Micro-volunteering - The way to go?

Last December, some 200 Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers and staff from all over the world converged in Bangkok, Thailand, for The Difference - a Global Volunteering Forum, held in the lead-up to International Volunteer Day 2014. Aimed at tackling challenges facing volunteerism and exploring new approaches to actively and meaningfully engage volunteers, The Difference used Open Space Technology which encourages participation, reflection and open discussion among the participants.

Thought-provoking topics, stimulating ideas, and constructive strategies that emerged from the three-day forum made everyone evaluate and re-think volunteerism. One topic that was discussed during the dialogues was micro-volunteering.

Micro-volunteering refers to volunteering actions that can be completed in short, discrete periods of time. It is often described as an "easy, on demand and low commitment action that contributes to a worthy cause." It can be facilitated by online devices (ie smart phones) for e.g translating an article online, or off-line for e.g video editing.

The phenomenon of micro-volunteering has been growing in popularity. This ‘wave of the future’ has brought about a paradigm shift for many voluntary organisations, including the Red Cross movement. We see more and more people who wish to volunteer their services for as short as a few hours, and engage in short-term projects or activities that can satisfy their immediate interests. Micro-volunteering also encourages the contribution of existing skills and talents.

Though micro-volunteering can take place without the use of technology, the ubiquity and proliferation of information and communication technology such as computers, smartphones and tablets have greatly increased the possibilities of remote, versatile and convenient forms of volunteering. A good example is the translation of the Singapore Red Cross’ (SRC) first aid app for which a number of engaged volunteers contributed their respective translations - Chinese, Malay, English, Tamil and Tagalog. The congregation of bite-sized effort from a group of people where small deeds add up to a big impact is exactly what micro-volunteering is about.

Involving minimal training and commitment as well as its flexibility and convenience to fit into our hectic schedules, micro-volunteering seems like the solution to contemporary woes on volunteerism, e.g. time poverty, decline in numbers, new expectations from the younger generation, etc.

However, before we hail this new wave too quickly, we shall recognise the challenges that come with the advantages. For instance, relationship building which is key in volunteer engagement might be difficult due to the lack of interpersonal contact. Micro-volunteers might also find it hard to develop a sense of belonging and identification with the organisation’s mission. Without directly interacting with beneficiaries and personally witnessing impact of their contribution, micro-volunteers could lack the motivation to continue their efforts.

Micro-volunteering is also seen as a collaborative effort between volunteers and the community such that the role of the voluntary welfare organisations is minimal and limited to supporting and facilitating. Micro-volunteers can use their creativity to decide on the kind of projects and activities they wish to embark on. Some organisations, however, might find it difficult to provide such platforms or are not suited to do so. For International Volunteer Day 2013, our volunteers initiated the idea of co-creating fashion pieces with residents at the Red Cross Home for the Disabled to raise funds for SRC. They led the whole project from conceptualising to designing the couture, setting up a fashion runway and producing the event video.

Despite some of its challenges, micro-volunteering is still a ‘new wave’ to embrace given the pervasiveness of technology and the changes in lifestyle and demands of people. To create an ongoing relationship with micro-volunteers and translate micro-volunteering to sustained volunteering are some things to consider when developing and creating micro-volunteering activities and opportunities.

Story by Chloe Tan, Corporate Communications & Marketing
Picture by Freepik