Digital volunteering through a volunteering crowdsourcing platform: lessons from TuDu.org.pl

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Aleksandra Belina University of Warsaw, Poland

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There has been an unprecedented global increase in digital volunteering since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, in many countries, including Central and Eastern Europe, online volunteering is under-researched and large-scale tools, such as volunteering crowdsourcing platforms, are only beginning to emerge in response to crises. This article presents practical lessons for engaging and retaining online volunteers, drawn from an evaluation of the only Polish crowdsourcing platform dedicated to e-volunteering: TuDu.org.pl.

Abstract

There has been an unprecedented global increase in digital volunteering since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, in many countries, including Central and Eastern Europe, online volunteering is under-researched and large-scale tools, such as volunteering crowdsourcing platforms, are only beginning to emerge in response to crises. This article presents practical lessons for engaging and retaining online volunteers, drawn from an evaluation of the only Polish crowdsourcing platform dedicated to e-volunteering: TuDu.org.pl.

New trends in volunteering

Digitalisation has led to significant changes in the operation of organisations around the world. Non-profit organisations (NPOs), publicly funded institutions and market actors now use digital platforms to recruit volunteers and, consequently, to achieve organisational goals. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, digitalisation accelerated as organisations and individuals participated in online volunteer activities due to the epidemiological restrictions that hindered in-person helping (CPWOP, 2021).

Volunteering patterns are changeable, with a recent trend shifting from long-term volunteer engagement to a more episodic, flexible style of volunteering (Hustinx and Lammertyn, 2003; Hyde et al, 2016). As further digitalisation and the growth in the popularity of online volunteering will continue affecting volunteer engagement globally, studies on the effective use of that potential are of the highest importance for practitioners and policy makers (Hyde et al, 2016: 46). To mobilise new volunteers and retain existing ones, organisations need to adopt innovative approaches to volunteer engagement. However, previous studies have mainly focused on face-to-face volunteering and relatively little attention has been paid to online volunteering (Mukherjee, 2011; Silva et al, 2018).

This article attempts to fill the gap between the existing knowledge and scarce empirical evidence on digital volunteering. It aims to help practitioners and policy makers reflect on critical issues related to planning and coordinating e-volunteering via online platforms. It draws on a review of related literature and the Good Network Foundation’s (GNF) June 2021 survey.

The research addressed three questions:

  1. 1.What are the motivations of organisations and individuals to engage in online volunteering on digital platforms?
  2. 2.How do they perceive this form of volunteering?
  3. 3.What are the practical lessons for policy makers and practitioners for the further development of e-volunteering?

The article first discusses the definitional challenges of online volunteering and presents the characteristics of e-volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the use of digital platforms. It then describes TuDu.org.pl and the study’s methodology. The latter part is devoted to the practical lessons drawn from the analysis. Lastly, the contributions of the study are outlined.

Online volunteering: definitional challenges

Volunteering is generally defined as action in the service of organisations, people or causes, carried out by free will, with no monetary reward (Wilson, 2000; Snyder and Omoto, 2008). Online volunteering can be defined as a ‘type of civic engagement where the volunteers perform their tasks using the Internet’ (Mukherjee, 2011: 253). However, as Ackermann and Manatschal (2018: 4455) summarise, ‘although this is rarely made explicit, most people still associate volunteering primarily with real-life … activities’.

Some authors recognise both formal (carried out in an organisational sphere) and informal (performed within communities, such as helping neighbours) volunteering (Snyder and Omoto, 2008; Lee and Brudney, 2012). Analogously, online volunteering is often classified as formal and informal (Cravens, 2000; Ihm, 2017; Silva et al, 2018). According to Cravens (2000: 121), formal online volunteering ‘allows anyone without leaving home or office to contribute time and experience to NPOs, schools, governmental agencies and other organisations’, while within informal online volunteering there is no organisation directly associated with the activities that e-volunteers undertake.

Importantly, volunteering patterns are changing, with a current trend shifting from long-term and committed volunteering engagements to a more episodic, unstructured style of volunteering (Hyde et al, 2016). Considering the timeframe and organisational framework, digitalisation makes it easier for volunteers to support more than one organisation, in a flexible, online sphere (Ihm, 2017). It also attracts episodic volunteers who provide short-term, task- or event-specific support for numerous organisations; this can be called online micro-volunteering. Furthermore, crowdsourcing is becoming a popular form of digital volunteering. It is a process of collective voluntary task performance. Overall, online volunteering extends the traditional volunteering contexts and facilitates the diversification of voluntary involvement.

The promise of digital volunteering

Online volunteering brings numerous potential benefits, as well as limitations, for both volunteers and organisations.

Potential benefits include freedom, flexibility and accessibility, allowing new segments of society to participate in volunteer work (for example, those with limited mobility, disabilities, obligations at home, psychological barriers to helping onsite or irregular working hours) (Amichai-Hamburger, 2008; Silva et al, 2018). Online volunteering also expands the scale of volunteering and, consequently, the sharing of knowledge among communities, thanks to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) (Cravens, 2000). E-volunteering can be a possible solution to widespread feelings of isolation, helplessness and alienation, especially during times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. GNF’s experiences show that online volunteering can reduce the social pressure and stress on some volunteers, as communication is mediated online.

Nevertheless, e-volunteering has several limitations, including the lack of face-to-face contact and a higher degree of anonymity, which can lead to a lower level of obligation and psychological engagement (Cravens, 2000; Amichai-Hamburger, 2008; Ackermann and Manatschal, 2018). It also requires access to certain computer skills and technical support, which is often determined by the digital divide and is distributed unequally among communities (Cravens, 2000; Perold et al, 2021). Lastly, the lack of know-how and resources for efficient online volunteer management (distance leadership) can be a challenge to many organisations (Amichai-Hamburger, 2008).

Digital platforms for volunteering

While digital volunteering existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, it forced organisations to rethink or accelerate this type of volunteering (Trautwein et al, 2020; CPWOP, 2021: 14). However, international literature focuses on case studies from Western countries or the Global South (Perold et al, 2021), leaving Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) unrecognised.

TuDu.org.pl: ‘micro-volunteering for macro causes’

TuDu.org.pl, the brainchild of the GNF, is the only Polish crowdsourcing platform dedicated strictly to online volunteering. The website connects over 4,450 registered e-volunteers and 950 organisations (as of 15 September 2021) – NPOs, informal groups and publicly funded institutions – which makes it one of the biggest online volunteering communities in CEE. It seeks to enable organisations and individuals to engage in micro-volunteering online. After registration, organisations can add new tasks to the platform. Registered e-volunteers can undertake the tasks and provide the outcomes directly on the website, in the form of comments or files.

In principle, TuDu is a tool for episodic e-volunteering only; tasks are mainly designed to require up to three hours of commitment. Yet, the motto used for its promotion, ‘micro-volunteering for macro causes’, underlines the importance of even a short-term, limited voluntary engagement. As many organisations need quick but professional support for their ongoing projects, TuDu enables them to involve many e-volunteers beyond their geographical borders. The most popular tasks include translation, graphic design and text editing. For registered volunteers, this kind of commitment can either be a prelude to long-term voluntary activities or the only way to be engaged in the greater good (for example, due to personal barriers).

Examining e-volunteering on TuDu.org.pl

The aim of the research was twofold: to expand the understanding of digital volunteering and to formulate practical recommendations for the further development of e-volunteering platforms.

Anonymous online surveys were targeted at two groups: individuals and organisations registered on the TuDu.org.pl platform. Both questionnaires included similar questions and were divided into sections on general volunteering experience, an assessment of the platform and educational materials and instructions provided by the GNF. The rest of the questionnaire concerned sociodemographics. The surveys contained a rating scale, closed-ended, open-ended, single and multiple-choice questions.

Significantly, the sample was neither representative nor random – the invitation was sent twice to all 891 organisations and 4,116 e-volunteers registered on the TuDu.org.pl platform from 2015 when it was established, until the date of the invitation (17 June 2021). Overall, the 96 e-volunteers who responded constituted 2.33% of all registered e-volunteers and the 34 organisations that took part in the research constituted 3.82% of all registered organisations.

The article provides essential, selected results, relevant to practitioners and policy makers worldwide. The full description of the project is available online in Polish (Good Network Foundation, 2021).

E-volunteers on TuDu.org.pl

Due to its flexibility, e-volunteering attracts mainly young people, whose life is characterized by the mobility and dynamic changes’ (Ackermann and Manatschal, 2018: 4457). The higher affiliation of youth was strikingly visible among respondents (27.1% of respondents were between the ages of 18 and 24, while the other 43.8% were aged 25–39). The potential lies not only in students, but also in recent graduates and employees who want to share and develop their competencies through online volunteering. The sample was geographically diverse: respondents were from small towns (under 20,000 inhabitants), middle-sized cities and big metropoles (over 500,000 inhabitants).

Volunteers in Poland are generally characterised by such features as above-average religious commitment, higher education, a significant professional position, student status and living in the largest cities (over 500,000 inhabitants). In terms of age, 35- to 44-year-olds and 18- to 24-year-olds are the most likely to volunteer. Volunteer rates are the lowest among 25- to 34-year-olds and older people (over 65 years old). Interestingly, individuals with both the highest and the lowest levels of average income per person volunteer the most (Statistics Poland, 2017; CBOS, 2022). The digital divide, socioeconomic status and age can be important factors in the choice between online and face-to-face volunteering. Nevertheless, it requires further study due to the shortage of research comparing onsite and online volunteering. The abovementioned representative surveys present no distinction between the forms of volunteer engagement.

The most common pattern of volunteer experience among TuDu’s users was to have experience in both onsite and online volunteering (42.7%). Another 30.2% of respondents only volunteered onsite, while 15.6% engaged in digital volunteering only. The other 11.5% did not have any volunteering experience yet. The results are in line with prior studies showing that volunteers are willing to combine their offline and online engagement as well as that e-volunteering may mobilise individuals who have not been involved in onsite volunteering (Ackermann and Manatschal, 2018).

The surveys also allowed us to understand the volunteers’ motivations to engage in online volunteering on a crowdsourcing platform. Answers to two open-ended questions were coded and the following themes emerged (in order of relevance and popularity):

  • an altruistic approach (with a ‘willingness to help others’ the most common motive);

  • self-development: polishing own competencies (including digital skills) and sharing them with others;

  • the attractiveness of the form of volunteering: the joy of volunteering in an easy, friendly way while surfing the internet, the advantage of an interesting and inclusive form of online micro-volunteering;

  • network building: the willingness to ‘meet’ new organisations;

  • pragmatic reasons (gaining a volunteer certificate).

Thus, altruistic motives are crucial, which aligns with previous research (Silva et al, 2018). Digital volunteering on TuDu attracted respondents due to the basic advantages of this form of volunteer work: the ability to develop competencies online and its flexibility, networking potential and complementarity with onsite volunteering.

Surveyed individuals were mainly interested in pursuing short tasks on TuDu.org.pl, but also valued supporting organisations they had previously helped onsite via digital volunteering, as well as participating in webinars on e-volunteering. Thus, widening competencies and expanding ways of digital support were of high interest among respondents.

E-volunteers were mainly attracted to interesting, detailed, relevant (to them) tasks provided by registered organisations; generally, maintaining a high number of diverse volunteering tasks on TuDu was a crucial factor for the active engagement of both newly registered and experienced e-volunteers. Systematic communication and feedback from organisations and moderators were other key factors for the regular engagement of e-volunteers. Furthermore, lack of time or (perceived) lack of competence was an important criterion for ceasing or reducing involvement. Registered individuals mostly appreciated the form and functionalities of the platform (its clarity, accessibility and user-friendliness) as well as the idea behind it (promoting and enabling digital volunteering), but also expected a high-quality digital infrastructure (ongoing updates of the platform to meet the expectations of a modern, accessible, attractive website). Interestingly, the number and diversity of the tasks were a dividing issue. For some respondents, it constituted a major advantage of TuDu; for others, a great disadvantage. The conflicting opinions might be a result of the fluctuating content on TuDu.org.pl. As some types of tasks were more prevalent than others, only some e-volunteers looking for (more prevalent) assignments could find a relevant project with ease.

Moreover, an important division is visible. On the one hand, there was a considerable group of over 120 highly committed volunteers who visited the platform regularly and engaged in numerous tasks for various organisations (the most active e-volunteer has completed 50 tasks on TuDu.org.pl within the last few years). On the other hand, over 90% of registered individuals never completed a task or ceased involvement after the completion of a single task.

Lastly, responders positively assessed the impact of their online volunteer engagement on competency development. They were also satisfied with the opportunity to get to know new organisations and their causes. The majority (65%) of the responders were likely to recommend the platform to others, while 62.5% of them felt that e-volunteering on TuDu.org.pl could have a real impact on making the world a better place. However, the ability to network and build meaningful relationships, as well as the opportunity for teamwork, were rather negatively perceived. Due to a lack of private chats and long-term team assignments, building a sense of belonging and establishing rapport among users was limited. This raised questions regarding the extension of functionalities to enhance virtual relationships on the crowdsourcing platform.

Organisations on TuDu.org.pl

The second questionnaire, targeted at organisations registered on TuDu, was filled out by 34 organisations. The first part of the survey was devoted to the organisations’ needs. The survey showed that they were particularly interested in expanding their knowledge about: tools enabling cooperation with e-volunteers; hybrid volunteering (combining onsite and online forms); formal and legal aspects of digital volunteering; and existing good practice on social projects based on digital volunteering.

The hierarchy of needs in the context of digital volunteering implementation included: knowledge; meetings and experience sharing with practitioners; mentoring with experts; human resources; inspirational case studies – examples of other e-volunteering projects; and financial support.

The latter part of the questionnaire was focused on their perception and experience of e-volunteering on TuDu.org.pl. The main conclusions were:

  • The frequency of visits on TuDu.org.pl varied among studied organisations: most of them visited the website regularly (a minimum of once a month), but there was also a considerate group that viewed the platform a few times a year.

  • ‘Labour shortage’ was the main reason for registration – most organisations needed the help of people with diverse skills.

  • Representatives of organisations mainly appreciated the general idea behind the portal that enabled them to implement e-volunteering, as well as its form (clarity, accessibility, intuitiveness and user-friendliness). They also valued the scale of the users’ network (access to many e-volunteers) and the diversity of assignments that could be uploaded to the website. Flexibility, the speed of e-volunteers’ responses, no fees and the spirit of the TuDu project were also mentioned.

  • Of the 34 organisations, 17 either did not see any aspects for improvement on TuDu or did not want to share an opinion on that matter. Others pointed out the lack of functionalities (such as private chats), the inadequate experience or engagement of some e-volunteers and the need for more support (for example, instructions and meetings).

  • Of the surveyed organisations, 73.5% created at least one assignment for e-volunteers on the website. Nearly 70% of them received a response from e-volunteers (the tasks had been completed). Those who did not add a task on TuDu did not feel the need to do so or lacked the knowledge of how to do it.

  • The assessment of e-volunteers’ responses was overwhelmingly positive – nearly 90% of surveyed organisations were satisfied or very satisfied with the results.

  • Communication with e-volunteers was assessed slightly worse than their performance. Nevertheless, more than 76% of surveyed organisations were satisfied with communication on TuDu.org.pl.

  • More than 75% of organisations were satisfied with the educational materials and instructions provided by the GNF. Nearly 25% shared a neutral opinion towards them.

The organisational respondents were mainly NPOs, including corporate foundations. Few informal groups and publicly funded institutions took part in the study. The organisations were diverse in experience (from newly emerged to well-established ones). More than half of the organisations collaborated with e-volunteers outside of the TuDu.org.pl platform.

Policy and practical lessons

Based on the GNF’s know-how and surveys of 130 e-volunteers and organisations registered on the TuDu.org.pl platform, a set of guidelines for organisations that cooperate with online volunteers – especially in the form of crowdsourcing and micro-volunteering – is now presented.

Understanding the unique motives of e-volunteers

The main implication, based on the analysis of the results and aligned with prior research (Silva et al, 2018), leads to the consideration that altruistic motivations and self-development (competency acquisition) are the most common motivations to perform online volunteering activities. Thus, these factors should be taken into consideration during the planning of an e-volunteering project, the recruitment of e-volunteers and the feedback provided. The freedom and flexibility of digital volunteering support attract new groups of volunteers, especially youth. Nevertheless, the remaining challenge of e-volunteering lies in social motivations, associated with a sense of belonging (Amichai-Hamburger, 2008; Mukherjee, 2011). The absence of face-to-face contact is often an obstacle to creating long-term, meaningful social ties. From the perspective of psychological contract theory, volunteers must have their emotional and relational needs met (Stirling et al, 2011). Therefore, special tools, functionalities and events should be implemented to enhance and smooth out interactive contact among e-volunteers and organisations involved in digital volunteering.

Making a knowledgeable choice of the moderator’s/administrator’s role

The GNF’s role of moderator/administrator is an ambitious and challenging one. While setting up the platform for online volunteering, the creators had to be aware of multiple decisions that would have long-term, fundamental consequences for how this virtual space would operate. The GNF’s team has taken a highly open, trust-based approach toward users: neither volunteers nor organisations are obliged to provide any documentation of their skills or operations – only a short, user-friendly registration process is required.

The importance of clear and systematic communication and evaluation

Digital volunteering, even mediated by the platform’s moderator, should be based on the ongoing effort of all parties involved: both e-volunteers and organisations should pay attention to details to create a satisfying result for online social projects. Thus, the diligently prepared and attractively presented descriptions of online assignments, as well as motivating, honest feedback for e-volunteers, must be of the highest importance to organisations cooperating with digital volunteers. Systematic communication from the e-volunteers and keeping promises given to the organisations (for example, meeting deadlines, following guidelines and appearing at scheduled online meetings) create mutual trust and convince organisations that online volunteering can contribute greatly to their mission. As Dhebar and Stokes (2008: 498) summarise, ‘the key elements for success in online volunteering programs are clearly defined goals, clear and regular communications with volunteers, and a process for monitoring results’. The wider literature confirms that volunteers in general prefer taking part in clearly defined, diligently supervised and well-communicated activities (Einolf, 2018).

Double-edged effects of crowdsourcing collaboration

Since the platform was designed as a crowdsourcing tool, it stimulates joint impact and brainstorming, but also may cause additional work for organisations when they need to review, compare and choose among multiple e-volunteers’ entries (for example, when several e-volunteers provide a translation). On the other hand, literature confirms that having a ‘range of well-defined tasks from which a volunteer can choose’ is desirable (Grossman and Furano, 2002). Thus, an online crowdsourcing platform that accumulates e-volunteer tasks from various organisations allows volunteers to select their preferred activities.

A continuous demand for digital enhancement

It is highly demanding for projects with limited, uncertain funding to continually provide and update high-quality, responsive designs in a dynamically changing ICT environment.

Legal, formal and technological challenges

Lastly, as in numerous countries (including Poland), online volunteering does not have a legal definition and is under-researched. Numerous decisions and responsibilities rest on administrators’ shoulders, such as the validation/formal recognition of e-volunteering (providing certificates and assessments), online security and data protection, accessibility (a mobile responsive design and web content accessibility), authors’ rights and intellectual property (for example, Open Access and Creative Commons licences), as well as maintaining the rapport between organisations and e-volunteers. To sum up, digital technology is simultaneously empowering and challenging volunteering in all spheres (Perold et al, 2021), thus, diligent preparation, an ongoing update of functionalities and know-how are needed among practitioners and policy makers in order to grasp the full potential of online volunteering.

Contributions of the study

This study helps to better understand the dynamics of digital micro-volunteering that is organised on crowdsourcing platforms. This is still a recent phenomenon and there are few empirical studies centred on this theme. As previous research has not fully captured various contexts and motivations inherent to e-volunteering (Dhebar and Stokes, 2008; Ihm, 2017), this article constitutes an important contribution to comprehending the standpoint of all parties involved: e-volunteers, organisations involved in digital volunteering as well as policy makers. The results provide implications for practitioners in non-profit, public and business organisations to take advantage of advanced technologies while managing volunteers.

Funding

The initial research was financed by The Polish-American Freedom Foundation’s ‘Relief Fund For Non-Governmental Organizations and Civic Initiatives 2020’ Programme run in cooperation with the Education for Democracy Foundation. This work was supported by the University of Warsaw’s Integrated Development Programme (ZIP), co-financed by the European Social Fund within the framework of the Operational Programme Knowledge Education Development 2016–2020, action 3.5.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the Good Network Foundation’s team, e-volunteers and organisations for their engagement in promoting the idea of digital volunteering. I am also indebted to Dr Daiga Kamerāde for her professional mentoring advice and inspiration, as well as to Dr Alice Hengevoss and Dominik Meier for their supportive reviews of early drafts of this article.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Amichai-Hamburger, Y. (2008) Potential and promise of online volunteering, Computers in Human Behavior, 24(2): 54462. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2007.02.004

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dhebar, B.B. and Stokes, B. (2008) A nonprofit manager’s guide to online volunteering, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 18(4): 497506. doi: 10.1002/nml.200

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Einolf, C. (2018) Evidence-based volunteer management: a review of the literature, Voluntary Sector Review, 9(2): 15376. doi: 10.1332/204080518X15299334470348

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Good Network Foundation (2021) The Diagnosis of E-volunteering and TuDu.org.pl Platform, Warsaw: Good Network Foundation, https://e-wolontariat.pl/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Diagnoza-ewolontariatu-i-platformy-TuDu.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Grossman, J. and Furano, K. (2002) Making the Most of Volunteers, Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

  • Hustinx, L. and Lammertyn, F. (2003) Collective and reflexive styles of volunteering: a sociological modernization perspective, VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 14: 16787. doi: 10.1023/A:1023948027200

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hyde, M.K., Dunn, J., Bax, C. and Chambers, S.K. (2016) Episodic volunteering and retention: an integrated theoretical approach, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45(1): 4563. doi: 10.1177/0899764014558934

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ihm, J. (2017) Classifying and relating different types of online and offline volunteering, VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 28(1): 40019. doi: 10.1007/s11266-016-9826-9

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lee, Y. and Brudney, J.L. (2012) Participation in formal and informal volunteering: implications for volunteer recruitment, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 23(2): 15980. doi: 10.1002/nml.21060

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mukherjee, D. (2011) Participation of older adults in virtual volunteering: a qualitative analysis, Ageing International, 36(2): 25366. doi: 10.1007/s12126-010-9088-6

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Aleksandra Belina University of Warsaw, Poland

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