Virtual Volunteering – solution today, problem tomorrow?

Andy Fryar May 1, 2004 3
Virtual Volunteering – solution today, problem tomorrow?

OzVPM HOT TOPIC – May 2004

By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

In these days of constantly changing demographics, ageing baby boomers and increased technology, few would argue that the on-line community offers a potentially huge resource pool for volunteer programs right around the world.

No longer are we confined to volunteering in our local charity shop simply because it is located within walking distance of our home. Today, thanks to the internet, we are just as likely to find ourselves volunteering with an AIDS support organisation in Africa , a drug assistance program in Amsterdam or an animal refuge in the heart of the Amazon.

The benefits and merits of ‘online service’ have been well documented. So too have the challenges and warnings.

The positives include:

  • The prediction that as people’s lives become busier, volunteer activities via the internet will become an increasingly popular way of engaging volunteers from their homes and at their leisure
  • The knowledge that volunteer programs who can create positions that can be done ‘out-of-regular-hours’ will prove to be increasingly popular
  • The fact that the recruitment of volunteers (like volunteering itself) becomes limitless. Organisations who can create high quality volunteer roles can now recruit their teams from all four corners of the globe.

Some of the challenges include:

  • Volunteer involving organisations needing to become more vigilant in creating meaningful ‘virtual’ positions for volunteers within their organisations.      This is often very difficult in more established programs with a heavy ‘hands on’ service delivery focus.
  • The understanding that today’s younger generations are more technologically savvy and will be looking for challenges involving the internet and other      technologically driven media
  • Volunteer managers needing to adapt to leading two distinct groups of volunteers – those they can see, touch and feel and others they will never meet in person – ever !

It’s here I am going to stop myself, as this is not intended to be an essay about the virtues of virtual volunteering.

There is little doubt that those organisations that heed the above warnings and who can make the appropriate changes to their volunteer programs and harness online service opportunities – will certainly enhance their chances of ongoing and successful volunteer programs in the future.

Rather I’d like to digress, gaze into my crystal ball and explore some possible futures for both the availability of volunteers and the association I believe it may have, with the virtual volunteering phenomenon.

During her recent tour of Australia , Canadian Linda Graff spoke at length about what she believes may well result in a shortage of available volunteers in the future. The ageing population, busier workloads and changing demographics are all potential contributors to this – in fact many of the larger and more established charities already appear to be experiencing some decreases in the number of people wanting to assist with their core business.

I tend to agree with Linda’s theory to a degree; that is, I certainly believe that there will appear to be a shortage of willing volunteers in the future, and I would not be surprised if over the next two decades, statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and elsewhere will begin to indicate a decline in ‘active’ volunteer participation levels.

However, in spite of this, I don’t necessarily believe that there will be a downturn in the actual number of people wanting to volunteer their time.

Firstly, let’s consider the following:

  • In the next decade or so, a large amount of the baby boomer generation will retire from paid work, often after long professional careers, with a wealth of skills, knowledge and internet literacy. Their time will be important to them as will the availability of challenging volunteer positions, so I imagine that well structured virtual volunteering opportunities will be particularly attractive to this group.
  • As the baby boomers retire, more young people, well versed in virtual environments, will increasingly find paid work, as they fill the employment gaps left      behind by the retiring baby boomers. Volunteering will remain attractive for this younger generation, but their time will be filled with daily responsibilities, again making virtual volunteering a significantly popular choice amongst this group.

The above two points potentially indicate the likelihood of a significant increase in the number of individuals who may be on the look out for online service positions, suggesting this may indeed be a growth area of the future.

Assuming the above prediction is correct, we will begin to witness a growing pool of volunteers who will prefer to volunteer from home as opposed to choosing to volunteer ‘physically’ in their community.

Now let’s consider a few other likely trends in the not-too-distant future.

  • The baby boomers won’t be getting any younger! While the baby boomers will provide an excellent pool of volunteer resources in the short to medium term, in the      longer term they will also put a huge strain on social service programs and organisations. The need for younger volunteers in these services will be greater than ever.
  • As already highlighted, those generations following the babyboomers are likely to be busier than ever, meaning they will have very limited time for any type of      volunteering except the virtual kind.

When we start to combine these different likely trends, I must admit to feeling a little nervous.

While the availability of volunteers wanting to work ‘remotely’ may indeed be a godsend for many communities, especially those in rural and regional areas, the reality is that there are only so many volunteer positions that can be filled by having someone sitting at the end of a computer!

It is my suspicion that the availability of quality and challenging virtual volunteering opportunities may indeed dry up quickly, leaving lots of willing cyber volunteers with no-where to log-in!

On the other hand, the many organisations currently using regular volunteers will continue to have a need for real people volunteering in real time – and indeed those organisations in the community services field may in fact find they have an increased need for volunteers, as the baby boomers start to become the most elderly of our citizens.

After all, an abundance of available virtual volunteers won’t get the local junior footy game umpired, the local community park cleared of graffiti or the local neighbourhood bus driven!

In short, I have a fear that in the not-too-distant future, the demand for meaningful virtual volunteering roles will outstrip our ability to supply these roles.

In presenting this Hot Topic, I am doing nothing more than attempting to gaze into the future, to try and predict some likely trends we may soon face. Of course, there are many other significant factors which could eventuate and change this scenario significantly.

For instance:


  • Employee volunteering programs may continue to increase and eventually take up  specifically identified areas of ‘deficit’ in more traditional volunteer programs?
  • Those volunteers unable to find a suitable online service role may indeed chose to return to more traditional volunteer jobs in order to satisfy their need to serve      their communities – in spite of their busy lifestyles
  • More flexible work arrangements in the future change may change the way we view work and make volunteering more possible than I currently anticipate?

Finally, while sharing this Hot Topic with Susan J Ellis, she reminded me that virtual volunteering choices do not have to be an ‘either/or’ situation. Increasingly volunteers are choosing to blend their volunteer roles with a mixture of both the physical and the virtual (eg. a volunteer visiting a client in a nursing home once a week may then also keep in contact between ‘physical’ visits via the internet)

It is interesting to think how this variation may indeed impact on the scenario I have outlined above and the possible solutions we may need to forge, should these observations about the future of online service ever come to fruition!

So let’s hear what you think?

  • Do you imagine that virtual volunteering will indeed become more popular in the future?
  • Do you think this may be to the detriment of more ‘hands on’ methods of volunteering?
  • Are there other challenges that the whole online service phenomenon will bring that I      haven’t identified?
  • Or are you more optimistic about future volunteer availability? Why / Why Not?*From Sunday Mail article “How all work and a little play pays’ ( 23rd May 2004 )

**Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2001, Voluntary Work, Australia 2000, Catalogue 4441.0



  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Posted on May 13, 2004 by Wendy Maher, Coordinator of Volunteers and Groups, Motor Neurone Disease Association of Victoria , Melbourne, Australia

    I see a future where virtual volunteering co-exists very comfortably with other more “hands-on” forms of volunteering.

    There will always be a group of volunteers that want to be involved in face to face work and make or have the time available. As the future trend in volunteering tends to predict a decline in this number of volunteers, virtual volunteering will become an accepted and maybe preferred form of volunteering.

    As adaptable, creative Managers (Coordinators) of Volunteer Programs, I am sure that we will be able to move forward with the times, maintain appealing volunteer positions, identify the risks involved in virtual volunteering, and implement strategies to manage, as we do now and have in the past.

    Thanks Andy for keeping us challenged with your “Hot Topics”

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Posted on May 10, 2004 by Carol Spencer, Volunteer Coordinator, Sydney, Australia

    I just wanted to say thank you for such a thought provoking and far reaching hot topic. The reality is that while we really don’t know where volunteering will be in the next twenty years, it is commentaries like this one that starts us thinking about some of the possibilities.

  3. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Posted on May 5, 2004 by Jayne Cravens, Online Volunteering Specialist, United Nations Volunteers, Bonn, Germany

    I’ve worked with online volunteers since 1995, and have been promoting online volunteerism to others since December 1996. With all due respect, this editorial is full of misconceptions about online volunteerism.

    “Volunteer managers needing to adapt to leading two distinct groups of volunteers – those they can see, touch and feel and others they will never meet in person – ever !”

    This is not true. Online volunteers and onsite volunteers are NOT two distinct groups. The overwhelming majority of online volunteers as *also* onsite volunteers, often volunteering both ways for the same organization.

    Also, many online volunteers — maybe most — are seen in person by the organization. Yes, there are people who volunteer for organizations on the other side of the world from them — but the majority volunteer for organizations just down the street.

    No one is choosing to volunteer online instead of onsite. No one is saying, “wow, online volunteering is great, and I’m going to do it and stop doing onsite volunteering.” No one.

    Involving volunteers via the Internet is becoming a necessity for volunteer managers. Even if all volunteers make their contributions onsite, volunteer managers are finding that communicating with these volunteers online, creating online forums for these volunteers to share with each other, and using the Web to both recruit and recognize volunteer activities is becoming absolutely essential, to:
    — demonstrate that the organization values volunteers’ time
    — better support volunteers undertaking activities on behalf of the organization
    — provide more opportunities for inclusion of volunteers’ ideas and suggestions.

    The challenge that involving volunteers online is bringing to volunteer managers is that it requires such managers to be much more responsive, much more dynamic, and much more interactive with volunteers — and, in addition, it raises the profile of an organizations volunteer activities and can actually increase the number of people wanting to volunteer onsite. This is not something many volunteer managers are used to nor prepared for.

    I do not believe we are facing a shortage of volunteers. Rather, we are facing a changing demographic that thinks about volunteering in a very different way. The “old school” thinking of volunteers was “I volunteer because it is my duty to give back.” The emerging way of thinking of potential volunteers is “I want to volunteer because I want to make a
    difference in a cause I believe in.” The former group is much easier to “please”, in terms of volunteer activities, than the latter, who may balk at spending hours stuffing envelopes without a healthy dose of more “hands on” activities.

    People are increasingly hungry to connect and hungry to make a difference.
    Volunteer managers can take advantage of this by evolving. Or, they can complain that times aren’t the way they used to be, and watch their volunteer ranks shrink.

Leave A Response »