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Microvolunteering: Are Short-Time Assignments More Productive?

Keeping volunteers happy, committed and enthusiastic is a challenging task for most nonprofits.

All too often, the same cadre of heavy lifters does most of the work. Those folks are liable to burn out, so it’s essential to lighten their load by attracting new energy, talent and ideas.

Societal trends and shifting demographics are causing organizations to rethink their volunteer management strategies. Microvolunteering, defined by short-term, low-commitment assignments, is one such strategy.

In 2012, one in four people over age 16 spent time volunteering, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with slightly more women than men donating time. The most active group is the 35 to 44 age group, followed by those age 45 to 54 and 55 to 64.

In general, older age groups had longer engagements, with many committing 100-plus hours per year. What the data doesn’t show is how volunteers feel about their service. Bridging the Gap, a 2010 study by Volunteer Canada, surveyed volunteer attitudes and desires regarding their service. Across all age groups, the study found volunteers are mobile, self-directed and results-oriented, have multiple interests and want short-term opportunities that use their skills.

This volunteer profile mirrors society, with its mobile communications and busy, jam-packed schedules. If volunteers take on a task, they want it to meet their own goals as well as provide the satisfaction of achievement.

The “optimal formula” for engagement is a balance between:

✹ Nonprofit needs and volunteer input

✹ Organization without cumbersome bureaucracy

✹ A match of skills to needs without assuming people need to use their professional experience

Many volunteers want to do something different from work or related to a personal interest. They want flexibility to design their own role and schedule. Many desire group activities so they can enjoy the social aspects of service.

Microvolunteering is one way to address many of these volunteer needs and concerns. A perception of endless hours and long-term commitment is one reason people hold back in the first place.

Providing quick, easy, short-term assignments is a proven way to engage people, especially as an introduction to your organization.

Many microvolunteer activities take place online, such as social media assistance and outreach. Research, editing, graphic design and providing specific professional expertise are other online opportunities. Packing a bag with food, personal items or toys is a micro activity. Participating in a one-day charity event is another.

Perhaps a larger project can be broken down into micro activities. An example is a volunteer-produced newsletter. Taking on an entire newsletter may seem daunting but perhaps being asked to write one article might not.

Minimizing committee meetings or moving necessary planning sessions online is another way to increase participation. People want to be active, not sitting on committees.

The key is targeted, short assignments that fit in with a volunteer’s lifestyle, other obligations and interests. Understanding the demands and preferences of different stages of life is also important. Busy professionals want assignments they can squeeze into the workday. Young families want opportunities that can be done with their children. Teens like social events.

A microvolunteering emphasis is especially useful in engaging young people, an important pool of future volunteers. DoSomething.org, a site that matches young people with volunteer opportunities, confirmed that with their Index on Young People and Volunteering. The study reported that 93 percent of teens want to volunteer.

Having friends who volunteered was the single most important factor that encouraged young people to actually participate. Being invited by family members, friends or other adults was also important.

Young people prefer short tasks, social and online engagement, and accessing opportunities through friends or personal networks. Recruiting groups of young people for a fun, social microvolunteer activity or event is a way to create a peer network that will continue to serve.

Bridging the Gap has several suggestions on how to improve engagement and commitment. They suggest creating an open dialogue with volunteers to engage them in designing and improving the volunteer program. Perhaps a survey of interests, availability and ideas would be useful.

Flexibility in accommodating lifestyles, limitations and cultures will help deepen relationships. Using the Internet and social media for communication is essential, since many functions are moving online.

The good news is that many desire to help their communities through service. By adapting programs to meet the needs of today’s volunteers, organizations can continue to thrive well into the future.