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Information Age Volunteerism - Open Sourced! Crowdsourced!

BY Ben Rigby | Friday, February 6 2009

Despite the attention paid to national service recently, the field of volunteerism remains stolidly in the Industrial Era. But the moment is ripe...

Information Age Volunteerism - Open Sourced! Crowdsourced!

My mom friended me on Facebook last week - we've formally entered the Information Age. The transformation touches so many aspects of our lives, from family relationships to the seeds of our economy. But despite my mom's online habits (and the empirical evidence it may provide about living in the Information Age) and in the midst of great national excitement about community service, the field of volunteerism remains stolidly in the Industrial Era. It retains structured hierarchies, formal vetting phases, and long-term relationships. But the moment is ripe. We can look to Wikipedia, iStockPhoto, and other Information Age examples to inform, enliven and inspire volunteerism.

Below, I explore several hypotheses about volunteerism in the Information Era. I leave you with one practical idea, The Extraordinaries. It's a smartphone application that delivers volunteer opportunities on-demand. So when you're twiddling thumbs at the bus-stop, now you can give back on-the-spot. And I don't mean signing a petition or giving money; I mean creating real value as a result of real labor.

Fair disclosure, The Extraordinaries is a project that I co-founded. I think it's great, but there are several other like-minded projects currently in chrysalis phase. I provide pointers to some of these in this article and also on our blog (please post comments about others that I haven't yet uncovered).

Volunteerism has a problem. Most people don't do it.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 74.6% of the U.S. population did not volunteer in 2007. Why? Because we're too busy. We're driving to work in bumper to bumper traffic, shuttling kids to after school sports, studying for class, and working at Starbucks to pay for college. We're a nation with a lot to do. And when asked, we cite “lack of time” as the reason for not volunteering.1

But this answer makes no sense. We're busy doing all of the busy-busy activities listed above, but we DO have time. 31 million of us play mobile phone games for an average of 4.6 hours per week.2 Nine of the top ten paid iPhone applications downloaded in 2008 were games. PC gamers spend an average of 18.5 hours per week playing games. According to Luis von Ahn, a researcher at Carnegie Melon University, humans spend nine billion hours playing Solitaire every year. And that's just gaming. We spend thousands of minutes every year waiting, watching TV, and otherwise spacing out. Those of us who can't wait for the next Clay Shirky video, the digerati, characterize these billions of hours as “cognitive surplus.”3 In more prosaic terms: we waste a lot of time.

People have a problem with volunteerism.

Now this statement is provocative. It's not said in polite company. We like to think that we're too busy to volunteer, but it's not true. We don't volunteer because we don't want to. Why? Either because we don't care enough about giving back to our communities or today's volunteer opportunities aren't suited to our lifestyles. Being an optimist, I'm opting for the latter. And so, a corollary is required:

Volunteerism excludes most of us.

Why? Because it asks us for a kind of time that few of us can give. We've got a few minutes while waiting for the bus to play Texas Hold'em on our mobile phones. We've got an hour to watch our favorite TV show on a weeknight. And we've got 15 minutes to read Vogue in the dentist's office. What we don't have is two-plus hours on a Saturday.4 That's prime leisure, family, and catch-up time. It's the most valuable kind of time we've got. It's expensive. Volunteerism excludes most of us by asking for something that's beyond what we're prepared to give. So we don't.

We're trying to woo “Last Mile” volunteers.

There are a lot of creative and committed organizations making volunteerism easier than ever. They're creating online directories, enterprise software packages, widgets to put on your Facebook profile, and virtual opportunities that you can do from home. However, most of these efforts continue to ask us for our most expensive time. We sign up online, but still need to drive to a physical locale on a weekend. Even virtual opportunities require us to pass through many hoops in order to volunteer, such as applying, vetting, and training.

Significantly, almost all volunteer programs ask us to make a long-term commitment. They want to know that we'll stick around after the vetting and training investment. They want a relationship.

Of course, this involved process makes sense when we're asked to do tasks that require in-depth knowledge about an organization and its business. There's little economic logic in vetting and training us and then letting us go after a one-time two-hour work jam.

The thing is, I'll bet that we're near a saturation point. I hypothesize that we've signed up most of the volunteers that will bother to volunteer given the current shape of volunteerism. 26.4% of Americans volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2007 and September 2008. 61.8 million of us went through this process and showed up either in person or online. That's an astounding figure. 61.8 million.

To be sure, online signups and virtual opportunities will lower the barrier to entry, driving this number up over the coming years. But the increments will be small. It's like trying to get the last 1% of undecided voters to vote for your candidate. It costs 100x per voter what it costs to get the first 99% out to vote.5 Political campaigns know this math. They train their call center workers to politely hang up on you if it seems like it'll take N minutes to convince you, where N varies according to how close the race is and how soon the election is. I hypothesize that the field of volunteerism is now trying to woo these “last mile” volunteers and that the costs will be high.6

Volunteerism is modeled for the Industrial Economy.

If I'm running a car factory and I hire a new employee to weld door frames, I want to be sure that he wasn't fired from his last job for being drunk on the job. And then, I want to make sure that he understands how to weld doors on the kind of car that I make. You see, my cars are a bit unlike the cars at his last gig, so he's got to be taught how to do it right. This is how it works in the Industrial economy. You come to work; you work for me; Sue is your manager; Doug will train you; Maria is going to run some background checks; and we've got a great holiday party in four months…

At least, this is how it worked before Wikipedia. This is how it worked before we discovered that a group of unpaid amateurs working at different times and across the world could create a product that kicked the butt of a competing product made by an Industrial Era corporation.7 This was before Twitter could be plied for the purposes of protecting and tracking voting problems in real-time. This was before Josh Marshall asked his readers to pour through 3000 pages of Justice Department documents in less than 24 hours in order to find revealing passages that were glossed over by the mainstream press... and they did. These examples demonstrate types of work shaped for the Information Economy.

Volunteerism is structured like a car company. It's got the form and essence of the Industrial Economy. And this approach works great for a large number of people. 61 million Americans is a remarkable figure. But if there's anything the past several years have demonstrated, it's the power of these new models. There's a mega-sized opportunity to make significant change in new ways.

Let's find new ways to do volunteerism.

I like planting trees. I like a widget that I can put on my blog that shows how many trees I've planted. I liked finding local volunteer opportunities on for Obama's Day of Service. But these are not new ways to do volunteerism. These are ways to get the Industrial version of volunteerism onto the Web.

To be clear, I'm not proposing that we jettison Industrial volunteerism. It's is needed, valuable, and appropriate for a lot of people. But we can also explore new ways to structure unpaid work for good causes.

Perspective shift experiment

For the sake of experiment, let's look at volunteerism from the perspective of the volunteer, rather than from that of the organization. Instead of figuring out how to solve the needs of a nonprofit, let's figure out when, where, and how volunteering makes sense for the 74% of people who don't volunteer.

The diagram on the left shows the Industrial model: determine organizational needs -> find volunteers to perform these tasks. The diagram on the right shows a sort of bottom-up volunteer model. It starts with the assumption that we're busy and don't want to give up our prime time. And then it asks what kind of time we do have, what skills we have, and how we might work within those constraints to deliver something of value to an organization.

But why just to an organization? Organizations lie at the heart of the Industrial model, but we really don't need them in our new model, because we're not predicating needs-to-be-solved on them. So, the model could look like this instead:

Woa, now we've got people helping people in a non-market economy. Maybe it's not even volunteerism. Maybe it's good-deedism? But I'm entering into landmine territory that we could reasonably debate for eons. So, for the purposes of staying focused, I'll leave aside this Craigslist-like free-for-all where anyone can volunteer for anyone.

I'll continue by stating that we've got nonprofit organizations; they do great social change work; and it's important to figure out how volunteerism can benefit these organizations. Question: can a system that focuses on the needs of the volunteer over those of an organization be useful to an organization? Can we get rid of training, vetting, and long-term relationships and still find value?

Yes. Here are a few ways:

Support Information Era volunteerism

Sometimes I wish that Wikipedia would follow me around in a cloud so that I could turn to it and ask it questions in the middle of a conversation. No, it's not always right. No, it's not the utopian vision of collaboration that some wish it were. But it's damn good. I'd be hard pressed to find a nonprofit organization that hasn't benefited from Wikipedia being freely available at any time of day or night. Wikipedia is volunteerism for the Information Era.

Of course, we can support Wikipedia by giving a donation, but we can also support it simply by editing a page. Moreover, we can support endeavors that are like Wikipedia. What's like Wikipedia? Open source software. What is the most efficient and value creating volunteer workforce in existence today? It's the open source community. Being an "open source coder" is synonymous for "software development volunteer." We can support it by using open source software and by contributing code to open source projects.

In addition, we can start thinking about how we can use these inspired models to inform the field of volunteerism. The private sector is quickly coming up with brilliant new ideas that take advantage of the amateur's passion for participation. Threadless, Innocentive, iStockPhoto. These are companies that have dominated their niches by relying on loosely structured peer production. These models work. Let's explore them deeply.

The Extraordinaries.

I started writing this post in order to talk about The Extraordinaries, which is my current project (along with co-founder Jacob Colker). Although I'll end in a few paragraphs, I don't consider The Extraordinaries to be an end point. It's just one example among many possibilities for experimenting with Information Era volunteerism models.

The Extraordinaries delivers volunteer tasks to people whenever and wherever they are available by mobile phone. Over 80% of the adult U.S. population carries a mobile phone in his or her pocket and the higher-end of these devices, so called “smartphones,” are as capable as any laptop computer. Nearly anything that can be done on a personal computer can be done on a smartphone. The Extraordinaries reduces the barriers to giving back by enabling people to volunteer on-the-spot and on-demand.

The result of dropping these barriers may be explosive. Suddenly, it becomes possible to volunteer during spare time. So instead of making a lengthy time-commitment to a single organization on a single day per year, you can volunteer for many organizations many times throughout the week.

We've designed The Extraordinaries to feel much like playing a game. It's got points, levels, and built-in competition. The key difference is that by playing this game, the player does something directly useful for a nonprofit organization or public purpose. For example:

  1. Help the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. Both institutions have hundreds of thousands of historical photos sitting in the bowels of dusty servers. The problem is, there is no way to search these archives. You can't type in "birds" or "1927" and find much. You have to literally look through each photo, one by one. Not very efficient! For a few people to catalog these photos, it would take years.

    With The Extraordinaries, we could have volunteers digitally label a few photos at a time. Just pick up your smartphone, look at a photo, and tag it. Repeat until bus comes. Within a few weeks of 1000s of people waiting for the #15 bus, entire photographic eras in World history could become accessible to the public.
  2. For cause-related films, we can use people's language skills. Right now, organizations like and produce/promote dozens of compelling films about social issues. The problem is: they struggle to find resources to pay for subtitling. Therefore, many of the films are available only in English or a few other languages at best. If we chop up each film into a thousand 15-second clips and have foreign language speakers, from Hindi to Hmong, subtitle each 15-second clip by watching it and typing what they just heard, we can add subtitles to hundreds of films in a very little amount of time.

These examples are not hypothetical. Image tagging for public good institutions is already happening via the Flickr Commons (on the Web only). Film subtitling is already happening via dotSub (also on the Web only). There are dozens of other examples. We're not proposing to dive into organizations and figure out how they can crowdsource their needs (although I think this should happen too). The Extraordinaries has a more focused goal – to take the great crowdsourcing-for-good applications that already exist and to bundle them into a fun mobile phone application.

We're hoping that while waiting for the train or for a friend at a restaurant, you'll choose to play The Extraordinaries instead of Nitro Kart 3d, at least sometimes. We've built the application for the iPhone and are testing it now. We plan to launch on Apple's App Store in June. When (if) we have more resources, we'll produce versions for other phones, social networking platforms, and the Web in general. The Extraordinaries' mission is to apply crowdsourcing models to social good – making it easier for people to give back. We plan to explore this domain thoroughly.

The promise is that we'll discover a volunteer ecosystem that is quite unlike that of the past. It may comprise thousands of new volunteers. Many will just dip their feet in the waters, but some will desire to form longer lasting commitments – and here's where the new models directly support the old. We can pass people through from volunteerism-light to volunteerism-committed. So, in fact, crowdsourced social- good may serve as a hook that drives a net-gain in Industrial volunteerism.

In addition to having more volunteers doing real work, organizations may discover newfound capacities. For example, many small nonprofits wouldn't dream of setting up a call-center because it's cost prohibitive. But a crowdsourced call-center could cost very little. This sort of volunteer-powered infrastructure makes the whole sector richer.

I don't presume that The Extraordinaries is a panacea. It's just one application. But it plays in new Information Era models. It asks what we can do for the 74% of people who don't currently volunteer during the billions of minutes that disappear while we idle. There's a margin here to try something different.

Thanks for sticking with me to the end. Although I've often volunteered (and often have not), I'm new to the field as a practitioner. So I've either got a fresh outsider's perspective or a fool's misunderstanding. I look forward to you telling me which.

45.6% of all people and 60.7% of employed people cite lack of time.

[ii] 31 million mobile gamers in the US (determined by having downloaded and paid for a mobile game). Mobile gamers spend about 4.6 hours per week mobile gaming.

[iii] - in this clip, Shirky says that we spend 200 billion hours watching TV in the US alone. And the Internet using population spends 1 trillion hours watching TV.

[iv] Average time spent volunteering is 2.2 hours, not including commute, training, vetting, or application time.

[v] This figure is anecdotal and probably hyperbole. There’s lots of good information here on the cost of various tactics to get voters to vote: . But I can’t locate a reference for the cost of “last mile” voters. Anyone have a reference?  

[vi] Of course, these new systems also make it easier for already-committed volunteers to volunteer. So there’s an efficiency argument that I’m glossing over here. Many of these efforts may be getting more time and more frequent time out of already-committed folks. Clearly, there’s a lot of value in making existing systems more efficient.

[vii] The debate about how Wikipedia versus Britannica has been going on forever and I won’t review all of the sides of the debate here, other than to say that I fall strongly in favor of Wikipedia due to quantity of material, availability of many languages, ability to update errors quickly, and comparable accuracy.