The book “Voluntariado Digital“, published in 2014 in Brazil by Monica Beatriz Galiano working with Fundação Telefônica Vivo, offers a broad-based overview of the potential offered by digital technologies to reinvigorate volunteering. The book interprets individual initiatives in digital volunteering in the context of broad social changes and new ways of living and working occasioned by digital technologies. It draws on ideas of the hyperconnected society and the cyborg to signal a sense of transformation in the way that we relate to one another and to technologies and interprets digital volunteering as both a response to and component of this wider set of transformations. For non-Portuguese speakers, the overview of the book offered by the author in a YouTube webcast produced by the International Association for Volunteer Effort is a useful resource. The book has four main chapters: connected society – living in networks; technology – we are the cyborgs; mobility – a contemporary question; and solidarity and volunteering in the digital age. In preparing this overview of digital volunteering 100 initiatives around the world were reviewed. In the webcast the author’s concluding reflections include the observation that digital initiatives add value: the combination of in person and online volunteering making for a stronger social impact and potentially reinforcing commitment and collectivity within global society. An increasing blurring of boundaries between traditional kinds of volunteer work and new kinds of activism is also noted. The message is a positive one, viewing the new technologies as an “engine of citizenship”, although the technology is seen as an ally to be enrolled and a resource to be deployed, rather than a force that inevitably leads to a good outcome unless the right social conditions, and the “solidarity impulse” within the volunteers are already there.
A recently published article offers a rare example of ethnographic research into the lived experience of being a volunteer, and makes the case for recognising volunteering as a site of frustration as well as fulfilment. Sheptak Jr and Menaker report on an ethnographic study among long-term volunteers within a sports organization. Even though this group were often highly motivated and gave considerable commitment of time and effort, frustration emerged as a key theme in interviews and fieldwork. Some of this frustration related to the ability to complete the task at hand. Another aspect of frustration that proved key, however, was the frustration that related to the social aspects of volunteering. According to Sheptak Jr and Menaker (2015):
“Due to the emotional nature and the role of personal perception, social frustration is in many ways more complex than task frustration. Social frustration is the sense of social relevance that the volunteer experiences during and after the volunteer experience. This feeling of social relevance can occur on a number of levels and include experiences such as a feeling of belongingness and importance, accomplishment and recognition, clarity of communication, and feeling good about what you are doing. When volunteers feel that the organization or the other volunteers do not value their contribution, they begin to question their personal worth (in this volunteer situation) and whether this is a good use of their time.”
The authors note that further research in different contexts of voluntary work is needed, to explore how these experiences of frustration play out elsewhere. For us, it prompts a set of questions about the potential for social media to offset some of the social frustrations of volunteering. Are volunteers who communicate via social media alongside their face-to-face volunteering activities likely to feel more connected, with the organization and with one another? Would they experience less social frustration? Would they value their contributions more highly and feel better about what they do?
A recent book, Volunteer Engagement 2.0, explores the wide range of innovative practices and strategies emerging as volunteer organizations come to grips with changing socio-economic conditions, management practices and communication technologies. The section titles hint at the scope of the shifts that the sector has faced and continues to confront, with changing times, relationships, technologies, corporate perspectives and strategies coming under the spotlight in turn. Along the way, the book includes chapters which explore strategies to retain existing volunteers and recruit new socio-demographic groups, to capitalise on new forms of engagement through social media, changing relations between volunteering and fundraising, and new kinds of volunteer contribution in the form of microvolunteering and hackathons.
Opportunities to volunteer overseas are increasingly packaged and sold by specialist companies to those seeking a life-enhancing experience. Volunteers are offered the chance to get to know local people and feel as though they have made a difference to lives less privileged than their own, in what often seems a more ethical form of travel than mere tourism. This “voluntourism” does have a controversial side, however. Negative stories online and in the press have suggested that the voluntary projects undertaken may not be the most beneficial for the local people they purport to help, and may even be fabricated altogether. Some voluntourists have been critiqued for thoughtless objectifications of their beneficiaries on social media, appearing to treat their experience as the occasion for a selfie or a trite generalization. Voluntourism turns out to be a complex and controversial field: does the potential to do something good outweigh the negative aspects? How would potential volunteers be able to tell the good experience from the bad, and does the difference depend on the organization, or the volunteer themselves? A recent article begins to explore some of this complex territory. Easton and Wise compare promotional materials from volunteer tourism organizations with the user-generated content that volunteers themselves post on review forums. Not surprisingly, a rather different picture emerges from the two kinds of data. The promotional materials focus on the positives, highlighting a mixture of benefits to volunteers and local host communities alike. From the online review forums a more complex picture emerges – volunteers themselves post material that does acknowledge positives and make recommendations, but they also share negative experiences and doubts about the value of the work undertaken. When we look at the words of the volunteer tourists themselves, the complex and controversial nature of the activity emerges. The review forums present a very different perspective to that of the volunteer organizations’ promotional materials, by giving the volunteers a voice.
The implications of the volunteer voice for volunteer organizations are not confined to volunteer tourism. Social media increasingly offer volunteers the chance to get in touch with other volunteers outside of the umbrella that volunteer organizations, offer across a wide range of different types and contexts of volunteering. Volunteers can share their experiences, good and bad, and may present a view of the volunteer organization quite at odds with the brand image that the organization’s marketing staff strive to present. Social media may help to encourage sustained volunteering, if it allows volunteers to have a greater social connection with one another, but it also brings challenges for organizations no longer fully in control of their public message.