Examples of Virtual Volunteering

Online volunteers can typically be classified as one of two types, depending upon the work they do: technical assistance volunteers, and direct contact volunteers.

Technical Assistance Volunteers

As the name implies, these volunteers provide assistance with task- or objective-based assignments, or a particular expertise. This group may include both onsite and offsite volunteers. They may be responsible for:

  • conducting online research: finding information to use in an agency's upcoming grant proposal or newsletter, gathering information on a particular government program or legislation that could affect an agency's clients, gathering web site addresses of similarly-focused organizations, using online phone books and web sites to update contact information for a database;
  • providing professional consulting expertise: answering an agency's questions regarding human resources, accounting, management or legal issues, writing a speech, developing a strategic plan for a particular department, setting up a video conferencing event, providing industrial designs;
  • helping with advocacy: posting information to appropriate online communities (newsgroups, lists, etc.), preparing legislative alerts to be sent via e-mail, keeping track of legislation that could affect an agency's clients;
  • translating a document into another language;
  • providing multimedia expertise, such as preparing a PowerPoint, Hypercard, QuickTime or other computer-based presentation;
  • designing an agency's newsletter or brochure, or copy editing an agency's publication or proposal;
  • proofreading drafts of paper and online publications;
  • researching and writing articles for brochures, newsletters, web sites;
  • designing a logo for an agency or program, or filling other illustration needs;
  • preparing information for an agency's Web site;
  • writing a technology plan, designing a marketing strategy, or directing other types of organizational planning and outreach;
  • making sure a Web site is accessible for people with disabilities;
  • registering an agency's home page and other appropriate pages with online search engines, directories and "What's New" sites;
  • adding an agency's volunteer opportunities into online databases;
  • designing a database system using an agency's in-house database software;
  • providing advanced Web site programming;
  • doing regular searches for news articles relating to an organization or a particular topic;
  • and volunteer management assistance: managing other volunteers in the aforementioned activities, providing an online orientation to all volunteers with Internet access (whether or not they are onsite or online volunteers), surveying volunteers via e-mail about their experiences with an agency or program, keeping track of volunteer hours, and entering volunteer opportunities into online databanks.

Direct Contact Volunteers

This type of volunteer comes into contact with a client or service recipient. For example, a volunteer, via e-mail or a chat room, could:

  • electronically visit with someone who is homebound, in a hospital or a rest home; this can be done in addition to onsite, in-person visits;
  • provide online mentoring and instruction via e-mail or private intranet (helping students with homework questions, helping an adult learn a skill or find a job, helping someone to prepare a resume or explore career options, or help prison inmates with studies or programs);
  • help with language instruction (for instance, help people learning English);
  • staff an e-mail or chat room answer/support line, like a phone answer/support line, where people write in questions and trained volunteers answer them; or, be part of an online support group, where members provide advice to each other via a chat room, list or newsgroup;
  • supervise or moderate an agency-sponsored chat room, e-mail discussion group or newsgroup;
  • provide advance "welcoming" of people about to enter the hospital, go to summer camp, etc. from volunteers, via email or a special Web page or Intranet, and post-service follow up to the same group via email or the Web;
  • work with other volunteers and/or clients to create a project, such as writing about the news of their neighborhood, school, special interest group, etc., or gathering history information relating to a particular time or region, to post on a web site or use in printed material;
  • or train volunteers in a subject via the Internet.

Informal Volunteers

There are scores of online discussion groups that aren't formally affiliated with or supervised by any agency. In these groups, anyone can ask questions and anyone can provide support to others for just about any subject imaginable. These online support groups deal with everything from using a particular type of software to parents home-schooling their kids to people with a particular disease to fans of a particular hobby. People who provide assistance in this type of setting are also volunteers.

To participate, a potential user merely signs up via the web, subscribes via e-mail, or points a newsreader to a newsgroup. There are many advantages to such groups from the volunteer point of view: no application or screening process, no set time commitment -- people volunteer whenever and however they like. Numerous people benefit from these informal online groups -- many are of tremendous value to participants.