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Charities thrive with online volunteers

Online volunteering is growing as Internet access improves worldwide, particularly among African and Latin American organizations needing assistance.
Sandrine Cortet
Sandrine Cortet, an online volunteer who translates documents from her native French to English and vice versa, works at her home in Edison, N.J.. Online volunteering is growing as Internet access improves worldwide.Mike Derer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When it comes to volunteering, Caitrin Murphy finds satisfaction in spending 10 months helping Tijuana orphans or a Saturday building low-income homes outside Washington, D.C.

But onsite projects aren't always feasible, so Murphy instead turned to the Internet and, with two co-workers, remotely created a Web site for an organization that helps farmers in the West African country of Cameroon.

"It's an adequate alternative," Murphy said. "I would prefer a hands-on, physical experience at the site. At the same doing a project virtually we could affect the lives of people we would never think of meeting."

Online volunteering is growing as Internet access improves worldwide, particularly among African and Latin American organizations needing assistance.

VolunteerMatch, a San Francisco group that helps volunteers learn about onsite and online projects, said 14 percent of its volunteer opportunities last year were virtual, compared with 1 percent in 1998.

Instead of building homes, volunteers like Murphy can build Web sites.

Or translate documents. Or prepare training manuals. Or mentor teens.

All from a computer hundreds or thousands of miles away.

"If I could send a volunteer to Chile to teach an organization how to build a Web site, that will be 10 times better than having us build it for them, but it's a hundred times more expensive," said Charles Brennick, whose Seattle-based InterConnection group links volunteer Web designers with development groups abroad.

Online volunteering isn't practical for everything. You still need to be somewhere to serve soup to the homeless or coach a Little League team. But over the Internet, you can order the food or reserve the ball field.

Online volunteering isn't right for everyone, either.

"It takes real time, not virtual time," said Jayne Cravens, an independent consultant for nonprofit organizations. "It takes commitment. It takes persistence."

It's a good option for those needing flexibility — be it a disability, work schedule or budget that rules out travel.

Sandrine Cortet, 36, sought to put her French skills to work when she and her husband moved from Paris to Edison, N.J. But they had only one car, and a train to volunteer opportunities in New York would have been expensive.

So she translates documents from home, most recently for a refugee group's newsletter.

Sara Siebert, 23, wanted opportunities to improve her skills in graphics design. Lacking funds to travel, she built Web sites for groups in Kenya and Belize from Montreal; InterConnection hosts the sites in Seattle.

Volunteers and the organizations they help generally communicate by e-mail or instant messaging, rarely by telephone.

Phil Westman, program officer with Siebert's group in Belize, said he doesn't even know where his other Web design volunteer lives.

Murphy, 24, of Arlington, Va., said she gets feedback every other day from Cameroon, along with pressures to get the site done more quickly.

Francisco Filho, research assistant with the United Nations Development Program's International Poverty Center in Brasilia, Brazil, acknowledges he was skeptical initially about online volunteering.

"I was afraid we could not get the expected results," he said. "It was kind of a new thing for us. It was a big and good surprise."

Filho said that through the U.N. Volunteers online service, he found volunteers fluent in English, Spanish and French, skills not common in a country dominated by Portuguese. Plus, many of the volunteers were academics and professionals well-versed in a specific subject matter, not someone merely good at translating words.

He said his agency is also saving money in not having to provide office space and other support.

Online volunteers hail from around the world — U.N. Volunteers says 40 percent of the ones it helped place last year were from developing countries.

Nor are they all young.

Retirees like Tom Davis, 63, offer advice on relationships, careers and other life matters via the Internet's Elder Wisdom Circle.

"Typically this is associated with having skills that we weren't taught when we were educated, but I think that there's room for everybody," said Davis, a retired doctor and health care executive in Monument, Colo. "We're proving that it works."

While many of the early projects were technology-related, VolunteerMatch spokesman Jason Willett said, organizations now are realizing they can farm out such tasks as creating brochures and logos.

Through online volunteering, Bundles of Love is getting more people to make diaper bags, baby clothes and other goods for needy families in Minnesota. Many volunteers can't make the monthly gatherings, said Ruth Volk, 45, a regional coordinator.

Cravens said a big hurdle these days isn't the availability of volunteers but the projects for them.

"A lot of organizations can't even get their minds around online volunteers," she said. "When they hear about it, their first thought is, `I don't know about computers.' You don't have to know about computers. You do have to know about people."

Elise Bouvet, a specialist with the U.N. online volunteers program, said online volunteering assignments carry the same commitment, communication and management requirements as onsite opportunities.

"In both theory and practice, it's still volunteering," she said. "Only the tool that you are using is different."