Becoming a Virtual Volunteer: How to Get Involved Online
Whether you want to donate your time to a cause you’ve always been passionate about or you’re looking to find an organization who needs your services, learn how you can make a difference online as a virtual volunteer.
Last Updated: 08/19/2020
Due to social distancing and the continued impact of COVID-19, many traditional volunteer opportunities are on hold. But this doesn’t mean volunteerism itself is in decline. Fortunately, our increasingly digital world allows for virtual volunteering opportunities that let you support your cause while staying safe at home. Vox Media recently conducted an informal survey that shows an increased interest in virtual volunteering amid the coronavirus crisis. “People [said] that the global health crisis has shown them how interconnected we all are, and that they want to keep doing more for others after the pandemic ends.”
Virtual volunteering opportunities are diverse, wide-ranging, and draw from a broad pool of skills and expertise. Whether you’re turning to remote work due to the pandemic or looking to balance your busy schedule, there is something for everyone—you just need to know where to look and how to get started.
Learn What’s Out There
Deciding what type of virtual volunteer work you want to undertake is an important first step. Opportunities can range from simple data entry to blogging, targeted research, tutoring, and even micro-mentoring. Below we look at some of the most popular online volunteer activates available to people of all skills levels.
Make Your Choice
Once you have a good sense of the types of work available to volunteers, you can begin to think about how you want to contribute. This is a great time to take inventory of the skills you already have, either professionally or as a hobby. Think about which organizations might find your skillset useful and get specific with how you could help. For instance, if you’re a copywriter by trade and you want to help your local animal shelter, maybe you can put your written communication skills to use by creating a monthly newsletter. There are dozens of ways you can contribute, so get creative, make a list of ways your skills could be put to use, and start your search for an organization to support.
Find an Organization
After you’ve identified how you can contribute as a volunteer, you can begin to decide which organization will benefit most from your skills. If you already have something in mind, the best approach is to reach out via email and ask about available opportunities. Sometimes these organizations may have needs that aren’t widely publicized just yet.
If you don’t have something in mind, there are plenty of resources that can connect you with organizations in need of help. Below is a list of several prominent sites to start your search. Start by using broad search terms and then narrow based on the number of returns using the site’s filtering parameters.
10 Places to Start Your Search
The UN’s online volunteering portal supports over 12,000 volunteers in 187 countries. It boasts a 94% satisfaction rate among connected volunteers and organizations and lists available opportunities by topic and required skill set. It also maintains a powerful search engine with email alert capabilities.
This skill-based volunteer matching service connects individuals with organizations and nonprofits in need. Catchafire mobilizes available talent and leverages its resources for the common good. It uses a standard search engine and hosts an interactive map of the most in-demand skills.
The Smithsonian Institute thrives as a cultural touchstone due in part to the work of thousands of online volunteers. Most of its opportunities deal with transcription services and Wiki content creation. These efforts make the Institute’s extensive digital collections more accessible to a wider audience and help support researchers throughout the world.
Sponsored by Amnesty International, this portal connects online volunteers with opportunities that support the organization’s endeavors to promote human rights. Volunteers use their devices to help sift through pictures, documents, and other data that may serve as evidence of human rights violations.
Inspired by Doctors without Borders, this organization works to close international language gaps by partnering translators with humanitarian agencies. If you are fluent in more than one language, you may qualify to help the organization by translating medical texts and other reports.
This organization provides a free, 24/7 text line for people in crisis. Volunteer crisis counselors power the service by offering remote support to individuals experiencing a range of crises. These volunteers must complete 30 hours of remote training in reflective listening and crisis management.
This site connects more than a million virtual volunteers with research-based projects in a variety of topics and disciplines. Many of these projects ultimately lead to the innovative publications and cutting-edge data sets that drive new discoveries. Volunteers can easily search available projects by field of study and required skill.
This platform publicizes virtual volunteer opportunities that promote current social causes. These include mental health, gender rights, racial justice, gun violence, and sexual harassment among others. Volunteers can select a cause most meaningful to them and navigate to available advocacy tasks.
Named after the inventor of the printing press, Project Gutenberg offers an extensive library of over 60,000 free eBooks focusing on titles that have entered the public domain. The site enlists virtual volunteers to help proofread texts, procure physical texts for digitization, and create CDs or DVDs for those without reliable internet access.
With nearly 100,000 active volunteer opportunities and over 125,000 participating organizations, VolunteerMatch work to forge mutually beneficial relationships. It maintains an intuitive, comprehensive search engine with filters and narrowing tools based on keyword, skill set, cause area, and organization. The site also hosts a live map with real-time updates.
Skills Suited for Virtual Volunteering
Most organizations enlist virtual volunteers at every skill level. Whatever your area of expertise, you are likely to find a solid way to channel your efforts in a way that gives back. That said, some skills are especially suited for virtual work, here are just a few.
Once you conduct a few searches, narrow down your results, and identify a few interesting organizations you’re ready to make contact with. Start by researching the organization itself. This includes both its overall mission and its virtual volunteering procedures. Some organizations may have an internal application process. Others may keep things more informal, and some may not specify exactly how to proceed at all.
If the organization you’re interested in has an internal application process, follow their instructions closely. For all others, email will likely be the preferred form of communication. Reach out to the project manager, introduce yourself, and describe what you think you can contribute. Including a resume or CV that speaks to your skills will help the organization evaluate you quicker, so it’s always smart to send one if you have one. Ask questions when necessary. Most organizations are in constant need of new volunteers and their coordinators will be happy to help!
Agree to the Terms
Before you can get to work as a virtual volunteer, it’s crucial that you and your organization agree to a set of conditions. Make sure you’re clear on the terms of the project, your own responsibilities, and the organization’s expectations including number of hours, deadlines, project requirements, and more. If you aren’t certain on the terms, ask clarifying questions before you reach an agreement. This will help both you and your organization avoid any bumps in the road.
Virtual volunteering may happen remotely but that doesn’t mean your contact with the organization needs to be limited. Keep the lines of communication as open as possible and keep your coordinator informed of any new developments or changes that might affect outcomes. Here are a few things to consider before you sign up and begin volunteering.
Things to Consider Before Signing Up
Research each organization thoroughly
This goes without saying, but it’s easy to lose sight of the basics once you find the area you want to pursue. Remember that there are multiple options out there. You don’t have to settle for the first opportunity you come across and if something discouraging turns up in your research it may be best to keep looking.
Look out for fraudulent organizations
Even virtual volunteering is susceptible to fraud and phishing scams. It’s possible that these tactics will increase as more people turn to virtual volunteering during COVID-19. Ensure your time and efforts aren’t wasted or exploited by selecting legitimate organizations with staying power.
Understand what kind of training or experience is required
Not all opportunities require training, but some do. Research these requirements so you aren’t blindsided once you start work. Depending on your situation it might be a good idea to select something that doesn’t require additional steps.
Communicate about needs and expectations
Last but certainly not least, clearly communicate every step of the way. Understanding needs and expectations will be crucial to your success. Know who your coordinator or point of contact is and communicate with that person regularly.
Virtual volunteering is like any other task or job. It places demands on your time and effort, and you want to make the most of it both in terms of your own schedule and the overall experience. The best approach is to develop a clear, actionable plan ahead of time and stick to it for the duration of the project. If you already work from home in some capacity, then you may have good a sense of your workflow and how volunteering will fit in your daily routine. If you don’t, work to establish a solid workflow based on the best practices below.
6 Virtual Volunteering Best Practices
Resources for Virtual Volunteers
Volunteer Pro: Volunteer Pro hosts a virtual community of volunteers and coordinators. It offers on-demand training and a plethora of time-saving guides.