Tuesday, 3 May 2011


If you are a reader of blogs, articles, tweets and a variety of other material on volunteerism then the concept of microvolunteering cannot have escaped your notice in recent months.

In a nutshell, the idea is that you can take part in volunteering through activities that require a very small commitment of your time.  They are commonly available online (although offline microvolunteering does take place and has done so for years), especially via mobile phone apps and other technological and/or social networking means. 

I won't go into more detail here about what microvolunteering is because plenty of others have covered the topic before.  For example, Help From Home have produced a very good free download introducing the concept and have also made freely available a guide to setting up a microvolunteering project.  Sam Sparrow, the excellent head of the volunteer unit at Catch 22, has also written on the subject to in her blog about modernising volunteering the micro way.

Anyone who has heard me speak on the microvolunteering concept will know what whilst I think the idea has potential, I am also sceptical about its two most commonly stated benefits:

  • That microvolunteering allows people who don't volunteer because they don't have the time to give to engage in ways that fit their lives 

  • That those who engage in microvolunteering will likely catch the volunteering and become more regular volunteers in future.

For me there are three reasons for my scepticism on microvolunteering.

Time poverty - real or perceived?
Firstly, we seem to be buying into the belief that people don't volunteer because they don't have the time.  In my experience, people don't volunteer because they think they don't have the time.  That's an important distinction.

If they really don't have the time then maybe microvolunteering is a solution.  

But if they really don't get involved because they think they'll be asked for more than they are prepared to give then there is a different and potentially more powerful approach we can take. 

One that changes how we plan for volunteer engagement so we don't just offer long term, open-ended time intensive opportunities.  

One that seeks to give them positive role models, to show how people just like them (not celebrities or politicians but real working people who have to balance jobs, family etc.) manage to give just some of their time to good causes.

NCVO recently published "Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures" and the following lines from a section on political engagement struck me as relevant to this issue of microvolunteering:

"The most common reasons for not participating in the 2010 general election were...a 'lack of time' or 'being too busy'.  So, whilst the internet gives us greater access to democracy than ever before, without building knowledge and fostering interest it's unlikely to make a dramatic difference."

In other words, as more and more online tools have been developed to help people engage with politics, there is still a problem of people saying they were too busy to vote.  

The cautionary parallel for microvolunteering is that if we don't tackle the root causes of people's lack of engagement with volunteering - for example, the reasons for their perceptions of time poverty in regard to volunteering - then we can develop all the whizzy tech tools we want but we won't ultimately solve the problem.

Micro becomes macro?
Secondly, nobody can yet point to any evidence that people who do microvolunteering go on to macrovolunteering, that is volunteering that would fit with most people's understanding of giving time on a more regular and/or time intensive basis.

Further on in the NCVO paper on participation there is a section on e-campaigning.  I quote:

"People primarily participate through digital channels because it is fast, easy and at their convenience.  While it can be used for deepening engagement, most organisations aren't yet putting effort into achieving this."

If this isn't happening in campaigning, an area of civil society activity that gets lots of attention and support, then I am pretty confident that it isn't happening in volunteering, the Cinderella of the sector.  That isn't to say that it won't happen, that someone won't prove that microvolunteering leads to macrovolunteering.  I hope they do.  But it does suggest that right now that evidence isn't there.

Impact - is there any?
The parallels with other forms of participation courtesy of the NCVO report continue, again via talk of e-campaigning where I was struck by this line:

"For most supporters, e-campaigning makes supporting what they believe easier and more convenient.  This ultimately gets more participation in the campaign.  What it doesn't do is guarantee and impact: this still relies on good research, strategy and implementation".

To read a lot of the writing on microvolunteering, you'd be forgiven for thinking it is some kind of magic bullet to engaging time poor people in your cause.

However, just as there is a dearth of evidence to demonstrate the alleged micro-to-macro link, so there is also a huge gap in our knowledge about whether microvolunteering actually makes any meaningful difference. 

Even if it does get more people into volunteering, microvolunteering doesn’t yet appear to guarantee that what they do has any positive impact at all.

I am not alone
And I am not alone in my scepticism about microvolunteering. 

Jayne Cravens, perhaps the world's leading authority on the use of technology in volunteerism, recently wrote two excellent blog posts about how microvolunteering is virtual volunteering and reflecting on another person's take on microvolunteering following the publication of Leonie Shanks' excellent sceptical blog, microvolunteering: fast food for the Big Society.

Final thoughts
I hope by now you have realised that I think the case for microvolunteering has been overstated and that it is seemingly becoming accepted as the next big thing without any evidence existing to show microvolunteering deserves such attention.  

I look forward to being proved wrong, I really do.

I hope someone can show that it does effectively tackle real or perceived time poverty, that it does help people catch the volunteering bug and up their commitment accordingly and that given the profile it has microvolunteering really does make a real difference to good causes.

Until then I shall sceptical about (but not anti) microvolunteering.

NB - Since my original post there has been a discussion about my thoughts on i-volunteer.  Also, Ben Rigby over at Sparked.com has published his own response.  As Ben says, "It’s really exciting to hear so many people thinking through the problem areas and possibilities of this dynamic new field" and I'm proud to be playing a part in that.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rob,

    Really enjoyed your posts and thoughts over on your Third Sector blog. In my capacity as a Volunteering Manager in a university, I've found microvolunteering a really useful way to promote our service, and I can also state that two students who found out about our service through the 'Five Minute Volunteering' opportunities have subsequently gone on to attend a number of one-off opportunities, and are now in the process of setting up a Volunteering Society. They also both sit on our Student-Led Steering Committee.

    Their commitment to volunteering has been steadily creeping up, and whilst that might have happened anyway, they certainly appreciated the opportunity to get practically involved through the microvolunteering opportunity we offered.

    Of course, there were numbers of people who took that opportunity up that we've never seen again - but it gave us a good opportunity to demonstrate volunteering in action rather than words, and I think that's probably a more appropriate way to get people interested.