‘Volunteering’ in Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook, by Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell
In celebrating the launch of Andrew Leigh and Nick Terrell’s book, Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook, we are sharing an excerpt where our CEO, Victor Lee, shared his insights into volunteering as a vehicle for community building.
This excerpt is within Chapter 3: Volunteering.
Connecting people with causes, p. 62
Of the world’s thirty-two volunteer-matching sites, seven are in Australia, suggesting an unusual enthusiasm in the Antipodes for linking volunteers with charities.13 One of them, Do Something Near You, is a little different to most volunteering portals. There is no need to sign up and it takes no time to get started. You simply type in your suburb or postcode and it connects you with a host of things to do. Users can then refine the initial listings by clicking on a category such as ‘Disadvantage’, ‘Environment’ or ‘Youth’. The strength of the platform is the wide range of ‘things to do’ including markets, festivals, events, fun runs, issue-based advocacy and community gatherings. Do Something Near You provides links to everything from activities you can do in your neighbourhood to nationwide campaigns.
Volunteering Australia, the peak body for volunteers, has created its own matching website and app. GoVolunteer allows volunteers to filter opportunities by location, cause and duration. Choices range from one-off assistance for a few hours through to regular volunteering for six months or more. GoVolunteer also lets you select roles that are specifically suited to people from groups that may face steeper barriers to getting involved in volunteering. These include ‘people learning English’, ‘families and children’, ‘people with disabilities’ and ‘online and remote volunteers’. GoVolunteer draws on the strategies of leading international volunteer-matching platforms, such as Volunteer Makers in the UK and VolunteerMatch in the US (which claims over 15 million volunteers connected, and 4 million available opportunities).
Another hub, Communiteer, started out as a web platform specialising in skills-based volunteering. Founders Vincent Feng and Victor Lee set up a platform that gave charities access to skilled volunteers who could team up online to complete multifaceted projects. Lee likens it to an Airtasker for social good. The original Communiteer platform was designed to broker skills-based volunteer transactions, but Feng and Lee were disappointed to discover that once the transactions were completed, people often left and didn’t come back. So they changed tack, turning Communiteer into a place where charities, corporate volunteers and social entrepreneurs could share their interests, work together to support causes that matter to them and stay connected long-term.
Communiteer’s internal social network aims to be a space where members can ‘hang out’, interacting with the community and sharing its purpose without any heavier commitments. Communiteer’s charity and corporate partners are encouraged to plug their staff into the network. As Lee envisages it, the site is about building a ‘habit’ of giving back: ‘That means allowing people to do good in their own way. So whether they want a thirty-second action or high commitment, like quitting your job to go away and do volunteering in foreign aid – we want to be the space that provides all the choices.’
Communiteer’s approach is a reminder of the value of organisations switching tack when things aren’t working. It also illustrates the importance of volunteers feeling that they are part of a larger movement. Whether an organisation is trying to keep its volunteers engaged or attract new recruits, building a sense of esprit de corps among volunteers can be valuable.
Matthew Boyd set up Vollie after a common entrepreneurial experience: he went looking for something he thought must exist, and when he couldn’t find it he built it himself. Vollie is focused exclusively on online volunteering opportunities. As Boyd puts it, ‘On Vollie, you land and you get to the point: what are you good at? What do you care about? And then opportunities appear from right around Australia and you can complete the project anywhere.’ Because online volunteering can start immediately, he knew it was essential that the sign-up process be quick and simple (a principle we’ve seen in other successful social capital activities). Vollie aims to engage skilled professionals, ‘people hitting their strides, red-hot at what they do, with fresh knowledge and cutting-edge understanding in tech, marketing, comms’. When COVID-19 struck, Boyd reported that requests for online volunteers from charities doubled, but offers of assistance from volunteers increased five-fold. The pandemic, he says, ‘fast-forwarded Vollie’s relevance’.
Matching platforms are making episodic and so-called ‘microvolunteering’ roles more available, which means more people will be able to try them out. But some in the community sector are anxious about the cultural shift that could result from increased reliance on episodic volunteers. There are also concerns that volunteer-matching sites have been slow to address the kinds of concerns over privacy and security that have embroiled social media giants such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Perhaps we shouldn’t be disappointed that no website has a monopoly over Australian volunteer matching, and that charities and volunteers have multiple matching engines through which to connect.
Matching sites are especially well suited to online helping since volunteers can log in, find an opportunity, and get to work – all without leaving their home. Even before COVID-19, virtual volunteering opportunities were proliferating. An Australian organisation has been leading the world in this space, and the lessons they’ve learnt along the way can help other groups get the most from keyboard altruists.
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