Studies and Research Regarding Online Volunteering / Virtual Volunteering
By: Jayne Cravens
There are lots of studies regarding volunteerism, but rarely within these studies are any questions asked about the Internet, to determine how volunteers are using the Internet to provide some or all of their service, or how organizations are using the Internet to support and train volunteers. And while there is a plethora of general articles, commentaries and information about online volunteering, there has been relatively little research published regarding the subject, even though the practice of online volunteering has been around for more than 30 years, and even though online mentoring programs have been the "buzz" for several years now by several highprofile corporations. In an effort to encourage more research and to share what is available, as well as to show how various research has helped with the development of resources to support online volunteering, here are three lists: A compilation of publicly-available research and evaluation reports regarding online volunteering, online activists, online civic engagement, online civil society, and online mentoring (not PR pieces but, rather, reviews and research that more than mention these subjects). A list of various research documents and articles relating to telecommuting, virtual teams and Internet culture that were used to produce resources at The Virtual Volunteering Project and remain highly relevant. A list of possible angles for researching online volunteering, primarily to benefit practitioners (those involving online volunteers, or want to). If you know of a study, research project or evaluation report regarding online volunteering, online activists, online civic engagement, online civil society, or online mentoring -- even at just one organization -- please notify me with the name of the study or evaluation and a link for more information (even if the entire report is not freely available online). This can include informal evaluations of individual programs (rather than PR pieces or news articles): "Involving International Online Volunteers: Factors for Success, Organizational Benefits, and New Views of Community," by Jayne Cravens, MSc. In conjunction with the Institute for Volunteering Research's November 2005 conference, "Volunteering Research: Frontiers and Horizons," this research, the first done regarding Online Volunteering in quite a while, was undertaken to assess current common practices among organizations successfully involving international online volunteers; to explore the role
online volunteering may play in building a more cohesive global community; and to assess the relationship between involving online volunteers and building organizational capacities. This paper offers a brief history and overview of online volunteering practice and details survey results regarding organizations that involved the Outstanding Online Volunteers of 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 at www.onlinevolunteering.org. This paper was published in The International Journal of Volunteer Administration (IJOVA) in July 2006. NetSquared and the New Wave of Online Volunteering Tiny nonprofit organizations with very little staff are doing extraordinary things with volunteers, and making their volunteers feel included and energized, not with pins and tshirts but through greater and more-meaningful involvement. This conference in 2006 provided endless examples of such, and the web site provides details on many of these, and is frequently updated with new information. A gold mine for researchers and practitioners alike. "Online Volunteers: Knowledge Managers in Nonprofits," by Ismael Peña-López. Published in The Journal of Information Technology in Social Change, Spring Edition April 2007. Analyzed 17 web sites devoted to fostering volunteering to find out (a) if there was a broadly accepted definition of the concept of online volunteering and (b) if there was a list of tasks thus designed as the core or ideal competencies of online volunteers. "Virtual Volunteering", by Yvonne Harrison and Vic Murray, published in Emerging Areas of Volunteering by ARNOVA in 2005. Examines online volunteering in Canada, and part of a growing set of articles by these researchers, collaboratively and individually, on the subject. Other articles include a chapter, "Bridging the Effectiveness Divide: The Case of Online Recruitment in Canada," in the book Nonprofits and Technology: Emerging Research for Usable Knowledge , edited by Cortes and Rafter, 2007; a summary of the research carried out by Harrison, Murray and Jim MacGregor on the impact of information and communications technology on the management of Canadian volunteer programs, featured in The Canadian Journal of Volunteer Resources Management Vol. 12, No. 2, 2004; "Information and Communications Technology: Navigating Technological Change and Changing Relationships in Volunteer Administration," the lead article in the Journal of Volunteer Administration, Vol. 22, No. 3, 2004; "The Use and Effectiveness of Information and Communications Technology in the Management of Volunteer Programs", (2004); "The Impact of ICT on the Management of Canadian Volunteer Programs: Information and Communications Technology: Beyond Anecdotes, (2004); "Virtual Volunteering in Canada Fact Sheet 2002"; "The Impact of Information and Communications Technology on Volunteer Management" (2002); and "Virtual Volunteering: Current Status and Future Prospects", regarding online volunteering in Canada (2002).
"Social Movement Participation in the Digital Age: Predicting Offline and Online Collective Action," by Suzanne Brunsting and Tom Postmes. Published in Small Group Research, vol. 33, issue 5, October 2002 "Motives to participate in online versus offline collective action were investigated among environmental activists in the Netherlands... This research gives an empirical insight in the influence of Internet on motives for collective action and on the participation of peripheral members." Technology-Assisted Delivery of School Based Mental Health Services: Defining School Social Work for the 21st Century, which was co-published simultaneously as the Journal of Technology in Human Services, Volume 21, Numbers 1/2 2003, by The Haworth Press, featured a paper by Jayne Cravens, Online Mentoring: Programs and Suggested Practices as of February 2001. Human Services Online: A New Arena for Service Delivery, which was co-published simultaneously as the Journal of Technology in Human Services, Volume 17, Numbers 1 and 2/3 2000, by The Haworth Press, featured a paper by Jayne Cravens, "Virtual Volunteering: Online Volunteers Providing Assistance to Human Service Agencies." The Virtual Volunteering Project, based at the University of Texas at Austin and directed by Jayne Cravens, did a few small, informal studies regarding online volunteering among different services and their users in 1997, 1998 & 1999. Power to the Edges: Trends and Opportunities in Online Civic Engagement Final Edition 1.0 - May 6, 2005, by Jillaine Smith, Martin Kearns and Allison Fine. This paper explores trends and strategies related to the current (as of May 2005) and future state of online activism, fundraising, and democracy. It draws on a review of articles, studies, online discussions, and interviews with 19 leaders in the fields of online technologies, nonprofit capacity building, citizen engagement and social networks. By civic engagement, the authors mean "activities by which people participate in civic, community and political life and by doing so express their commitment to community." The authors stress that "online engagement does not preclude, exclude or even dilute the need for "on land" (or offline) engagement such as house parties and door-to-door canvassing. Rather...traditional forms of engaging citizens remain the most effective for connecting and organizing. The relationship between online and offline citizen engagement requires a constant flow back and forth that balances the need for scale with the need for the intensity and personal connection that comes from in-person gatherings and activities." Authors also note that: "New models of civic engagement require a different set of benchmarks, skills and training. In fact, the changes have very little to do with technology or the Internet and everything to do with building entirely new organizational cultures." The report concludes with a series of findings and recommendations of the ways that organizations, individuals, and philanthropic groups can help build such cultures. This 43-page paper was commissioned by the USA-based Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE).
Also see: The Psychology of Effective Business Communications in Geographically Dispersed Teams In September 2006, Cisco released this white paper that identifies rules for communicating that will help virtual teams to work together successfully. Virtual communication 'best practices' recommended in the report include agreeing to protocols on response times, and establishing rules for the selection of media and the frequency of communications, especially in multi-cultural teams. Encouraging socializing and ad-hoc chats over a virtual 'coffee machine' by using spontaneous and richer media for communications can also speed up the development of trust. Whether you work with online volunteers or with paid staff in dispersed locations, this is a very interesting and helpful white paper. One of the things I like about it in particular is it's focus on the cultural differences that can become exaggerated within virtual teams and lead to misunderstandings. Great stuff. Read the press release about this (it's a good list of highlights of the white paper). You can download the Executive Summary (PDF 137.10KB).
Here is a list of various research documents and articles relating to telecommuting, virtual teams and Internet culture that were used to produce resources at The Virtual Volunteering Project and remain highly relevant. "Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams" This is an in-depth academic study from 1998 by Dr. Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa that "explores the challenges of creating and maintaining trust in a global virtual team," particularly those that involve people of different cultures and interest, and varying degrees of commitment. I think it's still relavent 10 years after its original publication. "Successful Management in the Virtual Office" This is a masters thesis by Bernie Kelley and Bruce McGraw that was published in 1996, and it had more influence on the development of the resources at the Virtual Volunteering Project than anything other single resource. "Building an Internet Culture" "In thinking about culturally appropriate ways of using technologies like the Internet, the best starting-point is with people -- coherent communities of people and the ways they think together. " An excellent essay by Phil Agree that discusses the importance of social networking to job development and perfomrance, how the Internet provides a great opportunity for such networking, and how cyberspace needs to be promoted as a place for social interaction and prevented from becoming a corporate wasteland. Many real world examples of such social networking that have assisted companies and individuals are
given, even ways in which developing countries can use the internet to the advantage of itself and its people. This paper is from 1998 -- and still offers great insight.
There are also several studies, research projects and evaluation reports regarding the open source movement's involvement of unpaid people ("distributed engagement"). The data I've found so far has been regarding efforts to develop commercial or free software, not for the specific benefit of nonprofit organizations/civil society, and so far, I haven't found anything that would be obviously valuable to nonprofit managers (although the way these unpaid contributors are constantly motivated and continually involved across development levels is definitely something from which nonprofits could learn). Also see this list of resources relating to telecommuting and virtual teams. If you know of a study, research project or evaluation report regarding online volunteering, online activists, online civic engagement or online mentoring -- even at just one organization -please notify me with the name of the study or evaluation and a link for more information (even if the entire report is not freely available online). This can include informal evaluations of individual programs. In addition, if you are the author of a study, research project or evaluation report regarding using the Internet to support, train or involve volunteers, consider posting information to the Wikimedia entry for online volunteering / virtual volunteering. If you are a university-based researcher and are in need of information regarding online volunteering, online activists, online civic engagement or online mentoring, please contact me, and I will do all that I can to help you, free of charge. Please include complete details about your research project, and be prepared to provide confirmation from the university of your studies. Are you a researcher wondering what angle you might take in a study about online volunteering or online mentoring? I have some suggestions. What's not needed or things like "Why do people volunteer online" -- studying that answer isn't going to change anythingfor organizations expected or wanting to use the Internet to support and involve volunteers, IMO. What's needed, at least among organizations expected to involve online volunteers, is academic research exploring: if there are differences in motivation to engage as a volunteer online among people of different ages, ethnicities, education levels, regions or genders how to recruit online volunteers successfully from specific demographics that may be under-represented at an organization among its current volunteers and paid staff
what makes an online volunteering experience successful for both the organization and the volunteer
how an organization's cultural or administrative practices may or may not change when it involves, trains and/or supports volunteers via the Internet
what has to happen to change an organization's staff mindset regarding involving, training and/or supporting volunteers via the Internet from a negative ("We are not going to do this") to a positive ("We are totally going to do this!")?
successes by NGOs and other organizations in developing countries in involving online volunteers
successes by NGOs in one particular country, other than the USA, in using the Internet to support and interact with volunteers
online volunteering and female empowerment in Africa/ Asia/Arab states/CIS states/Latin America
online volunteering and youth involvement in Africa/ Asia/Arab states/CIS states/Latin America
long-term online mentoring relationships, and how the qualities of organizations managing such differ from those organizations unable to cultivate long-term online mentoring relationships