Microvolunteerism: the new trend in volunteering
Seems like SAP is legitimately committed to its social responsibility goals, and this has been proven to me by the amount of communication they have on topic, the number of opportunities they provide for it, and the allowance of actual work time to the cause. I am not too naïve to ignore that this improve SAPs image, but the level of seriousness they put into this goal convinces me that they are also doing this for the causes themselves, and for the immediate personal benefits employees will get. They list four principles to their commitment to social responsibility:
- create social impact
- leverage core expertise
- generate lasting impact on SAP
- engage multiple stakeholders
But it’s #2 that I find an interesting focus – leveraging core expertise. Translated to a personal level, it means leveraging YOUR core expertise, not just the company’s (this is the same expertise you bring to your work). It means giving what you’re good at to an organization, charity, or cause that doesn’t have that kind of skill in house. Most places I’ve worked encouraged volunteerism, but didn’t go so far as promoting and facilitating volunteer opportunities in your area of expertise.
So for me, leveraging my core expertise would mean helping in the area of writing, of information architecture, and all kinds of information products. Like assembling or writing articles for a newsletter, drafting a public announcement, editing grant proposals, creating visual aids (slides, charts) for presentations, designing layout/template for a brochures or flyer. This kind of thing is easy-peasy for me, and takes me very little time, and I have lots of insights into best practices, what tools to use, what’s effective, and so forth.
“But I do stuff like that all day at work, why would I want to do it in my off time?”
Valid point, and that’s actually why I often pick Habitat for Humanity projects for my volunteering time at SAP. I like to get out of the office. Plus, the way they organize labor on site is so impressive, and their cause aligns with my own concerns for the marginalized in our community. But because I don’t know much about construction, I do end up consuming Habitat’s resources too (they have to show me how to do things) instead of being a full resource to them.
Plus I don’t do as good a job as someone who knows construction. For example, the first time I used a nail gun, I was standing on a ladder to hang dry wall from a ceiling over my head. All wobbly and teetering the nails went in at all kinds of angles for a while. Is that who you want doing your labor for your new house? 🙂
There are other good reasons to serve in the area of your core expertise instead of being a volunteer that needs training:
It builds you in your field – If you are building a portfolio, your contributions add to it
It’s more productive with higher value – You will contribute more and faster than in an area you are unfamiliar with, and won’t require the organization to train and supervise you (freeing up resources for them!)
It’s easy work – You’re not likely to get frustrated doing it because you don’t know how.
It has future implications for you – You will make contacts that extend out into your community. These contacts give you access to fields
Why most people who want to volunteer often don’t
There are three major complicators that get in the way for most prospective volunteers:
They don’t know what needs doing
They don’t want to overcommit themselves
They don’t want to end up owning whatever they help with
Most charitable organizations struggle to keep a flow of volunteers because of these very solvable issues and concerns. This is where the concept of microvolunteering comes in handy, and why it is trending now.
The concept is simple: pitching in on a manageable-sized task that has clearly defined goals, requirements, duration, and rewards. The duration and scope of microvolunteering tasks are intentionally short so that overcommitting isn’t a concern. A clearly communicated start and end time also allays concerns about having to own the work in perpetuity.
So, an organization creates a microvolunteering list somewhere accessible (ideally on the web), and folks who want to serve can scan the list to look for areas they can pitch in. This solves the most common issue that folks didn’t realize what the actual needs were. Where I volunteer I often hear people say
things like, “I didn’t know they needed help with that! I could’ve helped!” Newsletters and things of that nature help get the word out, but having a static, predictable location to LOOK for ways to help would be better and far easier to deploy and maintain.
Feel the difference in the ask
Typical newsletter call for help: Help needed for our website. Please contact Kevin at 555-555-4454, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss this opportunity.
Typical microvolunteering task list item: In the last two weeks of May we need 2 people for 4 hours to help assemble a page on our website that will host a microvolunteering list. Some experience with web design a must. End product will be something you can add to your portfolio or mention on your resume. Please contact Kevin at 555-555-4454, or email email@example.com to discuss this opportunity.
Me? I’d read the first one and RUN because it sounds like big undertaking that isn’t well defined. I once DID take up a request like that, and I ended up having to support that organization’s website for a full year beyond what I’d originally committed to (10-20 hrs). After I handed it off after the 20 hrs, folks continued to call me, email me, and once they even came to my door to ask for help to add something. I finally moved away so they couldn’t find me.
OK no, I made up that last sentence up.. 🙂
The importance of an escape route for volunteers
I do believe many people shy away from volunteering because they are afraid they’ll get sucked in and won’t be able to back away. You’ve probably felt that same thing when volunteering for an organization that has huge needs for help–you offer to help for a day, they offer you a title and role in the organization!
Microvolunteering, if used effectively, means volunteers can SEE the escape route (this is usually the duration), so they don’t have to feel bad about ending their service; there is already an expectation that they will walk away when the task is done.
They will often come back for another task for this reason. They aren’t ready to commit yet, they want to just be a help first.
Taking my own suggestion to heart
As I write this I’m thinking I should reshape this blog post into a newsletter article about microvolunteering for a local soup kitchen that I volunteer at. This organization has a huge need for volunteers, and I often talk to people who want to help them but don’t due to one of the reasons noted above.
I might also find a location for them to host an online microvolunteering task list. While writing this article, I found a few really good online task lists but not all of them offer the ability to make the list publicly viewable on the internet, which of course is what you want for this to work. Remember The Milk had this feature though, and it was FREE. I’m sure there are others of course.
These things are easy for me to help out with, and they align nicely with my core expertise!