My own history of volunteering and activities in different organizations, both in non-governmental organizations and at the university in different tasks as a student, raised questions in my mind every now and then. I wondered why other people commit to volunteering with great passion, while some give up very fast. My interest in volunteering was not just limited to individual motives and commitment. Instead, at the same time my studies in Social Sciences had made me reflect on the Finnish society and the role that third sector and volunteering play in it. When my internship at Save the Children was confirmed, I got a natural way to get interviewees for my master´s thesis and at the same time a fresh, little researched perspective on this already much researched topic.
Online volunteering as a research subject offered an opportunity for me to find out whether the same elements and principles apply to online volunteering as to other volunteering, or does it create new dimensions to volunteer commitment and engagement now and in the future?
Online volunteering as a trend of volunteering in the 21st century
Online volunteering as a form of volunteering isn´t new; it has existed almost as long as the internet, which is as much as 30 years. However, its role in the field of volunteering has become established in the 2000s and later. Today, many people are looking for opportunities to volunteer from home. This is because of, for example, time management possibilities, personal interests, or some reason that restricts their functionality.
Online volunteering means activities that occur via the internet, using a computer or other device that can be connected to the network. One popular form of online volunteering in Finland and elsewhere in the world is providing chat services for children and youth. This is also how my interviewees at Save the Children are working and providing assistance, support and presence to children and young people with various issues and problems.
Commitment to online volunteering – the key results of my master´s thesis
At first I examined the volunteers’ experiences about committing to volunteering through their motives. Based on my analysis, I identified five different motives, which had directed the people I had interviewed both in their search of volunteer activities as well as in their commitment as time passed. The motives, which I interpreted as the most essential for involvement in the action, were the wish to help, feeling useful, reinforcement of the experience of personal relevance, easiness, and the opportunity for professional development.
When looking at things the volunteers felt committed to through online volunteering, particularly children and young people in need stood out. Commitment was not only extended to children and young people using the services of Save the Children, but also to the wider social situation and being able to influence it. On some level, engagement was also felt with the background organization and the volunteers´ community, but this aspect was, in my interpretation, a less meaningful object of commitment. When commitment was examined in a future-oriented way, the reasons that influenced engagement were emphasized in the volunteers’ speeches. The factors that contributed to commitment were, in particular, life situation, realistic perceptions of their own agency, external need for their activities, possibility of continuous learning, and also social support and engagement.
The results of my master´s thesis agree strongly with earlier results from research related to the motivations of volunteering, and thus support what is perceived as meaningful and motivating in volunteering. The commitment of the volunteers I interviewed is made up of factors that point away from self-interest: the wish to help others and to benefit other people both individually and in the society. At the same time, commitment and the experience of it entail many self-centered motives and factors such as gaining personal benefits by the instrumentalisation of volunteering as well as strengthening the experience of personal significance. Therefore, it is important that when supervising and engaging volunteers, their personal interests – which are nowadays seen as individuals’ rights as volunteers – are supported more and more.
When examining the role of the internet as a part of commitment to volunteering, it must be stated that the role seemed to be small in light of my results. According to the interviews, the most important significance that the internet had was creating of a sense of community, but at the same time, it was seen to weaken it. The volunteers experienced the distance and anonymity, which the network made possible in respect to the children and young people in need, above all as a factor that reduced the strain. On the other hand, it made it more challenging to feel committed to those they helped. In response to the question I asked in the title, whether the commitment of online volunteers requires something different, I would say that the engagement of volunteers on the web or working remotely requires the same elements as any other volunteer work. In the discussion section of my thesis, I looked at the theme of commitment from a slightly different viewpoint; is commitment needed at all?
If you became more interested in my discussion about this topic, my master’s thesis, which was completed in March 2018, can be downloaded and read here (in Finnish).
Counselor of volunteers working on the internet with children and young people, Master´s degree
Translation: Kati Merikoski