e-CIVICUS 418 - Issued 05 December 2008 

Volunteer collaboration: are we ready to harness the power of the people?
Source: Bruno Ayres, V2V (Volunteer-to-Volunteer), a social network for volunteers  

The present crisis challenges us to new ways of using our resources; hopefully, wiser. One of the most abundant and underused natural resources is volunteer collaboration power. The experience of working in Internet projects for volunteer promotion tells me that the best is yet to come.  

Although the strength of civil society resides on the distributed engagement of citizens, its most visible portion is the organized and institutional side of it. The same occurs with volunteerism: the majority of specialists, media and governments refer to its institutional dimension, underestimating the power of millions of citizens that are using collaboration, creativity and their personal talents to bring solutions to their communities, independent from formal or organized support.  

This institutional dimension refers to non-profit organizations that usually offer pre-molded and nearly bureaucratic models of engagement to citizens: using the same molds of formal employment, like recruitment processes, ready-made activities, top down management etc. These are legitimate ways to organize people’s work, but they are not the only ones and, certainly, not the model of engagement that will leverage the latent collaboration power of humanity.  

One of the impediments for engagement of the ordinary citizen is the notion that volunteering is something special, done by extraordinary people, far from their reality. The bar must be lowered.  

Volunteering is a human act, essential for daily life, developed by everyone, in various levels. Actually, in low-income communities in Brazil , peer volunteerism and generosity is what gives sustainability for people’s lives. Volunteering is way more diverse than the immediate images associated with it.  

This diversity should be valued and celebrated. People should feel included in the volunteer movement – from small quotidian acts (like recycling, conscious consuming, peer collaboration), to formal and structured activities. The complex interactions between these acts make the healthy social tissue.  

Bringing this diversity to the public visibility can inspire and stimulate the hundreds of millions who want to participate. There is a huge opportunity to create decentralized models for people collaboration and stimulate them to gradually evolve as more active volunteers.  

In our experience in dealing with web technologies to promote volunteering, it’s been very important to consider the volunteer’s life cycle. There are a lot of different ways to contribute to a cause and the engagement can be progressive, beginning with a soft contribution and evolving to a deeper and continuous participation. Volunteer program managers always tend to prefer the last type of contribution, where one can get more return to their recruitment efforts, but in doing so, many people are left behind.  

Technology is transforming the way we collaborate. With the huge drop on the cost of communications, the efforts of planning and organizing people’s work have also lowered. Today, we see examples of great projects being possible by the volunteer contributions of huge amounts of people, with most of the participants having contributed only once and with a tiny peace of the puzzle.  

Think of the Wikipedia: the far largest encyclopedia ever produced, in number and depth of entries. There, the few volunteer administrators and top contributors do most of the work: 1.8% of the users are doing more than 70% of the edits.  

The uniqueness of the Wikipedia could never be achieved by the 1.8% top contributors alone. It’s not about the super users; it’s more about having a model that allows you not to lose one tiny peace of the knowledge available in the community. It’s the capability of dealing with mass collaboration that makes this volunteer project one of the most important achievements of human collective knowledge.  

When we want to get things done, be it a social or profitable venture we usually create an organization, so that we can get 70% of the work done employing the efforts of 1% of the people. That’s our mindset, and economically that makes sense, doesn’t it?  

But doing this, we give up significant value: diversity, innovation and, more importantly when speaking about volunteering, the opportunity to include the majority of the citizens that could also be part of the solution, instead of being only part of the problem. This is something to think about when rethinking our roles and projects in an interconnected world of nearly 6.7 billion people.  

But, how could volunteer projects tap into these new models of collaboration? Since 2004, we’ve been using social networking tools to promote volunteerism in Brazil . This project, V2V Networks (Volunteer-to-Volunteer) was created in Rio de Janeiro , in a strong collaboration with companies that wanted to give voice for their employees, families and customers who were interested in volunteering.  

Pretty much the same revolution e-bay did to retail market, creating a trusted environment so that individuals could also sell their products, V2V encourages volunteers to be producers, not consumers, of volunteer opportunities - to ordinary people as agents of positive change in society.  

The essence of V2V is to give the power of promoting volunteerism directly to the individual in his local community. V2V gives visibility to people’s profiles and interests in web social networks that are created and updated by the users themselves. Reducing the intermediation and formality in volunteering it is possible to significantly broaden channels of participation.  

In a global partnership with Starbucks Coffee Co, V2V became a global project. It is now a growing social network that's being used in companies, universities and cities by 85,000+ volunteers, who are developing 12,000+ volunteer actions in 64+ countries.  

Including people’s desire to contribute is the great challenge of our work, as promoters of volunteerism. The only way to get rid of top-down approaches, “assistencialism”, dependency and other risks of volunteer projects is to involve all stakeholders in the effort.  

The desire to collaborate voluntarily has always been seen in amateurs. They have time and motivation to do great things in personal projects. This happens a lot because lots of people don’t feel expressed at work, they feel that they’re not doing things that are special to them. It’s in their free time, in peer interaction to their local and virtual communities that these people are doing things that really matter to them. This is a huge opportunity for volunteer engagement: there are incredible amounts of people out there seeking for meaning in the things they do.  

Groups of creators are today the great competitive power against large global corporations. Think Linux servers against Windows servers. Who could try to beat Microsoft, a 60 billion dollar company, with private funding?  

In near future, these new mass collaborative-networked groups will play a bigger role in providing solutions to human needs. The vast majority of these groups will rely on volunteers. Traditional structured organizations will defend themselves, trying to undermine the trust and value of these new collaborative models.  

Charles Leadbeater, an advisor for governments and companies on innovation and creativity, asks some very good questions about the future of human collaboration: “Can we survive on volunteers? If such collaborative models are so critical do we not need funded organized support in much more structured ways? What kind of changes are needed in public policies and funding, to make these models of volunteer collaboration possible?”. These are possibly the questions that policy makers will be asking in near future, he says.  

What great impact for the cause would it be to broaden our understanding of volunteerism and create bridges between these two worlds. This is a major global opportunity and a strategic positioning for the cause of volunteerism. Great human challenges for the future, like terrorism, climate change, communicable diseases as well as massive migrations can all benefit by such volunteer collaboration models. These are questions we should probably make ourselves sooner than later.  

Businesses are also tapping into these new forms of volunteer collaboration and using the same vocabulary and recognition models that promoters of volunteerism have always used. Recently, there was a great article on Harvard Business Review: “The Contribution Revolution: Letting Volunteers Build Your Business”, by Scott Cook. He brings the innovative ways in which businesses are using their client’s collective knowledge and collaboration power to create better products and services.  

In the “Groundswell” book, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, I found the story of Jeff Stensky: he works for an electric power company as a design engineer. On his own spare time, he posts answers in the Dell’s community support forum, although he is not paid for it. In 10 years of intense participation in this community, Jeff has posted 22,000 answers about Dell’s CD/ DVD drives. His answers were viewed more than 2 million times by other people. The authors estimate that Jeff, by himself, has saved Dell over US$1 million in support calls that were not made to Dell’s support center. So, here’s the big question: why did he do this? Why so enormous dedication? Jeff answers: “I actually enjoy helping people. That’s what got me hooked: when you help people and they say ‘thank you’.”  Haven’t we heard that already from volunteers we work with in our social projects?  

This is what is remarkable here: when examining the motivations of people like Jeff (good feelings from altruism, validation and belonging), we see that they are very similar to the feelings of the traditional volunteers we know. It’s something that the economists Fetter & Fisher called psychic income, in the 1920s. Psychic income is “the subjective value of nonmonetary satisfaction gained from an activity”. This concept is central to understand volunteer collaboration. As Groundswell’s authors say: “Psychic Income is free – it’s paid in love, not money”.  

The good news is, people seeking for psychic income are widespread. This is what keeps us so busy as promoters of volunteerism. There are a lot of people like Jeff out there.  

In Bill Gates’ recent article in Time magazine, he states that historically, businesses have improved the lives of billions of people. The problem is that, he continues, there are billions more left behind and businesses have a great responsibility and potential to help improve capitalism to make it more inclusive.  

There are a myriad of business opportunities to bring better scalable and sustainable products, while still creating local value, reducing inequality, improving health and quality of life. But businesses will not do that alone. They need people. Their people will do it. And the good news is: there are a lot of good people employed there, willing to collaborate; and our work as promoters of volunteerism can help influence them positively.  

Lastly, I think we should look back to our origins, to the heritage of our labor. There was a strong spiritual value on the first humans that got out of their path to help others. We must help reinforce these values on every human endeavor, be it personal, collective, public or private. We have the opportunity to bring these values to a broader audience and other spaces; people are seeking for meaning in their lives. There has been enough suffering, we humans can solve for that, already. Let’s broaden our minds and rethink volunteerism as something embedded in every aspect of our lives. For the uncertain times to come, the values of volunteering are needed today more than ever.  

Ends

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