Robert J. Rosenthal
U ntil recently, volunteer work almost always meant spending time at the location of an organization devoted to a cause you care deeply about. Today, thanks to the Internet, you can often help those causes even more by staying home and working at your computer.
"Virtual volunteering" is the most popular term for this type of online activity. Organizations devoted to human rights, politics, religion, disaster relief, animal protection, the ill and disabled, the environment, immigrants, women's issues and dozens of other causes all need thousands of virtual volunteers.
Your age makes no difference. In fact, if you have an illness or a physical condition that hinders you from volunteering outside your home, you can still participate fully as a virtual volunteer.
As a virtual volunteer, you help organizations with skills they need, such as doing research and graphic design, writing grant proposals, helping students, contacting donors or writing materials that the organizations publish and/or post on the Web.
Example: A few years ago, I was an employee of a real estate development company and wanted to do more for the San Francisco community in which I lived. I contacted the Taproot Foundation, which helps professionals donate their business skills to community organizations, and within a few weeks, I was a member of a volunteer team that was building Web sites for several nonprofit organizations. My job was to write copy for the sites, and like all other team members, I worked from home. I enjoyed volunteer work so much that I decided to make it my career.
The flexibility of virtual volunteering also lets you help an organization across the country or even in another part of the world. Examples...
Family-to-Family (914-478-0756, www.family-to-family.org), an organization that helps feed families in needy communities nationwide, recently appealed for 25 virtual volunteers to work a few hours a month writing grant proposals and press releases, as well as dealing with other media issues. All volunteers could work from their home computers.
Wisconsin and Minnesota-based Nibakure Children’s Village (612-578-6560, www.nibakure.org) recently needed three volunteers to work online two hours a week on fund-raising for an orphanage in Rwanda.
Political parties. The Democratic and Republican parties are nearly always in need of virtual volunteers.
Virtual volunteering isn't for everyone. By working from home, you won't meet face-to-face each day with other volunteers -- something that many people might want. On the other hand, virtual volunteers are often in touch with others by E-mail and occasional phone calls.
You also need a computer, an Internet connection and a certain amount of skill in using them (but you don't have to be a computer whiz, by any means). Even if you lack these skills, many nonprofit organizations will be eager to help you learn.
HELPS YOU, TOO
Apart from helping an important cause, volunteers can benefit in a way that's often overlooked -- furthering their own careers, especially second careers. By volunteering, you can gain experience in a field that might otherwise be difficult for you to break into. Examples...
If you want to go into paralegal work, you can start by taking a few courses at a local college and then build up your résumé by volunteering online for an organization that needs assistance with paralegal matters.
If you're interested in public relations work, you could easily benefit from writing press releases -- a skill that many charitable groups are in such need of that they coach virtual volunteers on how to do it. Armed with that skill, you might also sell your services to for-profit organizations.
FINDING A CAUSE
Tens of thousands of organizations, large and small, increasingly depend on volunteers who work from home via the Internet. The easiest way to find one is through the Web-based groups that link volunteers with organizations that need them. These include...
Network for Good, founded by America Online, Cisco Systems and Yahoo (866-650-4636, www.networkforgood.org).
Points of Light Institute, a Washington, DC-based organization that recently merged with a similar group, the Hands On Network (202-729-8000, www.pointsoflight.org).
Taproot Foundation, which puts together teams of working people who want to help charitable groups (415-359-1423, www.taprootfoundation.org).
ServiceLeader.org at the University of Texas at Austin (512-232-7062, www.serviceleader.org).
VolunteerMatch, my organization, with volunteer opportunities from more than 55,000 nonprofit organizations (415-241-6868, www.volunteermatch.org).
UN Volunteers, an arm of the United Nations that can be contacted by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone in Germany at 49-228-815-2000. Its Web sites are www.onlinevolunteering.org and www.unvolunteers.org.
Even though these organizations link to thousands of nonprofit groups, some groups -- especially those that are new and/or small -- aren't listed. For that reason, it often pays to ask about online volunteer opportunities at your house of worship or at local civic organizations.
Don't be discouraged if a group you would like to work for hasn't used online volunteers. You might interest the organization in taking you on as its first virtual volunteer.
Bottom Line/Retirement interviewed Robert J. Rosenthal, communications director, VolunteerMatch, a San Francisco-based organization that links volunteers with the organizations that need them (www.volunteermatch.org).
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