Virtual Volunteerism

By Christl Dabu

In the 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.

As an 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 online statistics.

"It's 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 (, 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.

"I 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."

As one 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 (, Volunteer Canada's Volunteer
Opportunities Exchange ( 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.

Cost 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.

Many 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.

Lav Plourde, an English teacher with a computer background on software development and systems analysis, logged on as a virtual volunteer three years ago.

She says that virtual volunteerism helps bridge the geographical divide.

"I 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."

Bad weather and long commutes aren't the only obstacles eliminated by virtual volunteerism. So are oceans and time constraints.

"I 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.

Many 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."

MacKenzie 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 (, a non-profit international development organization.

Currently, 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 (, 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," says Amanda
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."

Brown 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."

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