 tons of kibble (cat and dog food to animal shelters).
- Everyclick (charity donating search engine), up to October 2010: UK£1,424,142 (US$1,643,190) raised for charity.
- Hunger Site (click-to-donate), June 1999 to October 2010: 328 million visitors clicked to give 25,000 metric tons of food or 447 million cups of food.
- Folding@Home (volunteer your spare pc power), up to October 2010: 400,000 active machines, received computational results from over 4.51 million devices, 75 peer reviewed scientific research papers published.
- The Extraordinaries (smartphone app, now known as Sparked), up to May 2010: micro-volunteers have completed over 300,000 tasks for more than 200 organisations.
- Project Linus (creating handmade blankets and afghans), up to June 2010: 3,465,151 handmade items delivered to good causes.
- The Petition Site (petition portal), up to October 2010: 70,041 petitions created with 46,538,035 signatures added via 14,354,492 members.
- Distributed Proofreaders (converting public domain books into e-books), up to September 2010: 18,792 books converted.
- CO2Saver (energy saving software), up to October 2010: 1,595,228 pounds of emission/greenhouse gases saved from being released into the atmosphere.

The above is just a very small sample of the number of micro-volunteer initiatives out there. For the purpose of this article, they have been cherry picked to demonstrate the impact that some organisations are achieving. Obviously, there are many, many more that are not having the same impact, but nevertheless are still making a quantifiable difference. Help From Home has provided a more comprehensive article on this subject for microvolunteering initiatives, entitled Evidence of Impact.

I think it's fair to say that this area needs further research and study to properly evaluate the overall impact the microvolunteer arena is achieving. A cursory glance from my untrained eye of the initiatives not shown in the above statistics, however, would show promising returns.

The Pros and Cons of Microvolunteering

Reactions to microvolunteering have been mixed, but there appears to be a recognition that it responds to a need for people to volunteer in that way coupled with the availability of the technology to support it. It also matches the interests of Millennials and everyone immersed in Internet technology, social media and cell phone apps.

Here is a roundup of the pros and cons of microvolunteering, mainly related to home-based microvolunteering actions.

The Pros

- Micro-actions can be conducted anywhere, at any time. You can do them while watching television, riding on the bus, or even reclined in bed! Volunteering can go wherever you go. People can control the environment in which they volunteer their time, making it potentially safer than traditional volunteer opportunities.

- Most micro-actions do not require commitment, which strips away one of the barriers that inhibits people from performing traditional volunteering. You can dip in and dip out whenever you want.

- Practically all microvolunteering opportunities require the minimal of training: You just read the instructions and go. This really pushes microvolunteering into the 'easy' bracket and once again, removes a stumbling block that often prevents people from volunteering in the first place. These attributes might encourage people to explore similar, additional actions and so the overall time spent on philanthropic actions might increase.

- You can now squeeze in more volunteering time, in-between your traditional philanthropic commitments.

- The huge diversity of the type of micro-actions goes beyond traditional volunteering opportunities - so there is more scope to do more good in new ways.

- The range of microvolunteering opportunities makes it all inclusive - no barriers to age, race, creed, culture, gender, etc.

- As with all virtual volunteering, it enlarges the volunteer pool to include people who are house-bound, have disabilities, have freetime only at irregular intervals, or are located anywhere in the world.

- It has the potential to engage people in volunteering at a level they are comfortable with now, doing something they want. But at a later date, maybe when their lifestyle changes, they will be more likely to commit more time to that volunteering cause (which they might not have done if they weren't involved in it by microvolunteering earlier in their life).

The Cons

- 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 microvolunteers. 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 microvolunteering 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.

- Microvolunteering 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 microvolunteers 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?


Microvolunteering is growing in popularity. This is evidenced by the number of organisations now openly promoting the concept, both non-profit organisations and for-profit businesses, such as telephone company Orange UK's Do Some Good mobile app project. This growing popularity also represents a challenge to the voluntary sector in how to manage best practices with regard to screening, risk assessments and health and safety issues.

With computers and smartphones becoming all pervasive, I believe that this is only the beginning of the ways initiatives will invent to engage and retain volunteers in micro-tasking. However, if a positive effect isn't generated, there is a danger that volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations will loose interest.

With all that said and done, there are still many quandaries and questions to be ironed out concerning the 'quickie' actions that the microvolunteering arena is delivering. One thing that I hope I have conveyed in this article is that this type of volunteering is a prime candidate for further research and study. A healthy and constructive debate wouldn't go amiss as well.

Only time will tell if micro-volunteering is here to stay or not. I believe it is.

Who Are Help From Home

Help From Home is a, UK based volunteer driven, grassroots initiative that runs a free community service to promote and encourage participation in easy, no commitment, home based, microvolunteering opportunities where a spare 10 seconds to 30 minutes is all that is needed to help out worthy causes - from anywhere in the world, even in your pyjamas!

As our name suggests, we primarily promote microvolunteering as home based, but over time have developed various other ongoing microvolunteering projects, including:

Help From School - encouraging people to change the world within their classroom as part of a citizenship course
Help From Work - encouraging people to volunteer during their lunchbreak, without leaving their office environment
Help From Seniors - encouraging senior citizens to volunteer without getting out of their armchair
Help From Holiday - encouraging people to think about responsible tourism by volunteering before, during or after their holiday

Help From Home was set up in December, 2008 to address the problem that the UK voluntary sector was not promoting such microvolunteering actions at the time. It was also set up to convey the notion that people could volunteer on the go, on demand and on their own terms - even in their pyjamas if they want to! It is now being promoted by the UK government, the main volunteering bodies in England and Wales, as well as over 50 UK high street volunteer centres.

Help From Home is considered to have the largest known directory of current active microvolunteering opportunities, with over 800 as of November, 2011. Activities include:
- searching for Genghis Khan's tomb
- discovering galaxies
- helping to cure diseases
- saving rainforests
- making sick children smile
- transcribing papyri
etc, etc

So, if you have a few minutes to spare or are just bored of watching the telly, consider some of the things you could do to help others in those spare few moments you have. As the website's motto says, you really can 'Change the world in just your pyjamas'!


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