borderless, anarchic and impersonal world of cyberspace, fused
with anything from virtual ads and junk mail to propaganda
and pluralism, altruistic Netizens are discovering a human
face to the Internet -- and making a difference in the world.
emerging phenomenon of the e-revolution where volunteers help
others online, virtual volunteering has slowly been catching
on with Netizens, non-profit groups and other organizations.
There are no statistics yet on the number of virtual volunteers.
However, approximately 6.5 million Canadians (or 27 per cent
of the population) ages 15 or older volunteered during 2000,
according to Statistic Canada's National Survey of Giving,
Volunteering and Participating, down from 7.5 million volunteers
in 1997. Despite the decline of volunteers in the real world,
virtual volunteerism offers a promising remedy, with the global
online population still exploding. The number of active Internet
users worldwide is predicted to skyrocket to 361.9 million
by 2003, a 178 per cent increase from 130.6 million users
in 1999, according to eMarketer, a provider of comprehensive
certainly not yet more popular than in-house volunteering,
but I think it's definitely emerging as a trend," says
Maggie Leithead, president of Charity Village (www.charityvillage.com),
whose Web site lists virtual and onsite volunteer positions
for the public and the Canadian non-profit community. "I
think it's a great way just to involve more people in the
organization. They can be people who are scattered around
the globe and they can be people just down the street. I think
it's just more convenient."
Others see virtual volunteering as a way to help close the
gap between the haves and have-nots in the access and use
of information technology.
"I think from an organizational perspective, it can help
with the digital divide because if you get non-profits (organizations)
that don't have the latest technology, or the people and the
skills to do it, then (by) using something like a virtual
volunteer . . . you can access the skills of some very talented
people anywhere in the world," says Randy Tyler, webmaster
and co-ordinator of the volunteer program at Winnipeg-based
Macdonald Youth Services (MYS), a United Way member agency
which provides treatment and support for high-risk youth.
Virtual volunteers for MYS help with such tasks as tutoring
foster care children online, and creating data bases and newsletters.
believe in the philosophy of sharing information, trying to
help other non-profits across Canada to open them up to the
possibilities of using the Internet and taking advantage of
it to enhance their organization," Tyler says. He works
with up to 25 volunteers at a time, helping to recruit, screen
and supervise them from anywhere in the world. "(Virtual
volunteers) have the skills, the software and hardware that
can do many complex tasks for non-profits and charities to
greatly increase their productivity and efficiency."
of the pioneers of virtual volunteerism in Canada, Tyler gets
requests to do presentations across the country on this phenomenon.
He started posting online volunteer positions and working
with virtual volunteers for MYS in 1998. Three-and-a-half
years later, he has worked with about 200 virtual volunteers.
His interactive virtual volunteer program allows people to
apply online through the following Web sites:
Macdonald Youth Services (www.mys.mb.ca), Volunteer Canada's
Opportunities Exchange (www.voe-reb.org) and Charity Village
To ensure the security of volunteers and their clients, he
also does reference, application, police and child abuse registry
checks, and even conducts telephone screening interviews for
potential virtual volunteers.
is not a barrier to getting involved with virtual volunteerism,
both for the non-profit organization and the volunteer. "You
don't need the latest technology to do this . . . as long
as you have a dialed-up connection, a computer and an e-mail
account," Tyler says.
non-profit workers and virtual volunteers also say that it
makes volunteering accessible for people with physical disabilities
and for those who live in remote communities.
Plourde, an English teacher with a computer background on
software development and systems analysis, logged on as a
virtual volunteer three years ago.
says that virtual volunteerism helps bridge the geographical
prefer doing computer-related work, and that's something that's
not always available in one's area. I live outside of Montreal
and to get into town, I have to drive an hour," says
the Pointe Calumet, Que. resident, who helps maintain the
MYS job site. "If you live in remote areas, it's definitely
the thing. . . . The advantage is you don't have to drive
through snow to get there."
weather and long commutes aren't the only obstacles eliminated
by virtual volunteerism. So are oceans and time constraints.
can set my own schedule, work on my free time and conveniently
right at my own home. . . . my volunteer (work) has not been
limited by physical locations," says Augustus Lo, a computer
programmer from Hong Kong who helps Canada-based MYS do research
online and maintains their Web pages.
organizations are also logging on for virtual help.
"While I would not say that we at Volunteer Canada have
completely virtual or web-based volunteering program, we do
increasingly facilitate the work of our various committees
and advisory groups through the Internet," says Ruth
MacKenzie, manager of special programs at Volunteer Canada,
which runs an online registry data base containing volunteer
position postings. "In terms of how we involve volunteers
virtually, I could say that it's been very effective. It's
allowed us to access a wealth of knowledge and expertise that
we might not otherwise been able to given the size of the
country. In a cost effective way, it's helped us achieve our
mission of being the national voice in volunteerism."
says a common misconception is that virtual volunteering doesn't
involve any socializing or interaction. "We haven't found
that to be the case. We find more and more volunteers are
looking to opportunities that will enhance their skills or
increase their opportunities for the work world.
Virtual volunteering can do all that. There can be opportunities
for volunteers to do really interesting work online that will
give them those skills they're looking for."
Despite the benefits of virtual volunteerism, from cost savings
to convenience, some say there are also drawbacks.
"I would say there's a lot of people that are interested
in virtual volunteerism (but) it's still a new thing. The
volunteers are ahead of the organization. The organizations
are still thinking of volunteers in the traditional way. I
think the face-to-face volunteering is still where most of
us are working in (and) is easier for us to understand,"
says Kay Larsen, head of volunteer and membership development
for Oxfam Canada (www.oxfam.ca), a non-profit international
Oxfam Canada has virtual volunteers who help them with research,
translation, and developing the volunteer database.
"Ultimately, volunteering is connecting people with each
other, and I think virtual volunteering is losing that human
element a little bit," she says. "I think virtual
volunteering still requires that volunteers get frequent contact,
that they still deserve respectful involvement, that they
deserve recognition and feedback."
She says there is a higher level of trust and confidence when
an organization is supporting volunteers face-to-face, and
adds that virtual volunteers are limited to working online.
"In some ways, it might increase the digital divide.
Organizations are relying more on the Internet to communicate,"
Larsen says. "If we rely too much on the Internet and
e-mail to communicate with our volunteers, we might leave
some people behind."
Some agree to its limitations, but still see its potential.
"Virtual Volunteering obviously cannot work for all things
--there's no way to 'virtually' bring food to an AIDS patient,"
says Sully Ross, web co-ordinator of the University of Texas'
Virtual Volunteering Project (www.serviceleader.org/vv/index.html),
which offers extensive resources and information to help organizations
and volunteers engage in an effective and meaningful online
service. "There are, however, many services that non-profit
organizations need filled that can easily be performed by
people from their home or office computers. The main service
that virtual volunteering provides is mobilizing volunteers
who would not have the time or mobility to do on-site work.
It's not about replacing traditional volunteering, but about
adding to it."
Although many see the impersonal nature of the Internet as
a setback to virtual volunteerism, some feel differently.
"I haven't found that I've been isolated at all,"
Brown, a physiotherapist from Toronto who has been a tutoring
a 16-year-old boy online since 2000. "We use the instant
messaging services. Once you get used to using it and chatting
online, you're able to communicate just as well face-to-face."
adds that the online experience has been just as rewarding
as onsite volunteering. "I'm really enjoying it. I find
you do see results. I think you do make a connection definitely
with the person. You hear feedback both from the person you're
tutoring and foster parents (that) you're helping them and
grades have improved."