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Volunteer Power!
Taking Advantage of Three Growing Episodic Volunteering Trends
Slacktivism, Micro Volunteering and Crowdsourcing
By Thomas W. McKee

If you aren't already overwhelmed by change, non-profits seem to keep inventing new terms to make sure you are. I remember sitting in a meeting only three years ago and the speaker asked, "How many of you are using web 2.0.?" Only about 15 people out of over 100 raised their hands. Then she told those of us who had not raised our hands that e-mail was out, Web 2.0 was in, and we needed to get with it.

Web 2.0 was a whole new term for me. Since that time I have tried to keep up with terms like wikis, blogs, mashups, and folksonomies. It can be overwhelming-especially when I tend to be a late adopter.

We are all familiar with the term "episodic" when it comes to volunteering. The Corporation for Community and National Service's recent study, A Review of Trends In Volunteering since 1974, reported the following:

While volunteering rates appear to be at a 30-year high today, the last 15 years also suggest some change in how people volunteer. According to our findings, episodic volunteering (serving 99 or fewer volunteer hours in a year) has increased since 1989. ... The critical role that time constraints have on the potential for people to volunteer may help to explain the reason why episodic volunteering became more common between 1989 and 2005. Around the same time as the term "episodic volunteer" was coined, a 1989 survey showed that 79 percent of non-volunteers said that they would volunteer if given a short-duration task. . . . Current trends suggest many of America's charities and volunteer associations may have taken this reality to heart and made shorter, more flexible volunteering opportunities available to "episodic volunteers"-those who are willing to volunteer, but cannot or will not serve as a regular, ongoing volunteer throughout the year.

In the last couple of years three new terms have emerged and we must not only become familiar with them, but we must know how to take advantage of these trends. The terms are slacktivism, micro volunteering and crowdsourcing.


For those who love the oxymoron, you will love this one that is coined from two words-Slacker and Activism. How can a slacker be an activist? Slacktivism is the ultimate feel-good that comes from the desire to give back to society without actually getting one's hands dirty. Examples of slacktivism including signing internet petitions, wearing of wristbands (awareness bracelets) with political messages, putting a ribbon on a vehicle, joining a Facebook group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, taking part in a short-term boycott, or donating for a cause with the click of your mouse.

Although I am insulted at the term "slacker" and the allegation of such a word gets my defenses up, I have to agree with one of my favorite writers, Nancy Lublin, CEO and Chief Old Person of Do Something. She challenged my resistance when she responded to her negative feelings about slacktivism by saying, "If we really could save the world with a few clicks of the mouse, then only a fool would protest." She writes in last month's issue of Fast Company, Slacktivism, Helping Humanity with the Click of a Mouse.

Slacktivism at its best, it can deliver results far more quickly; forget the phone tree or your small-town gossip. After the Haiti earthquake in January, for instance, U.S. phone companies were receiving up to 10,000 "Haiti" texts per second. So far, those $10 pledges by text have amounted to $38 million for the American Red Cross alone. As a not-for-profit leader whose organization depends on donations, I say, "If that is slacktivism, I'll have some of that." The bottom line, really, is the bottom line. We shouldn't judge any activism -- online or off, old-fashioned or newfangled -- by its medium or by how much it requires of us. Instead, it should be the results that matter (Fast Company, Slacktivism, Helping Humanity with the Click of a Mouse).

So what? How can I take advantage of these growing trends?

How do I take advantage of Slacktivism? Do we run a "slacktivism" campaign? Of course not. But I do want to take advantage of the huge percentage of people who can't become full-time volunteers at this time in their lives but will volunteer for a short-term, "feel good" opportunity.

How about a "Stuff the Bus" initiative that I heard about in NW Arkansas last week?

One of the volunteer managers that I met in my work in Arkansas was Teresa Smith, Manager of Community Impact of United Way in Benton, Madison, and Washington Counties in Arkansas and McDonald County in Missouri. She told me about their "Stuff the Bus" initiative which is a partnership between United Way of NWArkansas , Wal-Mart (who else would you expect in Bentonville, Arkansas) and the local schools. The school districts parked a school bus in front of nine Wal-Mart stores in the area and volunteers stood at the entrances of each store to hand out fliers with a list of school supplies that were needed. The fliers encouraged consumers to purchase school supplies for local children who may not be able to afford these items. During the two-day event, usually a Friday and Saturday, all the supplies were loaded onto the buses and the following Monday the supplies were delivered to the local school administration building where they were responsible for dividing up the supplies. The supplies were given to the schools in that district that have the largest percentage of students on the free/reduced lunch program. Teresa told me,

Last year over 75,000 pieces of school supplies were collected during that 2 day period by 316 volunteers with a total of 581 volunteer hours. When you figure the dollar amount that the federal government says a volunteer hour is worth, which is $20.25 per hour, it came to a total of $11,775 put back into local communities. We have heard from several teachers and counselors about what a great program this is for their students who cannot afford to purchase the supplies. The outcome is that you have students who have the necessary tools to begin that school year with a firm foundation because they start out the same as every other student.

We have to face the fact that the good old days when Americans had secure jobs with benefits and paid vacations are a thing of the past. The ranks of self-employed people who have no benefits or paid vacations are growing. Many today work as free agents and spend significant time marketing their services as well as working. The 21st century work culture is having a grave impact on the amount of time people will have to volunteer.

Does this mean that people will not volunteer for our organizations? Not at all. But their volunteering may be episodic and even "feel-good" donations at an event or special drive. Are you taking advantage of that in two ways?

1. A first date. Giving people a taste of what you do so that they might become passionate about your cause and join one of your volunteer teams.

2. An initiative to meet a specific short-term need. If you don't, others will, and potential volunteers will get excited about their organization and opportunities for volunteering.

Two new terms provide ways for slacktivists to make a difference: "crowdsourcing" and "micro-volunteering." These terms became so popular in 2010 that The National Conference on Volunteerng and Service in New York offered workshops on both topics. In fact, the workshop on crowdsourcing was already full before the conference began. That tells me that non-profits are interested in this stuff. Even if I don't jump on the band wagon immediately, I can at least know what they are.

Crowdsourcing is the process of mobilizing millions of people into a powerful movement by using the internet. Micro-volunteering is the concept of having volunteers use little snippets of time to help your organization out without the hassle of traditional volunteering.

I want to ask two questions about each of these two terms:

3. What are they?

4. Who is actually using them-successfully?

And then in conclusion I want to ask, "So what? Is it exciting, overwhelming, or just a way to make people feel good for doing so little?"


Crowdsourcing is the broader of the two terms. In the last few years crowdsourcing has morphed into an inclusive term that has been used to describe everything from Wikipedia to the recent SMS donations to Haiti.

A simplified definition of crowdsourcing is to expand a task of one and open it to a large group of people. Non-profits have been doing that for years. They have relied on crowds of volunteers to get the job done. When you really think about it, crowdsourcing is the essence of volunteering. However, the internet has pushed crowdsourcing to a whole new level that is far beyond our wildest imagination.

O.K., let's get technical for a moment. Jeff Howe coined this popular term. Crowdsourcing means creating short online activities that huge groups of people can do from their own computers in a short-period of time. He says, "Remember outsourcing? Sending jobs to India and China is so 2003. The new pool of cheap labor: everyday people using their spare cycles to create content, solve problems, even do corporate R & D" (The Rise of Crowdsourcing -wired.com).

The most popular example of crowdsourcing is Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines itself as the following:

Wikipedia is a free web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 15 million articles (over 3.3 million in English) have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site. Wikipedia was launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and is currently the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet. . . . Wikipedia doesn't have a single paid employee responsible for content (writing, editing or any of the sort.). Wikipedia is more than 10X as big as the New York Times, which has 1,200 of them. In the German version of Wikipedia, editors give each other 'gummy bears' for good spelling.

How are non-profits using the power of crowdsourcing?

Mark Horoszowski of Wellsphere reports that Creative Crowdsourcing Empowers Non-Profits to Spread the Word. He says that "that creative crowdsourcing can be used to source anything from graphic design and copy, to television ads and radio spots. More than just a cost reduction for non-profits, creative crowdsourcing brings organizations the power of choice and the ability for its constituents to become involved."

Mark gives the following example from NAFCU, the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.

NAFCU came to GeniusRocket, our DC based creative agency powered by crowdsourcing, to source television advertisements to promote credit unions in local markets around the country. As with most non-profits, NAFCU was working on a small budget. Approaching a traditional agency would have cost them anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Through GeniusRocket, NAFCU was able to offer a $3,000 award to a community of up and coming artists who were willing to take the risk by creating content for the competition. Across a 30-day period, NAFCU received over 20 videos produced by over 20 artists across the globe. NAFCU selected three videos from the crowd and returned in subsequent months to source two more specifically themes ads. You can check out the videos here and here. David Frankil the President of NAFCU Services was, "overwhelmed by large volume of very high quality ads received, which the credit unions were happy to use." (Creative Crowdsourcing Empowers Non-Profits to Spread the Word.)

Another example of crowdsourcing is the election process. Volunteers have always been important to the success of a political candidate's campaign. The 21st century "going door to door" has been expanded by crowdsourcing, and it has changed political elections.

During our last presidential election, Obama's campaign leaders knew the power of crowdsourcing.

Barack Obama's presidential-campaign team relied on technology -- what was known internally as the "triple O," or Obama's online operation -- to connect with voters better, faster, and more cheaply than ever before. The team has become the envy of marketers both in and out of politics for proving, among other things, just how effective digital initiatives can be. "We never felt like, 'This is our community,'" says Chris Hughes, the campaign's director of online organizing. "This is the community of all the people who empowered it." The community that elected Obama raised more money, held more events, made more phone calls, shared more videos, and offered more policy suggestions than any in history. It also delivered more votes (Fast Company, The Fast Company 50-2009).

To see read a report on the power of crowdsourcing, see my article, The Exponential Power of Volunteers-What We Learned From Our Last Presidential Election.

If you are interested in how the web is impacting elections, The Tech President is a web site dedicated to covering how political campaigns--presidential, congressional and state--are using the web, as well as how voters are using the web to affect those campaigns. To read more about this growing phenomenon and other examples, I recommend reading Ben Rigby's description in his article, Information Age Volunteerism - Open Sourced! Crowdsourced!

As is often the case, one type of innovation leads to another. Seeing the potential from crowdsourcing, the founders of The Extraordinaries, Jacob Colker and Ben Rigley, came up with the idea of using the iPhone as a method of crowdsourcing and developed their brand of Micro-volunteering.


Micro-volunteering is another way to take advantage of the volunteering trend in which people are reluctant to volunteer for extended periods of time. Micro-volunteering takes this tendency to a new level by offering people the chance to feel good by using their iPhones to do something good while they are using down time (i.e. waiting time-the bus, an appointment, a line at the bank). Micro-volunteering is being championed by The Extraordinaries, who offers micro-volunteer opportunities to mobile phones and is developing applications that will coordinate volunteer efforts so that volunteers can make a difference with a click.

But, Jacob Colker, Co-Founder of The Extraordinaries, is passionate about capturing the power of spare time to benefit non-profits. He says:

"Micro time is best reached through mobile, because 90% of us have a phone within reach, 24 hours a day. However, we will also have a web widget for when you are sitting at your desk at work and have a few minutes free. So, yes, we are the mobile guys right now. But moving forward we'll also be on any platform that allows us to reach people with a few minutes free -- mobile, web widget, or any future technology. Essentially, people spend 9 billion hours playing solitaire each year, and we want to tap into that same energy for social good" ("Micro-Volunteering via Mobile Phones"-Non-profits.about.com/volunteers).

How is Micro-Volunteering Being Used by Non-Profits?

The potential is awesome. For example, the Extraordinaries created a Haiti support page to harness the power of the crowd to help locate and identify missing persons with just a few minutes of their time. When Beth Kanter made her list of several iPhone Apps for Nonprofits, she made these comments about the inventory.

The list was small. It included one of my favorites, The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Guide to help you make, "sustainable seafood choices." Another iPhone application is Give Work, a collaborative effort by CrowdFlower, a professional crowdsourcing service provider, and Samasource, a non-profit organization that trains youths and refugees to use computers, and by extension to find sustainable employment. The application creates an opportunity for Kenyan refugees by matching iPhone users' volunteer work with that of the refugees, who do the same tasks and are paid double.

Beth also included on her list CauseWorld that uses a new form of "embedded" giving that she dubbed "Foot Traffic Philanthropy." Last January in her blog, (Foot Traffic Philanthropy: Expect To See More Mobile Do Good Apps in 2010), Beth says that over the Christmas holidays she had a lot of fun playing with the iPhone app, CauseWorld, and she was able to support the following causes:

  • Offset eight pounds of carbon through contributions to the CarbonFund.org
  • Help teachers purchase items for five classrooms located in schools with few resources
  • Provide donations for Prevent Child Abuse America to reduce the number of abused children
  • Help CHF International give clean water to four people in Sudan for a month
  • Provide meals for hungry people through Feeding America
  • Help stop animal abuse by supporting the American Humane Society
  • Get books to children in developing countries through Room To Read
  • Feed chimps through Jane Goodall Institute
  • Plant Trees through America Forests
I've just tried to outline a brief summary of crowdsourcing. If you are interested in a more in depth study of iPhone apps (and for that matter how to use the internet for social change), I recommend reading the work of Heather Mansfield at the Nonprofit Tech 2.0. Heather claims that Causeworld and Extraordinaries are two of three iPhone apps that every non-profit should know about. The third app is called "Charity Finder" that lets users donate to non-profits via simple interface (Heather Mansfield: Three IPhone Apps That Every Nonprofit Needs to Know About.) I would add to that list MobileActive and Ushahidi.

So What? What is my reaction to all of this?

Is it exciting, overwhelming, or just a way to make people feel good for doing so little?

First, as I travel around I always listen to what volunteer leaders are doing and am energized at the innovation and 21st century tools that many of you are using to recruit and empower volunteers. It is exciting out there.

Second, I believe that we need to keep stretching ourselves and asking the question, "How can we use technology and these volunteering trends to raise the level of volunteerism?" But, don't be overwhelmed. These may not work in your organization right now, but these ideas may spur your thinking into other creative strategies. And the time may come when you're ready to incorporate these tools.

Thomas W. McKee

Tom McKee Tom McKee is president and owner of www.volunteerpower.com a leadership development firm specializing in volunteerism. He has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership. Tom began his speaking career to one of the most difficult audiences-high school assemblies. Since those days he has addressed over 1 million people spanning three continents-Africa, Europe and the U.S. Over the past 40 years he has trained over 100,000 leaders how to manage the chaos of change in an organization.

The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer Tom and his son Jonathan are authors of the book, The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer (Group Publishing). The New Breed details the new cultural shift in volunteer management and also includes valuable, applicable resources for leaders, including job descriptions, icebreakers, team-builders and community-building activities, equipping leaders to move forward with confidence and empower valuable volunteers.

About The New Breed:
The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer by Jonathan McKee and Thomas W. McKee. Group Publishing. Paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0764435645. The book can be ordered at www.volunteerpower.com.