Is your organization struggling to keep current volunteers engaged due to stay-at-home orders? How might volunteers support your cause from the safety of their home? While the concept of remote volunteering may be new to you, some organizations have put the power of remote support to good use for decades. This post provides an introduction to the concept, along with a range of examples to inspire ideas for your organization, and some key considerations for successfully introducing remote volunteer opportunities to advance your mission.
What exactly is ‘remote’ volunteering?
Whether you’ve heard it described in these terms before, nonprofits and other causes have enlisted remote support from volunteers for decades. Essentially, any volunteer effort that doesn’t require a participant to come to your office or field site to contribute their time and talents likely falls into this category. Many organizations also use the term ‘virtual’ volunteering—especially when the task(s) can be conducted online. Within this digital niche, the terms micro-volunteering and e-volunteering are sometimes used. While there is a growing abundance of web-based examples, it’s important to note that remote volunteering is not limited to activities requiring a computer or internet connection.
Why should we consider using remote volunteer support?
There was a time when volunteer service was highly regimented and typically involved a regular weekly or monthly shift. When you couple: 1) societal shifts that result in fewer people working predictable nine-to-five schedules, and more people juggling multiple jobs along with child-care and caregiver responsibilities; with 2) the instant-gratification and on-demand culture cultivated by rapidly advancing technologies—people need and expect flexibility. Volunteers want to help when they can find pockets of time in their schedule, and those pockets of time will generally be unpredictable.
Remote volunteer roles are often a better fit for today’s lifestyles and the current uncertainty posed by COVID-19 because they:
- generally don’t require a predictable or pre-set schedule
- may require advance training or specialized skills, but can be done independently
- can be structured as a task that can be completed in as little as a few minutes
- allow for people without transportation, or those located in rural areas or even other states or countries, to participate
- are often more accessible to prospective participants regardless of physical health or abilities
Collectively, these factors lower many of the potential barriers to participation as a volunteer, and also enable you to engage a more diverse volunteer corps in support of your cause.
A selection of real life examples
To provide a snapshot of the wide-ranging possibilities presented by the use of remote volunteers, I’ve compiled two short lists of current opportunities that include a mix of local + global reach and impact:
Simple, low-tech microvolunteering opportunities:
- homemade face masks: volunteers make and donate cloth face masks for Kennedy Krieger Institute employees, patients and visitors
- handwritten letters: volunteers write letters to residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospices and senior centers through Love for the Elderly
- social media: volunteers serve as social media ambassadors to help raise awareness and reach of the Austin Public Library into the community
- animal shelter needs: volunteers make treats, toys, and bedding for various shelter animals at the Pasadena Human Society & SPCA, including dogs, cats, rabbits, and hamsters
- handmade caps + blankets: volunteers knit or crochet caps for those struggling with treatment-induced hair loss and tiny neonatal blankets for fragile new lives in incubators through Knots of Love
- animal behavior: volunteers help PDX Wildlife document behavioral data collected while viewing live webcams monitoring captive pandas
More sophisticated platforms and/or opportunities:
- historic documents: volunteers help turn Boston Public Library’s collection of handwritten correspondence between anti-slavery activists in the 19th century (one of the largest collections of abolitionist material in the United States—containing ~40,000 pieces) into machine-readable texts that can be more easily read and researched by students, teachers, historians, and big data applications
- visual assistance: a free app (Be My Eyes) that connects blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers for visual assistance through a live video call
- language translation: a crowd-sourced platform (Kató) managed by Translators Without Borders that connects qualified volunteer translators directly with nonprofit partners; enlists volunteers to translate Wikipedia entries into as many languages as possible (Wiki 100×100); coordinates a crisis response translation network (Words of Relief) to improve communications between crisis-affected communities and humanitarian responders
- mapping: an open, collaborative project (Missing Maps) in which remote volunteers help to map areas where humanitarian organizations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people
- human rights: a global network of digital volunteers (Amnesty Decoders) helping to research and expose human rights violations by using their computers or phones to help researchers sift through pictures, information, and documents
- free audiobooks: volunteers read and record chapters of printed books that are then made available for free on the internet as audiobooks through LibriVox
103 ideas to inspire opportunities your organization might host
Virtually every nonprofit or cause, regardless of your mission focus, can create meaningful ways to utilize volunteers through remote service. To help you think through what that might look like for your organization, I’ve compiled a whopping list of 103 ideas that borrow from real-life examples shared by friends and colleagues, as well as a thorough search of opportunities currently being recruited online. While the categories are a bit imperfect in that some ideas could be placed in more than one area, they are intended as general groupings to help your team identify relevant approaches for your cause.
Keep in mind that these examples include a mix of support that includes:
- back office operations
- direct service delivery—through phone, text, or internet
- virtual or remote promotion + advocacy
- hands-on tasks completed at home—which in some cases require a mail drop or delivery of materials they’ve created
- …and much more!
share online petitions; prepare testimony in support of or opposition to local, state, or federal legislation; write to decision-makers (via letter writing, email, or postage-paid postcards provided by your organization); conduct peer-to-peer texting campaigns; serve as a court appointed special advocate (CASA); conduct research on policy issues; prepare, support, or lead informational briefings to update grassroots coalitions on policy issues; investigate and analyze legal issues; support hotlines that provide callers with individualized information or legal referrals; conduct outreach and training to strengthen coalition capacity
scan documents or photographs; organize physical or digital files, including image libraries; prepare mail-outs (affix labels, stuff envelopes, etc.); transcribe audio files; monitor and/or respond to email messages sent to a shared program email account; make phone call reminders; research options for new services or supplies (including features, pricing, nonprofit discounts, etc.); conduct data entry; update PDFs and/or web pages to be meet accessibility guidelines (e.g., add document structure tags, alternative text, etc.); improve or manage SEO tasks (e.g., update site maps, add meta descriptions to each web page, etc.); take notes during web conferences; provide remote phone receptionist support
monitor + record animal behaviors via webcam; map street trees; conduct water quality monitoring; report wildlife sightings; document alien or invasive species; participate in a bird count or census; monitor bird nests; collect weather data; observe coral bleaching; listen for frog and toad calls; record spawning season observations for various species; gather other environmental data to document impacts of climate change (e.g., life cycles of plants, tidal activity, etc.)
moderate online discussion spaces (like private Facebook groups); serve as social media ambassadors; host virtual social hours to connect team members (could include volunteers, staff, board, community, etc.); provide friendly support during Zoom and other web-based convenings (e.g., welcome participants as they join, acknowledge comments and questions, etc.); make phone calls to welcome or check in with new members; reach out to collect data or get feedback from existing members or clients; lead/facilitate a community of practice professional group; contact businesses for donations of goods or services; participate in or convene focus groups; host virtual volunteers orientations; set-up phone trees to get folks talking and sharing with each other; host a virtual volunteer appreciation event
transcribe and tag scanned images of historical documents; map a disaster zone; help expose human rights violations; provide feedback on messaging; generate (or vote to select) a tagline, program name, or logo; create and/or contribute to an informational wiki page; generate subtitles for films or other lengthy videos; add indexing tags to online image libraries; survey populations to inform public health initiatives (e.g, disease detection and surveillance, behavioral interventions, health literacy, etc.); invite submissions of personal stories, photographs, and/or memorabilia around a topic or issue (to inform or become the basis or a campaign, collection, exhibit, or communications); conduct market research; develop, coordinate, or contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to support a pilot initiative and/or unexpected/immediate need
make cards; knit, crochet, or quilt blankets for hospital patients; sew or mend clothing, costumes, or uniforms; make PPE (e.g., masks, face shields, head coverings, gowns, etc.); make toys, treats, or blankets for shelter animals; make memory bears, pillows, or blankets to preserve the memory of lost loved ones; create video tutorials; build bookshelves or storage cabinets; prepare hygiene or toiletry kits; make rehabilitation gifts (e.g., lap robes, comfort pillows, wheelchair or walker totes, etc.)
conduct mock interviews; provide tutoring; serve as a mentor; provide support or supervision to other volunteers; make kindness calls to care home residents; provide emotional support to those dealing with illness or trauma; host online ‘study hall’ sessions; provide second language practice through video chat or telephone; provide peer-to-peer trauma survivor support; provide wellness or recovery support through texting and/or calls
SHARING SPECIALIZED SKILLS:
translate materials into other languages; conduct website design, audit, and/or maintenance; provide coaching or training on digital literacy and safety for seniors; help create or review a business plan or earned income strategy; lend graphic design services; serve as a photographer; provide crisis support or counseling; train staff to set-up or use new project management, database, website or other software; create infographics; advise on merchandising; serve on an advisory group available to provide expert guidance or input; provide bookkeeping support
WRITING & EDITING:
prepare (or contribute to elements of) grant proposals; copy-edit collateral materials; craft testimonials sourced from program participant survey responses or evaluations; write staff or volunteer profiles; contribute blog posts; generate content for social media posts; edit a newsletter (print or digital); author, co-author, or ghost-write opinion-editorials, a.k.a. op-eds; write captions for videos; serve as a pen pal; write quiz or trivia questions for newsletters or social media; provide short reviews of books, videos, or other industry content; write letters to seniors, front-line workers, and troops
Planning + safety considerations
The same considerations and organizational readiness you would apply to on-site volunteer opportunities should be applied here (In fact, I’ll take a deeper dive on this topic in a future post!). Key items include:
- Manage expectations: Even for a really simple, one-time volunteer opportunity, its essential to—at minimum!—craft a brief description of what the volunteer will do, why it matters / how it will make a difference, and any helpful or required skills, expertise, or supplies. For more involved or extended roles, crafting a detailed position description is recommended.
- Make it easy: This applies to you and prospective volunteers! Create an online inquiry form, application, or other mechanism that makes it easy for volunteers to either learn more, submit an application (if required), or get started.
- Be ready! Never promote a volunteer opportunity if you aren’t able to acknowledge inquiries and/or respond with next steps. Additionally, consider how you will (+ establish systems to): welcome, train, support, and thank volunteers.
- Ensure compliance: Be sure to address any ethical considerations as well as confidentiality and other compliance requirements—especially when volunteers will be involved with teletherapy, counseling, or advocacy activities.
- Track + celebrate: How will you know that volunteers made a difference? What measures or data might you be able to track over time? Who will monitor this and how? Most importantly, be sure to periodically share this information with your team—including volunteers—as a way to acknowledge and celebrate impact.
Have a question or another idea to share? Did you find this post helpful? Please be sure to comment below!
Want more resources like this delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to keep in touch.