The New Age of Volunteering: Contributing Your Skills Online


Volunteering does the soul and community good.

But let’s be real. We’re busy people who are often juggling work, school and, for some, even families.

We can’t always find the time to volunteer on a routine basis, even though we’d like to.

But thankfully that handy dandy tool called the Internet has opened up new opportunities to us.

In this hyper-connected and technological world we live in, giving back to the community – on both a local and global scale – has never been easier.

According to a 2011 United Nations report, there has been a shift in recent years towards a new form of community engagement. It’s called “online volunteering” and it means exactly what you think it does: committing your time and skills over the Internet for the benefit of society (creating memes – however hilarious – doesn’t count, sorry!).

Online volunteering has eliminated time and geographical constraints, and provides diverse opportunities. For instance, I volunteer with Global Voices, an international network of bloggers and citizen journalists who report on issues from around the world, by translating English news pieces to Filipino (Tagalog), along with hundreds of volunteers translating in 29 other languages.

Meanwhile, online volunteers for Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon have developed a manual on complex farming techniques and technologies which has been translated for local use. In a country where 80% of the population is comprised of farmers, you can imagine why this might be of some value.

As an online (and offline!) volunteer for about two years now, I can tell you that it’s an amazing feeling to be a part of something much bigger than yourself and to know that you’re doing something positive. But that feel-good buzz isn’t the only reason why volunteering is good for you. There are many other benefits as well.

I talked to journalist and Global Voices’ Multilingual Editor Paula Góes as well as medical student and volunteer translator Schubert Malbas who contributed their thoughts in this emerging field.

Helping yourself while helping others

You won’t just contribute your skills – you’ll build them

The volunteer possibilities are truly diverse with organizations asking for assistance in communications, tech support, consulting, graphic design, curriculum development, research, writing…the list goes on.

Paula, who manages a huge team of online volunteers, says, “There are so many skills that people can learn by being an online volunteer and, of course, it will vary according to the areas they choose to contribute. Most organizations don’t require previous experience and are willing to train volunteers to perform the tasks. It’s a great way to learn on the job.”

It can give your career a little boost

You know this one already, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s a great way to gain some experience in a field that you’re interested in pursuing.

“It’s a big sell for employers even if you are a newly-minted graduate,” says Schubert. “Employers will notice your volunteer involvement outside of your academic extra-curricular activities and that could win you those extra points that will beat out the other candidates.

You’ll gain some more interpersonal skills

Yeah, you’re in front of a computer, but you’re still communicating with people.

According to Paula, “Volunteers also gain an array of interpersonal skills, such as learning how to communicate virtually, networking, and dealing with cultural and geographical differences – which teaches tolerance, time management, diplomacy and conflict resolution skills. Not only can these skills be used in the workforce, they are also skills for life, in general.”

It’s like networking…but on a global scale

You get to meet a whole lot of people from different countries, which you probably would never have otherwise,” says Schubert. “The word ‘digital’ shatters conventions.” Right now he works with legislators, NGO leaders, social activists, and people from the Middle East, Europe and Asia “all together in one digital roof.”

True enough, I’ve connected with Paula who’s based in London, England, and Schubert in Manila, Philippines. We’re a far flung network and yet we’ve been brought together through our online volunteering. And with their help on this article, our connection now goes beyond the translation work we do.

Now get started!

First thing’s first. Figure out what causes you’re interested in so that you can really hone in your search for positions and organizations. I recommend the following resources to see what opportunities are out there:

If you know of an organization that aligns with your goals and passions, check out their website and see if they’re looking for online volunteers. There’s a good chance they are.

And once you’ve started, act as you would in any professional setting. “It’s important to deliver what you have committed to, so be sure to manage your time well and be clear about expectations,” Paula says. “Don’t over commit yourself and communicate if anything in your circumstances that would have an impact on your volunteering changes. Don’t be shy asking questions and suggesting improvements!”

In this hyper-connected and technological world we live in, giving back to the community – on both a local and global scale – has never been easier.

Are you or have you ever been an online volunteer? If so, what did you do and what was your experience like? Share by commenting below!

Photo credit: Line Cecilie – 1st runner up by Jan Ingemansen on Flickr
About the author

Justine Abigail Yu is a communications professional by day and a freelance writer by night. Graduating from the University of Toronto specializing in Political Science and Sociology, her heart lies in the development sector where she has worked with organizations operating in North America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. You can easily lure her in with talk of international development, human rights, emerging technologies, travel, and yes, Mad Men. Or a slice of cheesecake. Read her blog here or follow her on Twitter @justineabigail.