illustration of hands interacting with purple red and yellow smartphones

Illustrations By June Anderson

The surprising ways technology is changing volunteering

Now, organizations need social media pros, video editors and more—and they’re turning to tech to find them

While the stereotypical volunteer might be a retiree who’s using their golden years to give back—what a Guardian column once described as “tweedy, meals-on-wheels ladies, or old soldiers running boys’ clubs”—times are changing. These days, charitable organizations are using technology to reach potential volunteers and offering volunteer gigs that rely on tech—and that’s making it easier for young people to get involved.

Just ask Toronto-based Farah Ng, who is in her early 30s and helps the Canadian Red Cross manage its social media. She volunteers remotely to monitor accounts during disaster responses and promote events on platforms like Instagram. (She also does some in-person volunteering at Canadian Red Cross events.)

“It feels really great,” Ng says. “[Even if I’m just] promoting an event, I know that we’re making a difference by promoting the Red Cross and all the great things they do that most people aren’t aware of. And from a career level, I’ve learned a lot about social media from being involved with them.”

Illustrated quotation about young people using learned skills to give back

Then there’s Alexander Carbone, who started a non-profit earlier this year for exactly that purpose. He describes the Toronto Professionals’ Volunteer Hub as like LinkedIn, but for volunteer work. In addition to more traditional gigs like helping out at festivals and charity walks, the site allows young professionals aged 22 to 35 to search for opportunities throughout the GTA that call for digital skills. Some recent postings include a WordPress developer role at Action CIND and a social media position at TechTO.

Carbone and his two partners started the Toronto Professionals’ Volunteer Hub because he realized that young people want to use the skills they’ve picked up in their day jobs—like programming, leadership or communications—to give back. “The idea is finding the right opportunities that they could actually take on in a meaningful way,” he says.

That’s certainly the case at the Canadian Red Cross. Janice Babineau, the organization’s senior manager of social media, says volunteers, who can work remotely from anywhere in the country, are an integral part of their operations.

“In a normal day when there’s not a large-scale disaster, the small staff that we have is able to manage,” she says. “But we found that in disasters, we were just overwhelmed and needed some support.”

Naturally, she turned to social media for help. She’s found that being active on multiple platforms—which means highlighting the work volunteers do on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—encourages interest from potential volunteers, as does capitalizing on existing followers’ networks. (“Sometimes they find out about the work that we do on social media through friends,” she says.) And the nature of the gig is another selling point: volunteers can work from anywhere.

“Volunteers can sign up for shifts to keep an eye on social media and respond to questions,” she says, “or they can take on assignments such as taking photos or tweeting live from an event, or writing a blog post.” Digital volunteers work remotely for the most part, she adds, which means “Red Cross digital volunteers don’t need to step foot in a Red Cross building or be physically near people who need help to contribute and help out.”

Carbone, Ng and Babineau all say that, in their experiences, people are looking for volunteer opportunities but often don’t know where to look. But by creating opportunities that make use of these new platforms—and using them to find new volunteers—everyone benefits.

“When you work with a diverse group of volunteers from across Canada, you get different experiences and different perspectives on things, and it’s refreshing,” says Babineau. “It can really spark some new creative ideas or help us talk to a different audience than we would normally be able to reach.”

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