When corporate volunteering opportunities are mentioned, the conjured image is often a team of people building a home in record time, or a line of employees offering piping hot meals at a community kitchen on Thanksgiving. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing requirements and remote working conditions have become the norm. Likewise, how individuals and corporations are volunteering has needed to change with the times.
Remote volunteering may have come to the forefront because of the pandemic; however, it is far from a new concept. Also called cyber volunteering, digital volunteering, virtual volunteering, or e-volunteering, the basis remains the same – an online, off-site form of assisting (generally) non-profit organizations with pro-bono skills and labor. As with the internet, remote volunteering applications are near-infinite, and only limited by ingenuity.
The History of Remote Volunteering
People have been recruited and engaged in online volunteering since the advent of the internet in the 1970s. Project Gutenberg started in 1971 with volunteers that spent their time digitizing, archiving, and distributing the works of Austin, Dickens, and Twain that were no longer protected under copyright laws. However, remote volunteering only became commonplace in the 1990s when the internet began to be used more widely by the public. Tim Berners-Lee, the noted developer of the World Wide Web, commented on the pivotal role of what would now be deemed virtual or remote volunteers had in the development of the internet itself1.
Impact Online promoted remote volunteering on its website as early as 1995 and quickly realized the apparent gap in linking willing volunteers to organizations and launched the Virtual Volunteering Project in the later part of 1996. Now rebranded as VolunteerMatch, the project is well into its third decade of operation.
NetAid, Cisco Systems, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) established an online matching service for volunteers in 2000. The service stimulated NGOs and UN-linked projects serving the Global South to recruit and involve remote volunteers. United Nations Volunteers, a part of UNDP, took over the provision exclusively in 2004, and nowadays, the program has over 12,000 volunteers per year, assisting in 187 countries.
The Current State of Remote Volunteering
There is little doubt that how we work has changed because of the pandemic. Likewise, how we give is also following suit. As remote volunteering has no limitations on physical distance, people and employers are able to assist non-profits on the other side of the world without incurring excessive expenses or taking 100% of a volunteer’s time. Moreover, one-off projects or smaller, on-going projects are within the realm of both the non-profit and the volunteer.
During a time where much of the world may be feeling isolated, remote volunteering can bridge cultures and provide meaningful purpose to volunteers, while non-profit organizations can receive much-needed assistance in achieving their objectives without using dwindling resources.
Today there are numerous established online volunteer matching services available including (but far from limited to):
The Future for Remote Volunteering
If this pandemic has showcased anything, it’s that regardless of how much we strategize, we can never plan for every eventuality. Additionally, the interconnectedness of our economy has meant that non-profit organizations, particularly in the Global South, are likely to suffer the most from the expected worldwide recession.
However, the pandemic has also shown us how our community members genuinely want to make a positive difference, but do not always know how this can be achieved. Furthermore, the internet continues to be used in new and creative ways to bring busy people together to learn and collaborate on a global scale. Highlighting the creation and establishment of linkages is what is instrumental to success moving forward.