Volunteer programs have long been a starting point for global development careers. But in today’s constantly connected world, a new kind of volunteer has emerged: The e-volunteer.
While international volunteer programs may be incredible and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, they also have their flaws. They can be costly and impractical because of the travel and time spent abroad, but also the ethics and value of work done have come under scrutiny in recent years, despite volunteers’ good intentions.
The CEO of VSO International opens up about how his organization — operating in 25 countries with an almost entirely volunteer staff — is adapting to new needs with a new kind of volunteer.
That’s where e-volunteering can come in. Today, often the most valuable skills people can offer global development organizations are not in-the-field but from the comfort of their own home. Online volunteering can take on a complete variety of roles: translation, mentoring, writing, and editing, outreach and advocacy, or even technological development. There are numerous ways to volunteer in the sector when it fits around your schedule and without traveling abroad.
Nonprofits often need people with specific skills, but only on a short-term or one-off basis — such as re-designing a logo, crunching large amounts of data, or modernizing a website — and often they don’t have the budget.
E-volunteering also provides a valuable opportunity for volunteers to gain and advance their professional skills and experience and grow their network. This is particularly true for those early in their careers or looking to transition to the global development sector.
Finding e-volunteer opportunities
There are a number of websites that offer a central point to find a variety of e-volunteer openings. UN Volunteers offers such a platform to find a large number of pre-approved e-volunteer placements. The organizations submit an application with details of the volunteer work required, which is then reviewed and published by UN Volunteers — provided it meets their criteria.
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Volunteers sign up and can search through the projects and apply for ones they are interested in. The posting organizations receive the volunteer applications and choose who they want to collaborate with. Both provide feedback on one another following completion of the work and the host organizations issue an electronic certificate of appreciation to the volunteers.
There are a number of websites similar to UN Volunteers that offer a place to find a variety of openings — although they may not have checks and approval processes like the UNV. These include Cuso International, Idealist, Catchfire, Taproot+ Foundation, and more. WomenOnCall offers the same style of matching platform for Chicago-based nonprofits requesting specific skills from professionals, but it is solely for women.
Many nonprofits would benefit from expertise but don’t have the time or resources to search for them. Some will advertise volunteer positions on their websites when they are looking for skilled volunteers to assist with odd-jobs, such as the Teach the World Foundation who ask for volunteers to get in contact if they can help, but even if you don’t see calls for assistance, you can also contact charities directly and offer your skills.
Here is an overview highlighting the types of e-volunteer opportunities that are out there and some of the organizations providing them.
If you are bilingual, volunteer translation work could be a natural fit and will provide invaluable assistance to many nonprofits. Individual organizations may advertise these positions independently, and others can be found on sites like those mentioned above.
Translators Without Borders is a platform dedicated solely to translation for humanitarian and development nonprofits. Similarly, PerMondo was set up by Mondo Agit translation agency to provide free translation for nonprofits and philanthropists, while also a tool to assist those just starting out in the translation profession to help them onto the career ladder.
Uridu is a nonprofit aimed at providing health, nutrition, family planning, and other information to women in rural areas who lack access to basic information and/or are illiterate. It has a database of over 400 questions with corresponding answers available online. It utilizes online volunteers to translate this information and create mp3 audio recordings of both the questions and answers. These are then loaded onto solar-powered MP3 players, which are delivered to women in rural areas and recharged easily without electricity, as well as on its website, which is specifically optimized for slow network connection.
Mentoring is a great way to offer your expertise and guide others through their careers using your personal experience. There are many different mentoring schemes and angles contributing to global development.
Female mentoring can empower women and be instrumental in achieving gender equality. The Cherie Blair Foundation runs a 12-month online mentoring scheme, matching women in developing and emerging countries with mentors — both male and female — around the world to achieve business goals.
For those with a business background, mentoring entrepreneurs can help facilitate business growth as well as positively impacting a local economy from the ground up. GROW Movement connects entrepreneurs from Uganda, Rwanda, and Malawi to business consultants from around the globe. It works together over a six-month period to identify business improvements via Skype and mobile. More than 500 entrepreneurs have enrolled in the program since 2009.
Describing themselves as a “coalition of skillanthropists,” BPeace also offer business mentoring to entrepreneurs worldwide. Its motivation and belief is that the creation of local businesses and jobs reduces poverty, desperation, and therefore violence. E-mentors are matched with entrepreneurs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Afghanistan. Another mentoring scheme to help entrepreneurs get their idea off the ground is MicroMentor.
Infinite Family provides online mentoring for children and young people in South Africa who don’t have reliable adult role models at home. The mentors provide a support network for them to discuss any problems they are facing, as well as offer teaching, encouragement, and assistance with computer literacy to help build their confidence and capabilities.
Following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal 2015, Creatives Without Borders was founded by those offering their artwork to show their condolences to those affected. A projection exhibition was set up in a square in Kathmandu where hundreds gathered to watch and inspire hope. From there, CWB realized the potential of the creative industry to assist nonprofits and it now works as an agency connecting creative professionals with organizations that will benefit from creative input. It also runs a 10-week intensive program CWB10 for nonprofits to support and help nonprofits use creativity to enhance the message of their mission and impact.
If you can offer specialty technical skills, then TechSoup provides advice and expertise to NGOs and nonprofits in order to improve their impact. The online volunteers can either write articles to share knowledge, tips, and advice with nonprofits or simply provide answers to questions in the TechSoup forum.
Satellites and mapping
For many nonprofits, sorting through vast quantities of data is a requirement of the job. But this is very time-consuming and costly. Volunteers can reduce this by doing the initial first phase of sorting and identifying potentially useful information. Then staff can sort through the remaining information and verify useful data.
Amnesty Decoders sift through pictures, information, and documents to highlight useful information for Amnesty International staff. One example was the Decode Darfur project. More than 28,000 volunteers sifted through 326,000 square kilometers worth of satellite images of Darfur, prior to the forced expulsion of populations, to identify any villages or remote communities. These were subsequently compared with the then-most recent satellite images of the same areas in 2016 to find signs of attack or destruction to these communities. The project was used to publish findings that 171 villages were destroyed in 18 months of the Sudanese government’s military campaign in Jebel Marra. From the images, they believe 30 chemical weapon attacks were used to kill up to 250 civilians, many of whom were children.
The hours of work contributed by volunteers totaled for this one project was the equivalent of someone working full-time for more than four years. The project also represents a significant milestone for South-North volunteering; one of the largest volunteer-contributing countries decoders came from when analyzing oil spills in Nigeria was Nigeria itself. There are currently over 30,000 decoders signed-up from over 150 countries.
GLOBE Observers help scientists collect and map data about the earth’s environment. You first complete some prior training — either online or at a workshop — before joining the community of volunteers who upload their findings to the GLOBE Programme database. GLOBE Observers help scientists track changes in clouds, water, plants, and other life by uploading photographs. You can download the app to your smartphone or device so that contributing observations is always easy to do and accessible.
Those with more advanced GIS and mapping skills are particularly valuable e-volunteers when natural disasters occur. Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps Team, Standby Task Force, and GISCorps’ volunteers can work remotely to help map affected areas for humanitarian workers to use when planning their response strategy.
Another expertise that can be especially useful in development is engineering. EngineerAid enables online volunteers to sign up and assist with projects in developing countries. It advises and assists with specific designs, systems, and methods to help achieve development goals. Its work can range from a few hours researching and simply responding to a specific question to a few days spent drafting a more wide-reaching plan.
Online teaching and training
Online learning has made education accessible to many people who may not have access where they live. This can span young school children to adults learning new business or professional skills.
eVidyaloka connects volunteer teachers from across the globe with rural schools in India. There is a shortage of teachers throughout India and therefore rural areas are hardest hit. The volunteers teach a classroom of students via Skype and online tools. The running costs are minimal as it is simply the technology that has to be maintained.
Skills for change was founded in 1982 by five teachers focused on English as a second language in Toronto, Canada. It recognizes the need for skills training alongside language teaching for immigrants and refugees. Today, it continues to offer language assistance, as well as integrated skills training, employment preparation, mentoring, entrepreneurship skills, skilled trades, and settlement services to immigrants and refugees. Volunteers can offer their skills remotely on a range of projects from web or graphic design to policy research or events and marketing.
Advocacy and outreach
American Red Cross asks for volunteers to become digital advocates by sharing their calls to action and campaigns via social media. This form of volunteering translates across all nonprofits; you can utilize your social media presence and raise awareness and funds for any nonprofit you personally would like to assist.