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Volunteering in the digital age: on the rise or the fall?

During the digital era, many industries have gone through significant changes. The previous year proved that digital tools could change face-to-face communication efficiently, and one of the affected spheres during the last decade and especially last year was volunteering. The years 2020 -2021 gave different organizations or individuals the possibility to discover the types of volunteering that could be done from the comfort of home while still being influential and life-changing.

©Unsplash: Marvin Meyer

by Sofio Rukhadze

During a conversation with Hannes Jähnert, who has been working as a board consultant at the German Foundation for Civic Engagement and Volunteering, he talked about the perks of the digital era during the last thirty years of volunteer recruitment. Using the platforms specifically designed to help individuals explore the desired volunteering opportunity had its share in helping to raise the number of committed people nationally and internationally. Some of these platforms include: vostel.de, servethecity.de, etc. The stored data on volunteers also shows that many of these volunteers are teenagers who study the value of volunteering alongside soft skills during the early ages. As Mr. Jähnert further mentions, the people who tend to understand the core of volunteering during the early ages are more likely to volunteer later, as well.    

Different types of volunteering are slowly arising during the digital era. Some traditional volunteering practices include short-term commitment opportunities that could include cleaning the city, helping individuals in need with food and clothing, or volunteering during sports events. However, now, people face many different engagement options that could lead to long-term commitments. Some of them include being a full-time volunteer for the European Solidarity Corps as well as for weltwärts by Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and IJFD “Internationaler Jugendfreiwilligendienst”, International Voluntary Service by Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), for several months or even a year in a foreign country. Moreover, the rise in digital technologies showcased the way individuals with busy schedules could volunteer while not leaving their home offices. One of these types of volunteering is the “Missing Maps Project," where the volunteers save lives by mapping the vulnerable places from different parts of the world while not leaving their country or, in the case of this year, home offices. These examples demonstrate how equally crucial digital and traditional volunteering practices are.   

Now the organizations start using digital technologies in many ways. Not only do they try to connect with potential volunteers, but they offer volunteering opportunities that do not require face-to-face contact. "Digital volunteering could be as efficient as traditional volunteering, but the challenge is that it does not tap into core values of volunteering which is connected with the community and working collectively," further stated Mr. Jähnert while having a conversation about the potential of digital volunteering. That is an excellent point, as while digital technologies prove to be comfortable, they do not satisfy our needs to have actual human contact. Even though online communications are proven to be beneficial, they still take more time and commitment to be as efficient as face-to-face communications.    

Dr. Birthe Tahmaz, project manager from “ ZiviZ im Stifterverband" highlighted the same point while stating that digital volunteering will never achieve the same effect of belonging and group work as traditional ways. Moreover, she talked about international volunteers and stated that to acclimate with culture and locals, which is one of the goals of these types of volunteering opportunities, one must be present physically in the place. Of course, it is much easier to volunteer online; However, one cannot get acquainted with diverse cultures during working hours while not experiencing the culture her/himself.     

Digital volunteering has the potential of becoming more popular than traditional as it is easier and faster. However, as already mentioned, it is not as efficient and, even, not that easily accessible for everyone. It is logical to think that everyone would be able to access and have knowledge of digital tools. However, even in the digital era, there is a knowledge gap. If some organizations depend on digital tools and volunteers, others are still using the traditional ways. According to Mr. Jähnert, this issue could be resolved through learning from each other as volunteering is not a closed sector and is continuously renovating itself. One of the ways to do so, is to use Open Source Software for the civic society allowing different organizations to connect, learn from each other and improve. This year, European Volunteering Capital launched, amongst others, the field of action “Open Source” on their website.  By doing so, EVC dedicated itself to the many facets of this topic while illuminating how Open Source applications break down barriers, strengthen democracy, and promote commitment.  

During the discussion about the future of volunteering, Dr. Tahmaz made a good point while stating that she hopes there will be a hybrid allowing everyone to contribute. Thinking that digital volunteering could create equal opportunities for everyone would be a false statement. It is something new, and not everyone is yet ready to volunteer in this capacity. On the contrary, it could potentially decrease the number of volunteers while excluding those who do not have knowledge or experience with digital technologies. During times of inequality, civil society should ensure that those who were not as lucky as others to be digitally literate can contribute in other ways. For example, the European Solidarity Corps offers a year of volunteering programs that could involve volunteering in an organization, and doing a desk job as an IT assistant, or volunteering in a primary school and working as a teacher’s assistant. Moreover, in “Missing Maps Project” there are volunteers who map and volunteer digitally, and those who use these maps to reach the individuals who might need help while working on the ground. These examples of volunteering possibilities are different from each other, and yet, they offer equal opportunities for participants to contribute, learn and grow professionally.  Whatever the future of volunteering will look like, one thing is for sure - it should be accessible for everyone and accommodate the needs of volunteers.