More and more organizations are launching virtual volunteer opportunities worldwide. We saw volunteering naturally turn online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Does volunteering have the potential to lose its social and community-building benefits if it goes virtual? Luckily, volunteer managers and volunteers can do something about it.

The benefits of volunteering

A new long-term study coming out of the University of Southampton, UK, has found that older people derive real health and wellness benefits from volunteering — but the same couldn’t be said for younger people. The study found only notable improvements in ‘mental wellbeing’ for volunteers over the age of 40. The study’s authors argue that this could be due to the following four factors:

  1. Younger people might be more likely to view volunteering as an obligation and not something that brings pleasure (I wanna see the receipts!)
  2. Some of the benefits of volunteering might only accrue later in life, such as a widened social network, and a sense of power, prestige, and influence in one’s community. (This makes sense, since board volunteers and lots of other volunteer positions with high levels of authority tend to go to those more experience)
  3. Younger people likely have other outlets for social connection and purpose, so volunteering might not make much of a difference to their overall wellbeing (fair!).
  4. Older adults who volunteer are connected to their communities and may have a greater sense of purpose than isolated older adults who don’t volunteer.

What’s really interesting about this study and many others like it, is the health and wellness benefits they describe. The benefits are almost always things that are the result of meeting and working with other people in-person. This isn’t too much of a surprise, since most volunteering still happens in-person. But if more and more volunteer opportunities become virtual opportunities, would people be missing out on a chance to improve their wellbeing? Is it possible to cultivate a virtual volunteering culture that replicates the beneficial culture of in-person volunteering?

Virtual volunteering: the next big thing?

Virtual volunteering has gained popularity among organizations who want to make the most of all of the busy, skilled people out there. Combined with technical innovation and the rise of remote work, it’s emerged as a popular alternative to traditional volunteer shifts. Yet, unlike remote work, virtual volunteer work has it’s disadvantages:

  • Communication tends to happen online and over the phone. Studies have shown that when people communicate face-to-face, they gain a heightened sense of empathy and connection with the other person, which builds bonds.
  • Tasks are completed in isolation. Virtual volunteers are usually on their own when completing work or shifts. When there is communication, it’s more likely to occur between a volunteer and supervisor than between volunteers.

The ‘virtual’ nature of virtual volunteering has consequences for what studies have identified to be some of the major wellness benefits of volunteering:

Purpose: When a volunteer is distanced from the outcome of their work, it’s easy to feel like their work doesn’t have a purpose.

Personal Network: Less interactions with fewer people, mean less chances for volunteers to build their personal network and feel connected to a community.

Social: Meeting new people, chatting over tasks, and getting to know one another socially is hard to do when you’re not in the same room.

Influence: You have to know the other staff, volunteers, and stakeholders to feel like you have any influence as a volunteer. And influence is best exercised and demonstrated in person (think of the volunteers who run meetings, organize practices, and lead activities).

It’s all looking pretty dismal for virtual volunteering, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be!

What you can do:

  • Communicate with your virtual volunteers. Regularly share with them the impact of their work, so they know how important their job is.
  • Create an online community for your volunteers. This could be a volunteer hub, or even just a Facebook page. If you have many virtual volunteers, try engaging them and connecting them with each other through social media.
  • If possible, organize in-person social events for your volunteers and staff to get to know one another.
  • Use Skype or Google Hangouts to see each other’s faces every once in awhile.
  • Try a social communication tool like Slack to work on tasks together. Slack is great for keeping everyone in the loop, and providing opportunities for your volunteers to voice their opinions.

What you can do as a volunteer:

  • Try and balance your virtual volunteer work with in-person volunteer work to get the best of both worlds.
  • Take the extra step to be social on your calls and emails, so you can get to know the organization’s staff and other volunteers.
  • If you can manage it, get more involved by taking on additional responsibility. Depending on the role, you’ll likely get to work more closely with the whole team.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask to be introduced to others at the organization or other people in their network. If it can’t happen organically during a volunteer shift, there’s no reason you can’t make it happen yourself.
  • Share your virtual volunteering experiences with friends! You might even recruit someone else who you can talk about the highs and lows with.

The future is bright

As virtual volunteering takes off, hopefully we’ll start to see the emergence of studies that focus on the benefits of volunteering digitally. In the meantime, there are tangible steps you can take as both a volunteer manager and as a volunteer to get the most out of your virtual volunteering experience.

The biggest takeaway is to not forget the importance of community, connection, and collaboration. It’s so easy to look at volunteers as numbers — people there to do a job. But they’re so much more that! If you are able to cultivate a vibrant, healthy virtual volunteering community, your organization will tap into some incredible talent for years to come!