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A Primer on Virtual Volunteering

By Vanessa Chiasson

Why you should consider volunteering “abroad” online—and how to get the most out of online volunteer placements.

The idea of volunteering abroad typically conjures up images of long flights, heavy backpacks, and difficult living conditions. But thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, that model has shifted for many organizations. Online volunteering is here—and here to stay.

To be fair, the pandemic didn’t invent online volunteering. The challenges of COVID simply brought web-based opportunities to a much wider audience. As Alison Stevens, specialist in volunteer centres and volunteer engagement for Volunteer Canada points out, online volunteering isn’t new.

“It's been around for at least 30 years, if not longer, because virtual volunteering doesn't always mean 'on the internet,'” she says. In the past, phone-based support was a component of many domestic volunteer programs. It is well-established that you don’t have to be in the same space to make great connections.

While some organizations had dabbled in volunteering abroad in an online format before the pandemic, the global health crisis forced many to make a full pivot. From health consultations to kindergarten teaching, positions that were once thought to be difficult to coordinate in online environments are now common in the virtual sphere—and international development roles are no exception to this rule.

Understanding the benefits of online volunteer placements

Online volunteering levels the playing field for volunteers, including those with accessibility or issues; financial limitations; or employment, family or educational time commitments. Instead of spending 24/7 engaged in a volunteer placement abroad, micro-volunteering can be done in as little as 10 minutes.

“One benefit of e-volunteering is that it allows volunteers the flexibility to do the work when they are available. Some may work full-time or have other commitments so the flexibility allows them to be involved when they can be,” says Yvette Macabuag of Cuso International.

Cuso’s online roles, for example, are more project-based and tied to a specific deliverable, such as translating a document, completing a piece of research, or creating a manual.

Virtual volunteering doesn’t just work to the benefit of volunteers—it can also work to the benefit of overseas partners.

Virtual volunteering doesn’t just work to the benefit of volunteers—it can also work to the benefit of overseas partners.

“E-volunteering has opened up opportunities to access skills that were perhaps more challenging to recruit for, or were too specialized for a long-term assignment,” says Macabuag. “With wider and more reliable access to technology, our partners have been able to define these types of assignments and engage with our e-vols.”

E-volunteering vs. in-person volunteering

In some ways, the day of an online volunteer isn’t that different from that of an on-the-ground participant. You joke with co-workers, do your best to corral program participants, and there is lots of talk about the big things in life (like where to buy the best lunch). You’ll learn more about the country and culture where you’re doing your “placement,” fret over budgets, frown over curricula, and hope that your work in art therapy or accounting makes a difference. But that’s where the similarities end. You sleep in your own bed, shop at your usual market and hang out with your friends on the weekend.

For all the benefits of online volunteering, there are many challenges that potential participants need to take into consideration. Many of the major perks of traditional volunteering projects are gone. International travel is removed from the equation. Unless you’re lucky with local sources, you can say goodbye to eating a new cuisine and trying new drinks. Language classes are always possible, but even the most dedicated e-student won’t have the same experience as someone immersed in the local culture. Zoom burnout is a very real thing, as are the challenges of the digital divide, which affect even affluent countries. Intercultural communication challenges may be exacerbated by the medium, and while friendships can flourish anywhere, e-relationships may not be a strong substitute for hanging out in real life.

Even seemingly simple things can take on an extra layer of coordination when online volunteering is involved. Take, for instance, making a schedule.

“It can be more challenging connecting in real-time due to time zone differences and coordinating schedules between the e-volunteer and counterpart(s) at the partner organization,” says Andrea Bacsfalusi, manager of volunteer mobilization for WUSC.

She goes on to say that capacity-strengthening roles—including positions where training, mentoring and coaching are involved—can sometimes be more challenging remotely.

Getting the most out of volunteering online

For HR professional Alexandra George—who has worked with organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Katimivik, and Crossroads International—the success of an e-volunteer placement depends in large part on finding a good fit when it comes to values, that of the host organization and that of the volunteer.

“If you're really in it for the right reasons and you believe in the organization’s mission and objectives, it doesn't matter if you're at home or in Japan—you're still proud to be contributing to something that is meaningful to you,” she says.

That motivation can carry volunteers—both in-person and online—through uncertain times, and ensures that both will get the most out of the program that they can.

To get the most out of your experience, ask your host organization what type of training they’ll provide you with—and what opportunities for virtual intercultural immersion exist.

Youth Challenge International (YCI), for example, provides its e-volunteers with detailed country guides and a database of resources including articles, videos and websites, as well as movies, books, podcasts and even social media accounts to follow. Regular meetings are scheduled with country teams, local partners and fellows to build knowledge of the local context and cultural norms. The goal is to help its volunteers build a cultural connection to the country they’re supporting.

Laura Perez Gonzales, a former e-fellow with YCI’s HerStart program, argues that remote volunteering gave her an opportunity to learn from both in-country and remote volunteers.

“I was able to work with volunteers in Canada and in-country to interview organizations in Tanzania,” she says. “A volunteer in Zanzibar led a lot of these conversations and provided an insight into the challenges certain organizations may face when it comes to empowering young women.”

The future of online volunteering

Stevens is confident about the future of online volunteering. She states that hybrid models adapted during the pandemic have allowed long-established non-profits to explore new ways of serving their volunteers and their community.

She gives the example of a charity-based thrift store that once relied almost exclusively on in-person volunteer shifts. It now operates a traditional in-person store staffed by volunteers, an online store that relies on virtual contributors, and it also coordinates home-based volunteer activities (such as ironing and mending) for those who fit somewhere in between the in-person and online models.

A hybrid model is in WUSC’s future as well.

“Despite the differences between the e-volunteering and in-person volunteering experience, both types of volunteering are rewarding for volunteers, enable individuals to contribute their skills to global development, and can be life-changing experiences,” says Bacsfalusi.

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