5 Tips for being a Useful Online Volunteer – Guest Blog by Willy Oppenheim, Omprakash.org

By Willy Oppenheim, Co-Director at Omprakash.org

What does it mean to be a ‘useful’ online volunteer — particularly in this moment of tremendous global disruption and uncertainty? In this post, we take a holistic, human-centered approach towards answering this question. Rather than emphasize checklists or apps, we focus on relationships, communication, and mutual learning. Here are 5 tips to get started.

“The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.

-‘To Be of Use,’ by Marge Piercy

Share your humanity.

Just because you’re volunteering online doesn’t mean that you can’t establish friendly relations. Be liberal in using emoji, gifs, photos of your sunrise, photos of your family, etc.

Establishing a strong foundation of human connection allows all of us to be more patient, forgiving, and graceful in our digital communication and collaboration. This is an especially difficult time for everyone. In many parts of the world, a simple rainstorm can disrupt wireless networks enough to make a call impossible. Don’t let this kindle frustration or distrust. Remember — strange though it may be — that there are people behind all these pixels.

Be creative.

Don’t box yourself in with preconceived assumptions about what kind of work you should be doing.

Given the present circumstances of global disruption, we advise you to broaden your own sense of what sort of internship or volunteer opportunity might be possible and desirable for you. Don’t let your imagination be limited by your field of study or your intended career path. Are you hoping to do meaningful work with a social impact organization that is scrambling to adapt to a new reality? Good. Let’s focus on that, rather than on exactly how it is going to look on your CV.

Seek understanding.

‘Don’t just do something — sit there.’

Before you try to build things from scratch, seek a holistic understanding of what an organization is currently doing and why they are doing it a certain way.

Be flexible and adaptable: as the circumstances of the pandemic continue to change, so will organizations’ responses and priorities.

Resist the urge to ‘jump right in’: take some time to familiarize yourself with your team members and their roles, the organization’s mission and programs, and the context in which they are working.  Be sure to keep checking in about this bigger picture as your work unfolds and the world around us continues to change.

Build capacity.


Keep the long-term organizational capacity in mind. For example, you may know how to build a website with WordPress or Wix. That’s great. But don’t build a website and hand it over without thoroughly training the organization staff on how to update it themselves. And this doesn’t mean doing one screen share tutorial — it means mentoring other team members and creating an easy to follow document for the organization to use.
Don’t go overboard with tech suggestions. There’s an app for everything, and you may know about them all. But a small community-based organization may not need all the specialized apps and widgets you know about.

Be attentive to differences of culture and power.

Don’t push for organizational change without talking deeply to the organization and considering the broader context in which they work. You may have opinions about what a social impact organization should look like online, but this is a lot more complicated than your opinions. If you are working on a website or a social media strategy, the simple act of choosing a photo and writing a caption is an incredibly loaded privilege that you should wield carefully.

Be professional and secure if given special privileges — e.g. if you are entrusted with an organization’s username/password, make sure you safeguard it appropriately.

Keep in mind that it is always challenging to try to ‘help others’ when crossing significant differences of culture and power, and this is surely even more true when working remotely during a period of tremendous global upheaval and uncertainty.

Try to be humble, patient, curious, and generous of spirit, and take time to consider how the COVID-19 pandemic is manifesting across different social contexts and axes of inequality. What might be an inconvenience for you might be a matter of survival for your host organization and the communities they serve.

We encourage you to check out our free Facing Pandemic online learning series to dig deeper into questions about how COVID-19 illuminates and exacerbates existing patterns of inequality, and how different folks are responding to these dynamic circumstances.

And one more tip…

When browsing opportunities, insist on applying directly to your host organization — don’t buy a ‘placement’ from a middleman.

As a nonprofit striving for more ethical (and decommodified) global engagement, we worry that the dominant ‘placement’ paradigm serves to enrich middlemen organizations who sell packaged experiences, but it disempowers volunteers and host organizations.

We’ve been seeing (and critiquing) this trend for years within the international volunteering sector.  Now we see it quickly emerging within the burgeoning sphere of online volunteering as numerous providers are charging thousands of dollars for online internship ‘placements.’  These providers promise ‘guaranteed placements’ — but what this really means is that you are not actually applying for a position with an organization that is going to vet you (as any self-respecting organization should); you are purchasing a packaged experience from a middleman.  Don’t fall into this trap!

Apply directly to vetted grassroots social impact organizations throughout the Omprakash network — for free.

Please don’t pay thousands of dollars for an online internship. (Bonus tip: don’t work on your laptop while sitting on the side of a cliff!)

Want to know more about online volunteering via Omprakash?

Online volunteering has always been possible via Omprakash, but the present circumstances motivate us to invest in making the process more user-friendly and impactful for everyone involved. We readily acknowledge that ‘good intentions are not enough,’ and that volunteers and hosts need to be strategic if they want to establish productive collaboration and meaningful relationships. We’ve tried to create a digital ecosystem that supports this sort of human connection.

Search organizations and apply directly

The process begins on our Search page, where you can browse our full network of vetted grassroots social impact organizations in over 40 countries around the world.  You can search by region, theme (eg. health & wellness, education, disabilities, refugees & migration), or by other criteria such as type of online work or desired hours per week.

Almost every Omprakash Partner has a default ‘Online Position’ which allows you to propose your own online role based on your own skills and interests. This is a great opportunity for self-leadership, creativity, and mature, professional communication.

In addition, some Partners have defined custom online positions, and we welcome you to apply for those as well.

Manage applications from your Volunteer Dashboard

We advise prospective volunteers to apply to at least 3-5 different Partners rather than put all of their eggs in one basket. After submitting applications via Omprakash, you’ll be able to track them from your Volunteer Dashboard and communicate directly with different Partners to arrange interviews as appropriate. This dialogue-based application process becomes the foundation for a productive collaboration.

Maintain easy communication

The Omprakash Volunteer Dashboard makes it easy to chat with Partners across multiple platforms or hop onto a video call at any time.  We strongly suggest setting up a weekly check-in call and committing to at least one weekly call as a bare minimum.

Set goals and establish Work Plan Agreements

Another benefit of the Omprakash Volunteer Dashboard is it allows you and your Partner to define clear goals and track progress towards each of them. After your position is confirmed, we help you create a Work Plan comprised of specific goals that you can define collaboratively with your host Partner. Each goal will have a deadline and a description, and you will be able to provide updates as you complete tasks. You’ll also receive email reminders when a deadline is approaching to make sure you stay on target.

In closing…

We began this blog post with an excerpt from Marge Piercy’s poem, To Be of Use.  We close by sharing the full poem below.  We hope that you are able to be of use as an online volunteer, and we hope the tips shared in this blog help you find “work that is real.”

To be of use
By Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

source: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57673/to-be-of-use

This post originally published at Omprakash.org and is reposted with permission.

Since 2004, Omprakash has been dedicated to building mutually beneficial & educational relationships between grassroots social impact organizations —a.k.a. our Partners— and volunteers, donors & classrooms around the world who can learn from & support their work.

  • Omprakash has just launched two free, open online learning communities to support individuals and social impact organizations as they adapt to global disruptions caused by COVID19.  More info here – https://www.omprakash.org/facing-pandemic– and in the attached flyer.  No lectures or powerpoints — this is about dialogue and discovery.  The program allows students to confront this pandemic with a critical, intersectional lens which is attentive to social change as well as self-care through crisis, and then to engage in digital storytelling as an act of healing and transformation.
  • Omprakash also offers a free global network of online internships and volunteer opportunities.  Students can browse our global network and apply for online positions here: https://www.omprakash.org/search

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