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Reflections on a Decade of e-Volunteerism

Reflections on a Decade of e-Volunteerism


With this issue of e-Volunteerism, co-founders and co-publishing editors Susan J. Ellis and Steve McCurley begin their tenth year of publication. When they began this effort, both admit that they had no idea whether a venture like e-Volunteerism would succeed at all, much less flourish.  “So we’ve been surprised, and pleased, and occasionally astounded,” the co-founders admit, as they reflect back on the publication’s 10 years. In this Points of View, Steve and Susan also consider how volunteering has changed over the past 10 years and how it might change during the next decade of e-Volunteerism.


Steve’s View

Susan's Photo

Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking about this Points of View while on holiday in Scotland and France, and it may well be that this has shaped some of my opinions, since I’ve also been able to compare my experiences vacationing this year with trips in the past.

For the sake of simplicity I’ve divided my thoughts about what has changed and not changed during the past 10 years into three areas:

  • The Internet
  • The International Trend
  • The Infrastructure Problem

The Internet

Like almost everyone, I now run a lot of my life via the Internet.  I check my e-mail first thing each morning, except when on vacation in obscure parts of the Scottish Highlands without a wireless connection and then I feel vaguely like I’ve lost touch with reality for the rest of the day.

Things are a lot different now from when we started e-Volunteerism, thinking that the Internet would turn into a source of information but never realizing how quickly it would become THE source of information about everything.

One of the observations I always make to new volunteer managers is that you can never forget that volunteering is simply a part of what people do in their lives and, as they change what is happening in their lives, volunteering needs to change to complement those new things. The Internet is rapidly changing how people run their lives and volunteering must adjust to reflect that change.

And we’ve already seen how volunteering is beginning to adjust to the Internet:

  • In a 2007 survey of old age pensioners in the UK, “Internet usage” ranked ahead of gardening, travel and walking/hiking as a favored activity.
  • The 2007 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participation ( found that 10% of volunteers used the Internet to seek for volunteer opportunities. A 2006 survey by MTV found that more young people get information about volunteering and social causes from the Internet than from any other source.
  • According to a 2008 AARP survey, 70% of regular volunteers say they use the Internet at least a few times a week. A 2008 study of 4-H volunteers in Oregon found that 91% reported using their computers at home for volunteer work.

All new technologies experience a spasmodic growth of both innovative and ridiculous usages and the Internet is certainly no exception. In volunteering we have seen the incredible proliferation of volunteering matching sites:


And on and on and on, as every celebrity and every organization and every government entity creates their own “unique” way to connect people to volunteering opportunities. The humorous thing in the US is that most of the sites simply link into one of the major ones (typically Volunteer Match), creating one of those “there is less here than meets the eye” experiences.

But the system works.  And people like it.  The task for volunteer managers will be learning how to effectively market volunteer assignments through these sites, learning how to link to agency Web sites that provide further information and then building the internal mechanisms to respond in a quick and friendly fashion to inquiries.  And then to determine whether the social networking phenomenon can be used to foster relationship building with volunteers or is just a passing fad.

Of course we also have the ridiculous.  My favorite pet peeve at the moment is “microvolunteering,” the notion that you can volunteer spontaneously via your cell phone for tiny periods of time – saving the world in 10 second intervals. (See The Extraordinaries, if you don’t believe me.)  It’s an idea that is emotionally endearing and intellectually absurd.

Predicting where the Internet will go in the next decade is impossible – it is too big and too intrusive.  What I’m waiting for is the time in the not-too-distant future when everyone is connected 24 hours a day with a very portable device only slightly larger than an iPhone.  At that point the “real” world and the virtual world will merge and things will get really interesting.

The International Trend

The world is a lot smaller and more connected than it used to be. Part of this is certainly due to the Internet bringing news of other places closer to us, but a lot of it is due to the fact that people travel to other countries more casually and frequently than they once did.

When we began e-Volunteerism, we set as an internal goal making it as “global” as possible – that is, having a larger perspective than that of North America. We immediately formed a multi-national editorial team. A quick look through the Archives shows that we have had article authors and Keyboard Roundtable participants from more than 30 countries, plus articles focused on volunteering initiatives on in more than 15 countries, looking at some very familiar and very different approaches to volunteering. I suspect that in the next 10 years we will more than double that total.

Some small indications of how volunteering is taking on a much more global tone:

  • Volunteer Management , the basic text that I wrote with Rick Lynch over a decade ago, has now seen editions in the US, Canada, the UK, the Ukraine, China and may see an Arabic edition in the next year.
  • Volunteer management trainers country-hop with great regularity. Though we’re both based in the United States, Susan has presented in 23 countries and I spend over a month a year in the UK; Australia-based Martin J. Cowling is ubiquitous in the United States.
  • Large volunteer management conferences in the US commonly have as many as 5% of their participants from other countries.
  • The key listservs on volunteer management (CyberVPM, UKVPMs, OZVPM) are full of cross-country conversations comparing practices and problems.

Slowly but surely the core volunteer management community is becoming a cohesive global entity.

During the coming decade I think the most interesting element of internationalism in volunteering will be the continued growth of voluntourism, the practice of going abroad to volunteer. Combining as it does two of people’s favorite impulses – doing good and seeing the world – it is hard to see how voluntourism will not continue to grow and expand, allowing people to greatly extend their notion of “helping out.” The challenge for the more established “hometown” volunteering community will be not losing out to the more exotic opportunities presented by international travel. And the challenge for the voluntourism community will be assimilating the knowledge gained over the years by the traditional volunteer community as they try to build a constituency of volunteers who are not just casual tourists but who have a degree of commitment and loyalty that fosters their continued involvement.

The Infrastructure Problem

Some things never change.  In the 30-plus years that I’ve been in volunteering, we have always had a problem with getting a productive infrastructure in place to support volunteering.

That would include:

  • Well-supported national umbrella bodies
  • Effective local support and technical assistance organizations
  • Functioning and inclusive professional associations of volunteer managers

Without intending to insult anyone anywhere, I’ll just say my own opinion is that we don’t have any of those to the degree that we need them.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to the rather myopic approach of government and foundation funders, whose primary pre-occupation is on the quantity game: “All we need do is increase the number of people volunteering and everything will be solved.” How this simplistic mindset persists despite every shred of available evidence baffles me. All the studies indicate in every country that the primary problem in generating more volunteer involvement is the difficulty in providing quality volunteer experiences. And every study indicates that most charitable organizations lack the internal infrastructure to sustain effective and innovative utilization of volunteers.

As a result we have a system of volunteering that limps along mainly because of the good nature and dedication of volunteers, many of whom realize all too well how much they are under-utilized and taken advantage of.  Makes one wish that one day they would get fed up and strike for better working conditions.

I’ll end this by making two predictions:

  • Ten years from now I’ll be delighted to talk about the fascinating things occurring with respect to the Internet and international aspects of volunteering;
  • And I’ll still be whining about the infrastructure problem.

Susan’s View

Susan's Photo

Like Steve, I also find it hard to believe that this is our 37th issue!  Of course, serving as editor-in-chief, I can attest to the many hours of work that has gone into each quarterly product.  So my first thought is to say a huge thank you to all the people who joined us along the way to build e-Volunteerism:

  • Feature Editors Andy Fryar, Rob Jackson and Betty Stallings have been on the journal’s editorial team since the very first day – in fact, since before we launched, since they helped Steve and me develop the content, format and strategic, long-range plans.  Steven Howlett has been on board for seven years as the editor of Research to Practice, replacing Jeff Brudney, the first editor of this section. Melissa Eystad and Deborah Witmer pioneered two feature areas that we retired after a few years. 

    It’s very important to acknowledge that every one of these wonderful colleagues serves as a volunteer, generously and devotedly giving their time to create a product that furthers professional exchange in the global volunteer community.Although we’re spread across three continents, we’ve evolved team spirit and friendships that I appreciate more than words can express (and we’re in the word business, too!).
  • Before writing this piece, I went through our Archives and counted the names of contributors. We have published articles by 154 different authors, plus the contributions of an additional 86 colleagues who were on Keyboard Roundtable panels, bringing the grand total to 240 writers – all also offering their thoughts without remuneration.  Clearly it’s these volunteers who make the journal vibrant and important.
  • Kristin Floyd is our Web Architect, a role she naturally accrued as Director of Web Communications and Programming for Energize, Inc. Her enthusiasm for e-Volunteerism and great Web skills make her an indispensible and highly valued member of the editorial team. Margaret O. Kirk (and, in year one, Anna Seidman) runs the production side of things as Manuscripts Editor, keeping us all on track and copyedited. Special thanks twice to Andy Fryar, who also fills the role of Manuscripts Developer, making him the journal’s nagger-in-chief to all prospective authors.
  • Steve McCurley and I have been colleagues for three decades (starting in utero, of course). It was his idea to go on this publishing adventure and I agreed. Prolific and consistently dependable in meeting deadlines, Steve has been a marvelous collaborator. We pooled our money in 2000 to get the journal off the ground and only recovered that investment last year. Most revenue still gets plowed back into production, though, which is fine with us. e-Volunteerism is our contribution to the field.
  • And last, but not least, we have to thank you, our subscribers and readers!  Like that tree falling in the forest, writing only makes a sound when someone reads the words.  We’re talking to you on every page.

Some Frustrations in Publishing for Our Field

Having dutifully and sincerely acknowledged everyone, I turn to the other side of the coin.  Steve and I share the belief that we must serve the needs of the best and brightest of our colleagues in order to strengthen volunteer management. We aim for the highest, not lowest, common denominator. 

e-Volunteerism was created for advanced practitioners.  We felt that the Web offered many extraordinary free resources which we hoped newcomers and veterans would find and use.  The Energize free site is dedicated to this purpose, with more than 1,000 pages of information.  Therefore, our goal in publishing this journal was to meet the “next level” of interest and professional development, particularly for those who are committed to a career in this field.  

Is Anyone There?
What we wanted was innovative thinking, reaction and interaction.  But…

  • Although we offer the opportunity for readers to respond to every single article in each issue, I doubt we’ve had even 25 postings in nine years. This is disappointing and troubling. Most authors comment on the lack of response, as they hope to hear from readers. We have usage data that shows us you are opening articles and spending time on the pages, but you’re doing it silently.
  • e-Volunteerism welcomes controversy and occasionally is purposely provocative. Open discussions benefit every reader. It’s one of the amazing benefits of electronic publishing that exchanges between readers and authors, and among readers themselves, is so easy. In olden days all we had were letters to the editor which, even if published (and only a few were), appeared months after the original article that elicited the letter. 
  • Another joy of a Web journal is that we can keep every past issue accessible to you in the archives.  This means you have at your fingertips a resource library of 300-plus articles.  And guess what?  You can continue to post responses and comments, regardless of the age of the article. The most recent response date will always be reflected on the issue’s table of contents.  It’s one way we can all update the material with relevant fresh ideas.  This archive does not have to be dusty.

Dare to Express Yourself
One of the things that distinguish a profession from a job is the presence of a written body of knowledge in which early writing provides the foundation for evolving and expanding thinking in the field. This requires both readers and writers.

Despite our success in publishing the work of so many authors, it’s still like pulling teeth to get most colleagues to write. There are so many extraordinary volunteer activities being led by highly competent people, yet that collective practical wisdom is not being shared.

Why? Here are some of my thoughts:

  • We still strive to be “nice,” which – particularly for professional women – is sometimes seen as staying in the background and not ruffling feathers with an opposing opinion. In addition, we prefer crediting volunteers for their accomplishments and see authoring an article about their work as self-promotion (my response to this has always been to go ahead and co-author an article with a key volunteer).
  • People think that every article has to be brilliant, offer completely new information and contain a ton of footnotes. Not true! You have many options, including:
    • Something that builds on something else – pick a published article and show how you used its information to take it to the next level.
    • A variation on an accepted practice or an application with a new twist – did you apply an idea someone else proposed for teenagers and use it instead for seniors?
    • Commentary or opinion.
    • Reply to someone else’s opinion.
    • Interview someone with a perspective you want to share, or have someone interview you.
    • Raise questions for discussion – a provocative question can start a chain of thought that has greater impact than a piece of advice.
    You can write for e-Volunteerism in the first person, with an informal tone and no citations, providing you have something worthwhile to say. So the challenge is, do you have the gumption to say it at all?
  • Writing is hard. And it takes time. But in other professions the status that accrues from presenting one’s ideas to colleagues makes it worthwhile. What are the professional rewards for being a published author in our field?
  • People often lack confidence in their ability to write. Looking back, it is a great source of satisfaction for me personally that I have had the chance to mentor many colleagues through their first writing-for-publication experience.  Please know that the e-Volunteerism editorial team wants to help you. We will respond to outlines and drafts – you do not have to submit a polished article immediately

Back to You

Steve and I have the luxury of writing this Points of View forum every three months to comment on the field. We originally expected this column to take a he said/she said approach, possibly presenting opposing views. As it evolved, however, it became harder and harder to find topics on which we fundamentally disagree! So instead we share the writing, agreeing on the main point and blending our two perspectives. 

This issue we had the chance to speak individually. Steve chose to reflect on a decade of volunteerism and I on a decade of e-Volunteerism. My hope for the future is that more of our readers will get engaged in building the future; become active in the emerging professional societies around the world; write new articles to expand our knowledge; and go public with what you think! 

In short:  Post responses to listservs, blogs and our journal articles.  Step up.  Speak out.  Join in.

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