FYI: Philanthropy in the
|In just a few
years of growth, the World Wide Web has given life to a whole new class
of volunteering - virtual volunteering. While no one claims it's
a substitute for human contact, scores of volunteers are helping people
and organizations simply by communicating from home or work over the Internet.
A volunteer in California replies via e-mail to a school in rural England concerning a sure fix for their computer system problem.
Women from their home computers thousands of miles apart post responses to a charity message board saying they will be happy to send along doll patterns to a Midwest woman who makes and donates toys for a child abuse center.
Pictures of lost children can be viewed on the Internet and millions of people worldwide can call a hotline to report if they've seen any of the children.
These are just a sampling of the ways people are using the Internet to donate their time and talents without ever leaving home or the office.
Virtual volunteering is giving cyberspace a heart and giving true meaning to the concept of online communities. It allows people who may not be able to volunteer in person due to time constraints, a disability or a prior commitment.
Virtual volunteering allows anyone to contribute time and expertise to nonprofit organizations, schools, government offices and other agencies that utilize volunteer services. Not only are charities all over the world taking full advantage of their Web sites by listing volunteer opportunities, but entire sites are becoming one-stop shopping for anyone who wants to lend a virtual hand.
Impact Online, a nonprofit organization and Web publisher whose goal is to use the Internet to turn good intentions into action, hosts the Virtual Volunteering project.
It's a site to allow those who cannot or do not choose to leave their homes to complete volunteer assignments or ongoing projects via their computers and a modem. A stop at their site will tell volunteers and organizations how to benefit from virtual volunteering and give them step-by-step details on setting up and managing such a program. The online area is supported by the James Irvine Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation and the Morino Institute.
Impact Online stresses that virtual volunteering is not a replacement for face-to-face service, but is instead an expansion of existing volunteer resources, an augmentation of an organization's offline activities and another way for someone to help support an organization and give back to the community.
You can now subscribe to its monthly electronic newsletter, Virtual Verve, that highlights and encourages the development of volunteer opportunities that can be done from a computer with online capabilities. The newsletter will be a source of information and opportunities for the virtual volunteer, and organizations can send in their requests for volunteers to be included in the newsletter.
Virtual Volunteering also emphasizes recruiting disabled volunteers to assist others in need. Impact Online says the 49 million disabled Americans are an untapped resource.
"People with disabilities volunteer for the same reasons as anyone else: they want to contribute their time and energy to improving the quality of life," the group says on its Web site. "They want challenging, rewarding, education service projects that address needs of a community."
Heaven on the Web
Take a trip to Heaven, another stop on the virtual highway for virtual volunteers and those who need them.
HEAVEN - Helping Educate, Activate, Volunteer and Empower on the Net - began as a joint venture of America Online and New Line Cinema's Hub project. The project targets the 18-34 year old online market that provides "personality driven entertainment." Heaven, which also maintains a presence on AOL at keyword: HubHeaven, became a nonprofit in July 1997. It is now the largest resource for information on volunteer efforts and opportunities for 18-34-year-olds who are looking for direction in giving of themselves to worthy causes. But Heaven welcomes visitors of all ages.
"We wanted to make the whole idea of volunteerism sexy, fun, and fresh to attract our target market," Wendy Dubit, Heavn's executive director, says. She does this with catchy slogans, flashy graphics and profiles of role models who tout the virtues of volunteering, such as Melrose Place star Andrew Shue.
Dubit, an entrepreneur in her own right, helped plant the seed for Heaven when she began consulting for AOL's Greenhouse project, an online launching pad for new businesses.
Other virtual programs
Virtual volunteering is working on a local scale for the Native Academy in Minneapolis, where middle and high school Native American students are receiving help in math and science from online mentors.
School director Graham Hartley says most of their online volunteers have been solicited by word of mouth through the local community.
"We would have received many more responses, I feel," says Hartley, "if we'd been more vigorous in using lists and user groups to pursue volunteers, but we got the people we needed when local people heard we needed online volunteers."
Other times, companies use newsletters, bulletin boards and intranet systems to alert employees of volunteer opportunities. SAS Inc., a worldwide computer systems and software company based in Cary, N.C., is well known for its innovative ideas in the workplace. SAS actively encourages volunteerism among its workers. It has its own philanthropy page on the company intranet that lists opportunities to help with such things as local soup kitchens, educational technology initiatives and the Special Olympics.
"We use the intranet to avoid being too intrusive," says SAS public affairs manager Les Hamashima. "The response is better if we avoid the use of 'push technology' (e-mails or pop-up screens when computers are signed-on to a system) and just post volunteer needs on the philanthropy page. Employees know where to look if they're interested."
The page grew from the frequent requests for financial assistance received by the multi-million dollar company from groups locally and globally. "In some cases we can and do help financially," Hamashima says, "but we try to leverage that assistance with volunteerism."
Another technology company, Sun Microsystems, enlists employees to aid educational clients with troubleshooting via e-mail in addition to helping in traditional ways. "There may be a Sun employee at home in Massachusetts, in the early morning hours, helping a student or teacher with a system problem in England," says Gary Serda, Sun's manager of worldwide corporate affairs. "We try to match employees with school districts, but whoever first receives the e-mail with a tech question will do all they can to assist that individual, regardless of geography."
Have a comment or a question? Joan Alford can be reached at email@example.com
For more news about volunteers, visit the Philanthropy Journal archive.
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