Virtual, online and remote volunteering for international development

On 20 May Comhlámh attended a webinar on remote volunteering, hosted by FORUM which is the global network of organisations involved in international volunteering for development.  There were a number of presentations from a variety of the FORUM organisations, namely; Cuso International Canada, the UNV Online programme, VIONet Sierra Leone, Our Better World Singapore, France Voluntaires and long time friend of Comhlámh, Jayne Cravens.  Below is a short summary of some of the presentations from the webinar and some further comments from Comhlámh’s work in the area. 

Online, virtual and remote volunteering is not a new idea.   

It might be gaining more attention recently due to the international travel restrictions in place because of the Corona virus, but online volunteering is not a new concept for many international development practitioners around the world.  The webinar on 20 May gave the participating organisations a chance to showcase their work and highlight one or two of the main advantages to online volunteering, while also mentioning some of the difficulties. 

Yvette Macabuag of Cuso International highlighted the importance of flexibility and adaptability from the volunteer and the hosting organisation for E-Volunteering placements to be successful.  Cuso International was the first formalised online volunteering programme in Canada and connects volunteers to their international partners remotely.  Cuso offer placements in Business Development, Communications, Design, Education and IT support and help potential volunteers think about their options via an online survey to get them started.  In particular Cuso would say that “E-Volunteering offers many of the benefits gained from on-site volunteering, while having the extra advantage of fitting in one’s regular weekly schedule without needing a passport”.  

The UNV online programme was launched in 2000 and as they say on their website there are “so many ways to volunteer”.  Marc Liberati of the UNV programme made the point that at no time were online volunteers meant to replace onsite volunteers, but that they should be used in tandem and to compliment the onsite work instead.  The UNV online programme offer placements in; writing and editing, translation, outreach and advocacy, art and design and much more, and they recently posted online positions in response to Covid-19.  A potential volunteer needs to sign-up and log in and can begin browsing roles immediately.  Some positions are one-off task orientated roles which require a maximum of ten hours of the volunteers’ time.  Other roles (particularly in teaching and training and research) require a weekly minimum number of hours for a longer period of time.   

Samuel Turray was the next presenter and he represented VIONet Sierra Leone.  Samuel discussed some of the challenges of online volunteering in Sierra Leone, namely the access to the internet, availability of electricity and the fact that some people would be unable to use the soft wear needed for virtual volunteering, such as Zoom.  However, he noted that the cost benefits for the hosting organisation would not be unnoticed and that other resources might be saved by having virtual rather than onsite volunteers on some projects.  He also noticed that online volunteers could enhance the work of onsite volunteers, rather than replace them, and looked forward to further work. 

Rebecca Lim from Our Better World was the next presenter and she spent her allocated time talking about positive stories for change and transformation.  Our Better World collect and promote positive stories with the aim of encouraging people to take action.  This action itself is then collected as a positive story and also promoted, and so on.  Rebecca reminded the webinar participants of the ongoing “humankind” campaign which is a collection of positive stories of kindness in action from all over Asia.  Thus all the story makers and stories have been online all along, amplifying positive stories from onsite projects and the wider community in general. 

The moderator of the webinar, Lucie Morillon from France Voluntaires invited researcher, lecturer, consultant and trainer, Jayne Cravens to add a few words before closing.  Jayne made the point that virtual volunteering is not new, is well researched and can make the same transformative impact as onsite volunteering.  She has been delivering training and writing about remote volunteering for almost thirty years and has said several times before that there are enormous benefits to virtual volunteering.  Clearly there are challenges, in particular the ones mentioned by Samuel, but these could be overcome as access to technology in more rural areas improves.   

The benefits of online volunteering were also highlighted in a paper prepared by Comhlámh’s research and policy officer, Siobhán O’Brien Green in 2014.  Siobhán listed the types of activities which would work well online such as translation, training, providing project management advice, facilitating online groups, fundraising, designing research studies, research, developing curricula and providing the technical support to ensure all of these activities can take place. 

The advantages of online volunteering are numerous, and three should be highlighted before we close:  Firstly, the host organisation can recruit from a much wider, diverse and inclusive cohort of potential volunteers and have people join the team who would not be involved otherwise.  Secondly, the costing of hosting an online volunteer is much lower than accommodating an onsite volunteer and finally, an online volunteer can be brought in to support the core work and add value when required rather than be the front and centre of the project.  This might be an unintentional benefit, but perhaps the most sustainable advantage after all. 

Links to websites and papers mentioned. 


Cuso International: 

UNV online: 

VIONet Sierra Leone: 

Our Better World, Singapore: 

France Voluntaires: 

Jayne Cravens: 

Comhlámh 2014 paper on remote volunteering: 

Short YouTube video of the launch of the Comhlámh paper: