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.

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.

Step 1

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.

Text & Phone Hotlines

Whether you have counseling experience or just an interest in mental health, volunteering with hotlines could be a good fit for you. These hotlines offer 24/7 support for people experiencing distress and they need volunteers to help man the lines. While most hotlines use audio, others, like Crisis Text Line, offer texting as an alternative, making it an easy way to volunteer.  

Micro-mentoring

Micro-mentors help businesses and organizations by offering short-term consulting. These services are in high demand due to COVID-19-related disruptions that continue to impact organizations in nearly every industry. If you have a background in business management, finance, human resources, or marketing this could be a great way to channel your efforts.

Mask Sewing

As coronavirus continues to necessitate face coverings, many people have turned to sewing masks as way to contribute. If you are particularly adept at sewing or have an interest in taking it up, organizations like the International Rescue Committee seek volunteers to help contribute. You may be able to find similar opportunities in your own local area as well.

Tutoring

Tutoring is always needed and demand will likely increase with so many education efforts going remote. Those with expertise in a particular discipline can volunteer as online tutors to support students who need extra help. Learn to Be and similar sites offer free and low-cost services and work to connect volunteer tutors with learners seeking assistance.

Document Transcription & Data Entry

Many organizations depend on accurately transcribed documents such as federal entities like the Library of Congress. Sometimes they have a repository of scanned items that need to be sorted and transcribed. Those with skills in data entry, information management, and digital literacy will be best suited for these opportunities.

Coding & Programming

If you’re a developer or have a background in programming, you can lend your coding skills as a virtual volunteer. Organizations like Code for America often enlist qualified coders to help with projects that support a variety of social causes. These range from software and app development to website maintenance and database administration.

Topic-Based Internet Research

The Association of Internet Research Specialists and similar entities regularly rely on analytically minded volunteers to conduct targeted research from home. These efforts help identify and solve pressing issues in science and the humanities. If you enjoy gathering new information, analyzing data, and detecting patterns, this activity may be a great fit.

Letter Writing & Eldercare

Social distancing can be especially isolating for the most vulnerable among us. Organizations like Letters Against Isolation use virtual volunteers to create cards and write personal letters to senior citizens living in isolation during COVID-19. Other services like the U.S. Administration on Aging need volunteers willing to chat with elderly people during this trying time.

Translation Services

If you are fluent in languages other than your native tongue, you can volunteer to translate important documents with sites like Translation Commons. Even if you don’t have experience with another language you can volunteer for services like Be My Eyes and help the visually-impaired by translating instructions.

Graphic Design

Because of the nature of their work, graphic designers may already be used to virtual assignments. If you have graphic design experience and want to lend a hand, you can email local organizations to offer up your services, or you can look for volunteer positions using one of the search engines discussed in the section below.

Step 2

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.

Step 3

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

1

United Nations Volunteers

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.

2

Catchafire

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.

3

Smithsonian Digital Volunteers

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.

4

Amnesty Decoders

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.

5

Translators Without Borders

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.

6

Crisis Text Line

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.

7

Zooniverse

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.

8

DoSomething.org

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.

9

Project Gutenberg

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.

10

VolunteerMatch

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.

Research and writing skills

Organizations rely on individuals with this skillset to perform a variety of tasks. Strong communication skills are necessary for blogging, public relations, and other social media endeavors. Likewise, many organizations need volunteers with demonstrable analytical skills to conduct research and gather information.

Language acquisition and translation skills

People with experience in language acquisition will have no problem finding virtual volunteer opportunities as individual tutors and consultants. You can also lend your expertise to any number of translation projects that depend on intimate knowledge of language, grammar, and mechanics.

Graphic design skills

If you already work from home and have both the skills and tools required to complete graphic design tasks, you should be able to find opportunities in no time. Many nonprofits and advocacy organizations need qualified designers to help develop visual media and other material.

Coding and other computer science skills

Those with coding expertise and other technical computer science knowledge can easily lend their time and effort to the virtual volunteering space. Outlets often need help maintaining their web presence behind the scenes and may even seek out skilled coders to help develop apps and other tools.

Industry-specific counseling and consulting skills

This category is broader and can include individuals with experience in business, management, finance, and mental health. Many nonprofits rely on volunteer consultants to help them accomplish organizational goals and some regularly enlist volunteers to help with crisis management while at home.

Step 4

Reach Out

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!

Step 5

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

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

Step 6

Get Started!

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

Choose a cause that is both meaningful and appropriate

This is an important balance to strike. Work to find a position that you’re passionate about, but make sure that is stems naturally from your own skill set. You may not have a lot of time to pursue additional training, for example.

Develop a clear plan and stick to it

Most virtual volunteers engage in activities beyond their normal job. Be sure you don’t neglect other responsibilities. Develop a solid time management plan so you can give back without spreading yourself too thin.

Set clear, measurable goals

Setting measurable goals is a great way to track your progress. Be modest in this regard and generate achievable benchmarks so you aren’t overwhelmed. Some organizations may do this for you, but some may not.

Collaborate when you can

Some virtual volunteer opportunities may require that you work alongside others as part of a team. Even if your chosen organization doesn’t offer this option, you can still partner with or rely on others as you complete your tasks.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it

Most organizations will be thrilled to bring you on board and want nothing more than to see you succeed. You will already be in close communication with your coordinator, but don’t hesitate to request assistance when needed.

Be creative and have fun

This might seem obvious, but it’s worth noting. This is an opportunity for you to help organizations in need, but it’s also an opportunity for you to channel yourself in new, enriching ways. Let yourself have fun and think outside the box!

Resources for Virtual Volunteers

Al!ve: The Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement hosts regular virtual events and maintains updated resource pages for new and seasoned volunteers alike.

All for Good: Sponsored in part by Points of Light, a global volunteering nonprofit, this site lists new volunteer projects and provides an actionable COVID-19 response plan.

Charity Navigator: This organization offers an extensive list of charities in need. It lists them by topic and provides guides for donors and volunteers.

Energ!ze: This outlet extends training services to volunteers and organizations in need. It learning center is home to over 40 seminars and guides.

For Good: This organization supports campaigns for the social good and connect volunteers with nonprofits. It also provides resources for people new to virtual volunteering.

Help From Home: In addition to listing available opportunities, this site supplies virtual volunteers with social support and skill development resources.

Idealist: A long-standing site in the volunteering space, Idealist helps people find opportunities that fit their profile. It also hosts free career advice resources.

Taproot Foundation: This organization promotes pragmatic optimism and impact-oriented volunteering. It hosts a large resource archive and conducts volunteering-related case studies.

Volunteer Pro: Volunteer Pro hosts a virtual community of volunteers and coordinators. It offers on-demand training and a plethora of time-saving guides.

Volunteering in America: Maintained by the Corporation for National and Community Service, this portal houses national data related to volunteering. It also has a media hub and research center.