Thursday, December 08, 2005

Virtual Volunteering As-Is Can Not Fly

I presented a paper in the Research-In-Action section of ICVA2005 and it was a review on online volunteering. A polished version will be published by the Journal of Volunteer Adminstration later on in 2006, but that is not the point.

Online/Virtual Volunteering does not fly. Jayne Cravens herself wrote (in a document uploaded in UKVPM group):
"My presentation marked the first time the majority of attendees had ever heard of online volunteering (and all were shocked to learn how old the practice is)"

It is about time that we, as Volunteer Administrators/Leaders, ask ourselves how come it does not fly (yet, hopefully).

Yet, OV is a well-identified trend since 1998, but it somehow is still considered "new" and non-profits do not practice it extensively. I argue that this is not because ICT resources are lacking. In fact, many studies (Cravens, 2000,
2003; Harrison & Murray, 2002; Harrison, Murray & MacGregor, 2004; Murray & Harrison, 2002)) showed that nonprofits in North America (United States and Canada) do have access to such resources, but they don't use it...

In my review, I showed how most online volunteering manuals and info started as collections of practices on how to manage online volunteers. With the exception of the papers addressing open source developer volunteerism, those suggestions are not based on research findings, but on bona fide observations that haven't been tested in over 7 years. But that's not why people aren't using them...

The "old" fad "if you build it they will come", re-ashed in many of those guides, is a gross oversimplification of human nature in general, and of human nature of volunteers in particular. Not just it makes zero sense from a human-computer interaction perspective (concepts as sociability and usability are what determines participation in virtual environments, NO MATTER how much the "cause" is good -- and no, it's not "just me" affirming it, ask Jenny Preece for one!). As for any other human, volunteer managers do not use OV because it does not make sense to them in the way it is described, packaged, and "sold" to them.

So, what is that keeps them away from OV? They perceive it as "difficult". After my speech, I had many persons telling me:
"I have the technology but I don't know how to speak to virtual volunteers"
. And you know what? They are right, because, in those guides, NOBODY addressed, EVER, how to interact with volunteers through computer-mediated communication, aside from a long list of "donts".

Some suggestions are - I beg you pardon - laughable, like "Discourage volunteers from disclosing their home address or phone number to others.". The ones of you that are in any profession do know the value of networking. The ones of you that do not have a consulting business, still wouldn't take seriously any persons/workers/colleagues refusing to share their name, address and phone number and hiding through a NICKNAME. Would you go to your butcher if s/he called him/herself "shiningknife" rather than, say, Charles and refused to give you his/her address and phone number? N-O-P-E.

As much as some persons might be uncomfortable with it, social needs/interactions still are:
(a) one of the ways we learn (see, Bandura, 1997, and Vygotzky, 1987)
(b) one of the reasons we start volunteering (see Omoto & Snyder, 1995)

As for any technology, people adopt it at different rates in different ways. But I don't think that innovation diffusion theory is the whole issue at stake. Like with telephone, some people are afraid of whomever they can't see because, I believe, they can't adapt to subtilties (say, because they tend not to be verbal learners) or belong to cultures where everything has to be clear, explained ad nauseam, and possibly task-oriented (low context cultures, it's a fact that high context populations tend to buy and use telephone more than their low context counterparts, even if phone is a less rich medium than face-to-face communication, and that's precisely because they don't need the repetition of cues that low context folks seem to need).

From all these hints, you might understand how online volunteering, as well as online communication, aren't just about "get a power line, get a pc, get it running, get a software, put up a site, match your needs with a volunteer and vaia con Dios" kind of a thing. It's precisely because it is popularized in this way that people stay away from it.

Oh, the last thing. Here you can find some practical suggestions about OV. And yes, in case anybody was wondering, my next publication is about cultural nuances of computer-mediated communication *grin*

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