The value of giving a little time - Understanding the potential of micro-volunteering

Logo: Institute for Volunteering Research
Logo: NCVO

In 2012 Nesta funded IVR and NCVO to carry out research exploring the opportunities and challenges that micro-volunteering presents for individuals and organisations. This was a qualitative research project in which a variety of methods were used to gain a fuller understanding of micro-volunteering from a range of perspectives. The fieldwork was conducted between August 2012 and June 2013 and the report was published in November 2013, below are some excerpts taken from the full report, reprinted with permission from IVR and NCVO.

There have been important changes to the landscape of volunteering in recent years. Despite a recent increase in the proportion of people volunteering, the average number of hours spent volunteering per volunteer is declining1, and there is evidence of a trend towards short-term or one-off volunteering2. New technology has also contributed to and amplified the changing landscape. The internet gives organisations the ability to advertise volunteering opportunities quickly to a wide audience through their own websites and social media, and has led to the development of initiatives that enable people to participate in online volunteering activities immediately and irrespective of time and place.  

The harnessing of such technological advancements can be seen as a key driving force behind the recent developments in micro-volunteering - a type of volunteering which in many ways personifies the key changes to the volunteering landscape. Illustrative of this, there has been a growth of online platforms specifically for micro-volunteering such as Help From Home3 in the UK.

Those who have been enthused by the potential of micro-volunteering consider that it presents four main advantages4:

  • It provides convenient and flexible opportunities that fit into people’s lives;
  • It engages with a wide range of people;
  • It involves a large number of people;
  • It provides a gateway to more sustained and long-term volunteering. 

What is micro-volunteering?  

A search on the internet quickly revealed that there was a huge diversity of micro-volunteering opportunities available. A wide range of examples were found, including counting birds in your garden, knitting a hat for a premature baby, signing a petition and reporting graffiti. Our research participants also gave varied examples. Table 1 attempts to categorise the examples we found, according to their function and whether they could be completed online or offline, or both.      

Table 1: Examples of micro-volunteering opportunities on offer   

These examples show that micro-volunteering opportunities reflect the diversity of volunteering as a whole. Perhaps more than with other forms of volunteering there are many examples of fundraising and campaigning activities, which some people may not necessarily define as volunteering. Indeed, there was some discussion amongst our research participants about which of these activities should or should not be listed as micro-volunteering. Some considered that a number activities (e.g. liking a Facebook page) fell outside of the scope of traditional understandings of volunteering.    

To gain a better understanding of the diversity of micro-volunteering it is useful to look at how opportunities are made available to people; and where they take place and what medium is used to complete them. Micro-volunteering opportunities can be promoted online and offline; can take place onsite or offsite, with or without face-to-face interactions; and can be completed via the use of technology or not .

Our research shows that micro-volunteering does not always involve the use of technology and can be done face-to-face. Many organisations which offer micro- volunteering offer both online and offline opportunities. Almost all of the organisations providing micro-volunteering activities which took part in our survey said they offered offline opportunities, whilst over half provided online opportunities.  

Whilst the examples given were varied, we were nevertheless able to draw out some key common features that are characteristic of micro-volunteering (figure 1).    

Figure 1: Key features of micro-volunteering 

Eight key features of micro-volunteering    

1. Duration - it involves small increments of time For some, micro-volunteering seemed restricted to very small, almost tiny actions that could be completed in minutes or even seconds. However, in most cases people included examples that required longer, perhaps a couple of hours or half a day, but rarely more than a full day.      

2. Access – it is easy to get started and do An individual should be able to identify the micro-volunteering opportunity and start without having to go through a complicated recruitment process or initial training.  

3. Immediacy – it is quick to start and complete, and requires minimal planning Because micro-volunteering is accessible, if an individual wants to micro-volunteer they can begin straightaway or almost immediately.  

4. Convenience – you decide when and where With micro-volunteering the volunteer has control over their participation. An individual can choose the action that suits them best and decide when it is most convenient for them to do it. In some cases this might mean micro-volunteering while commuting to work, or from home.      

5. Level of formality – no formal agreement between the organisation and the volunteer is needed Micro-volunteering generally does not require a formal agreement between the organisation and the volunteer specifying the role and time commitment expected of the volunteer.  

6. Frequency – it can be a one-off or repeated. There is no commitment on behalf of the volunteer to complete the action more than once, so their involvement can be just a one-off. However, that is not necessarily the case and some micro-volunteering opportunities can be repeated. If it is repeated it does not need to be at regular intervals, so people are able dip in and out.      

7. Activity – it involves discrete actions Micro-volunteering generally involves very specific and well-defined actions that have a beginning and an end. The focus is on individual tasks rather than roles.  

8. Location – it can be online or offline Micro-volunteering involves actions that can be completed online or offline, onsite or offsite. Very short actions are more likely to be online.   

A shared theme among these features is that micro-volunteering is flexible and puts the volunteer in control of how, when, where and for how long they participate. In light of these features we have formulated the following definition of micro-volunteering:    

Micro-volunteering is bite-size volunteering with no commitment to repeat and with minimum formality, involving short and specific actions that are quick to start and complete.  

Report authors: Joni Browne , Véronique Jochum,   Jonathan Paylor

For NCVO literature review, full research report and summary report exploring what micro-volunteering means, its potential and challenges:

For NCVO guide on exploring and developing the potential of micro-volunteering for volunteer-involving organisations:

The larger organisations in the countryside sector are investigating this type of bite size volunteering here is what some of them say;

Alan Murray, Head of Volunteering at RSPB says 'The way people want to donate their time and talents to organisations is changing and our volunteering offer needs to change and develop to reflect this.  One thing people want is more bite size, drop in drop out of volunteering opportunities that they can engage with flexibly as and when works for them.   At the RSPB we are looking at how we meet this need by providing a variety of micro-volunteering opportunities for people and are promoting them not as micro-volunteering opportunities specifically but under a banner of ‘If you have less than an hour, you can still help us give nature a home’.' Volunteering opportunities are available on

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Scottish Countryside Rangers Association, the Countryside Management Association and NATUR on 10 February 2014