Online volunteering: an effective way to help in a digital age?

With the rise of social media and an increasingly connected world, we are also seeing the rise of online activism. Being able to stay curled up at home when it’s cold and miserable and still be doing something to help others is an incredibly attractive prospect. But is it really helpful?

There are numerous different ways to volunteer online, ranging from signing a petition for a cause through websites such as Avaaz, Change.org or GetUp! to volunteering writing or IT skills to a particular cause. It’s hard to say how much impact your signature will have on a petition, but nobody can deny that they can create change – Avaaz have successfully used their online campaigns to lobby governments and big business on 251,804,704 actions since 2007.

Another sort of online activism that receives a huge amount of attention is via Facebook. As easy as it is to ‘like’ a cause you are interested in on Facebook, studies have shown that engagement from this sort of social media is fleeting and does not lead to any sort of meaningful impact. At best, it is spreading awareness of a cause without a follow-on effect. Though that’s not a bad thing in itself, either. You liking a post by Amnesty may introduce one of your facebook friends to their great work. You never know!

There are real and long-lasting changes that can be made by online volunteers. You could volunteer through the UN Online Volunteering portal, which links volunteers up to thousands of different opportunities from hundreds of reputable not-for-profit and non-governmental organisations ranging from writing, translation and research through to training and project management.

Another cool online opportunity could be to help transcribe field notes, specimen details and dairy entries for exhibits in Australian Museums or help Operation War Diary to discover amazing stories about World War I by reading and tagging some of their 1.5 million diary pages!

Online volunteering cops a lot of flack for being a ‘soft’ option. But I think it’s safe to say that if done the right way it can and will make a difference to the global community.

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