Sustainable Volunteering : focus on distance, virtual and micro-volunteering

Roz Bonnet, 15.12.2017

In this blog post we’re looking at virtual, micro and distance volunteering. What makes these forms of volunteering different from regular, in person volunteering?  It hinges on the amount of time and the type of commitment involved.

Micro and virtual volunteering doesn’t require a long term, fixed-time or regular commitment. Often, but not always, volunteering can be done at a distance without a need to be physically in the museum.  It often (but not always) involves a discrete task.  As such, it suits people for whom getting to the museum, or making a regular, long term, commitment, is impractical or impossible.  These opportunities provide flexibility as to where and when the volunteering is done, and can therefore open up volunteering to a much wider range of people.

Museums are finding that their micro, distance and virtual volunteers may never have volunteered for them, or elsewhere in heritage, before – because existing, regular roles just wouldn’t work for their schedules and lifestyles. In some cases, they might also have encountered access issues with regular volunteering roles that take place on site.  So, as well as helping your museum to achieve important tasks and projects, these kinds of volunteering roles may greatly increase the diversity of your volunteer team.

However long someone’s volunteering actually takes, it still takes commitment on their part. Distance or micro volunteers have similar motivations to any other volunteer – be that wanting to ‘give back’ or make a difference, to share skills, to learn something new, to do something linked to an interest.  Their volunteering can still be ‘counted’ by your museum as part of the vital difference volunteering makes to your organisation.  Volunteer management systems with portals (such as Better Impact or Volunteer Makers) can help to track the contribution, so that you can report it to funders and stakeholders.  You can keep in touch with volunteers at a distance through these portals, as well by phone, email, and social media platforms.

We spoke to Kat Tudor, Community Learning and Volunteer Officer at Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, about the Bridge’s involvement of volunteers at a distance to carry out research for a new project.  She explains how the ‘virtual’ volunteers have become part of the team:


What are distance or virtual volunteers doing to support the museum?

Currently we have 2 distance volunteers, one is based locally and was recruited through a Facebook advertisement, and one was an onsite volunteer who moved away and wanted to continue volunteering. They have both been helping the Visitor Centre with a new project called Hawkshaw and Barlow Untold, by researching though virtual and real archives for primary source information which will be used in a new exhibition in 2018.

How did you plan for their involvement and then recruit them?

We heard of the term “Micro Volunteering”, and we were also looking for new researchers. We thought that this task could be something that volunteers could do from home in a time that suits them.  We put an advert out on Facebook and I had some instant emails of interest.  We had not done this before, so we just wanted to see if there would be interest and then speak to people on an individual basis- firstly through email.

Tell us a bit about how you got to know them, established the tasks involved in the work, and ‘inducted’ them into the organisation at a distance?

Firstly I wrote a Volunteer Researcher Project Plan, this included; information about Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust, a summary of Hawkshaw and Barlow Untold, the aims and objectives of the project and what archives needed to be researched and what information we were looking for. This was a chance for the micro volunteer to select a task that they felt was of interest to them.  I got to know the new recruit through phone and email, and we did have a brief face to face meeting as well.  They were asked to read and agree to the volunteer agreement, and their induction covered intellectual property issues too.  As they were local I also made sure to invite them to any social and volunteer meetings, and to include them in any newsletter updates.  This meant that they were part of the general volunteer team.

How has distance volunteering worked for the volunteers?

The volunteers usually started by consulting other Archives’ online databases to identify relevant material; they then moved on to producing short research summaries in a chosen area. Sometimes they visited other Archives for us to view specific documents.  We provided guidance on referencing.

I have found that the ideal person to volunteer remotely has to be self-motivated, and the institution has to set deadlines for work to be expected. I also think the institution needs to be understanding of their other commitments – the reason they cannot do something in person is because they are busy!

The volunteers’ perspectives?

Comment from distance volunteer: “I have two preschool children and it’s much easier for me to manage my own time, and work when I can, than commit to a certain number of hours or certain times.  I’ve really enjoyed the experience and found it rewarding.  I’ve enjoyed learning about the history of the bridge, finding some interesting articles for the display, using my brain for a change and meeting a good group of people – I went to one meeting and a social event, so although I was volunteering from a distance I felt part of something.  I hope my relationship with the bridge team continues 😊

How has distance volunteering benefited the museum?

It has benefited us hugely, because we rely on a team of volunteers to conduct the research for our project. We were lucky that both distance volunteers have been reliable and easy to contact.  They have kept us in the loop when they have other commitments and been honest when they feel a task has reached its limit.  Technology has also been helpful, as a lot of archives they consulted have digitised collections, and we used file sharing sites such as Dropbox to be able to save research.

Would you do it again? 

Yes we would definitely do it again! I would consider using skype as a way of induction instead of phone; however this might not suit some people.  I would only do it if I felt we were able to offer the volunteer a substantial and meaningful amount of work.


Links to ideas on micro, virtual and distance volunteering:

In a follow-up blog in 2018 we hope to bring you news of another successful virtual volunteering project, from Saltash Heritage, made possible through the SWMDP Small Grant Big Improvement programme in 2017. Has your museum successfully involved distance, virtual or micro volunteers?  What have you learnt from the process?  Tell us about it by emailing

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