Since its inception in the 1990s, virtual volunteering has experienced a rapid growth in popularity.  In the 21st Century, organizations began extending their networks by creating virtual volunteer positions, which function completely online.  However, for many, a sense of mystery still surrounds virtual volunteering, in spite of its now global reach. 


While many celebrate the unique potential of virtual volunteering, the experience isn’t necessarily the right fit for everyone.  Similar to traditional volunteering, virtual volunteering comes with its own set of pros and cons, which we’ve described below.


The Pros


1. It’s flexible. Probably the main benefit is that virtual volunteering can be tailor-made to suit anyone’s needs. Virtual volunteers aren’t required to commute, make themselves look presentable, or spend long hours a project.  In fact, volunteer search engines enable people to narrow opportunities according to the amount of time they want to serve, and they can determine when to fulfill their responsibilities.  In addition, virtual volunteers aren’t restricted by physical disabilities, distance, or other obligations.  Anyone with an Internet connection and/or a phone can volunteer, build personal and professional connections through an online network, and make an impact.


2. It’s skills-based.  Many people want to use their professional skills to advance the common good.  Furthermore, some people want to get more practice with skills that need improvement.  Virtual volunteering allows busy professionals the chance to find an opportunity that suits their availability and skill set, which will ultimately give their resumes a healthy boost.  Volunteer work impresses employers in general, but virtual volunteer work shows that applicants are masters at managing their time.


3. It’s global.  The fact of the matter is, volunteers are no longer restricted by distance or location.  LA traffic, different time zones, and even the Pacific Ocean cannot stand in the way of a volunteer’s desire to help a cause. UNVolunteers, for example, is focused solely on virtual volunteers, connecting them to service work around the globe.  Indeed, volunteers can make a difference in a community thousands of miles away, all from the comfort of their own home.  Plus, their experiences will familiarize them with languages, people, and cultures they otherwise would never have known. 



The Cons


1. It lacks organizational support.  One of the most cited complaints of virtual volunteering is serving an organization that doesn’t effectively support or communicate with virtual volunteers.  This might be because the organization didn’t develop a solid strategy for operating a virtual volunteer program.  And, as a result, virtual volunteers might experience many frustrations, such as long waits for responses to questions or a general disconnect from the organization’s “family.”  Without an effective means of inclusion and recognition, virtual volunteers can feel left out and lose interest.


2. It’s isolating.  While volunteering from home might be a dream come true for some, for others it might drain the experience of valuable social interaction and a tangible sense of impact.  Virtual volunteers might not benefit from the feelings of empathy and personal connections, which traditional volunteering is known to deliver.  Furthermore, virtual volunteering might lack a sense of camaraderie, leaving the volunteer without the benefits of sharing a common goal with a team. Consequently, virtual volunteers have been known to lose motivation and quit.


3. It’s difficult to sense a distinct mission.  Factors such as social interaction, direct involvement with the cause, and first-hand accounts of positive impacts don’t automatically come with the territory of virtual volunteering. If effective alternatives have not been strategically developed, virtual volunteers might lose a sense of belonging to a community and a sense of purpose.  Furthermore, the physical disconnect inherent in virtual volunteering could impair a volunteer’s sense of influence in a cause. Such challenges could weaken a volunteer’s commitment.



While the cons might make a fairly bleak case for virtual volunteering, it is worth noting that subject-matter experts have developed useful methods to help both virtual volunteers and organizations avoid mediocre experiences.  For example, in 2000, Susan J. Ellis and Jayne Cravens pioneered research in virtual volunteering with their study on best practices, pit-falls, and potential in their book, The Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. In 2014, they updated their research, dispelled myths, and offered additional resources in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.  


As with any volunteering opportunity, careful consideration should precede a person’s decision to commit.  Interested applicants should read volunteer descriptions closely to see if their needs match those of the organization.  In another one of our blog posts, a useful guide to making the most of virtual volunteering is available to assist readers who are interested in volunteering in an online capacity.

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