Identifying and Creating Assignments for Online Volunteers

Just as with offline volunteering, a first step in creating online tasks for volunteers is to look around and see what needs to be done. However, when thinking of virtual volunteering tasks at your own organization, we add this advice: how do your volunteers already work with staff and clients? Could you add an online component to one of your existing volunteer programs?

Before identifying assignments that could involve volunteers virtually, your organization must first have a clear understanding of the various objectives and tasks of all staff members and current volunteers. Then you can determine if there are components of these tasks that could be completed offsite by a volunteer working via a home or work computer and the Internet. Your staff should also look into activities that your staff may not be doing but that would be in support of your organization's overall goals.

The Basics

Successful Management in the Virtual Office (2005), by Bernie Kelly and Bruce McGraw, identifies these tasks as appropriate for telecommuting jobs, and they are also appropriate for virtual volunteering:

  • Administrative
  • Analysis
  • Calculating
  • Data analysis
  • Data entry
  • Data manipulation
  • Data processing
  • Data programming
  • Maintaining databases
  • Meeting with clients
  • Planning
  • Project-oriented work/management
  • Reading
  • Recordkeeping
  • Research
  • Sending/receiving electronic mail
  • Spreadsheet analysis
  • Support activities
  • Thinking
  • Typing
  • Using a computer
  • Word processing
  • Writing


The (Help) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management (2004), by Katherine Noyes Campbell and Susan Ellis, offers exercises to help staff determine what tasks could be performed by volunteers in onsite settings, and these exercises are applicable when looking for virtual assignments as well. Consider the following questions for each function and task:

  • Is this currently being done by someone else in the organization? Is this working well, or do adjustments / additions need to be made?
  • Is this something I like to do? Would it be hard for me to turn this over to someone else, or would I just as soon have someone else do it?
  • Can I do it well? Do I have the necessary skills, or would it be done better (or faster) by someone with greater expertise than I?
  • How does this task fit with my current work schedule? Does it have to be done at a specific time of day? How does this fit with the requirements of my other job responsibilities?
  • How frequently does this have to be done? Continuously? Weekly? Monthly? Annually?
  • Is this task something I am required to do, given agency policies, regulations or law?
  • Should this task be done by one individual, or could it be done by several people, or a group?

Other advice for creating virtual assignments comes from telecommuting manuals, which suggest identifying:

  • tasks that can be evaluated primarily by qualitative rather than quantitative results.
  • tasks that do not involve high security or handling of proprietary data.
  • information-handling jobs that require computers (e.g. accountants, programmers, data entry, designers).
  • individual contributor jobs not dependent on a team environment to accomplish tasks.

Even Greater Horizons

The aforementioned questions can help you identify technical assistance volunteer opportunities -- where volunteers are working with staff and other volunteers, not with clients. But virtual volunteering can bring together volunteers and clients in meaningful, productive scenarios, as many organizations have already discovered. For instance, if you have:

  • a phone support network or hotline, matching clients with volunteers around a certain issue via phone
  • a volunteer mentoring or tutoring program
  • a home-visitors program, where volunteers visit people who are home-bound
  • etc.

Why not give these volunteers and clients in these exisiting programs the option of also conversing via e-mail? It's a gradual introduction to virtual volunteering without even saying the words!

One of the most important things in writing task descriptions is to avoid creating unreasonable expectations. Don't assume that a particular volunteer has many hours to spend every day on a project, or will be volunteering with your organization forever -- even if they say they are. Keeping expectations realistic means the volunteer won't be overwhelmed, your agency will get the work it needs, and no one is set up for failure.