How Can You Enhance Virtual Volunteers’ Commitment?

Volunteering may look different now than it did before the pandemic. After being forced to continue operations remotely for the better part of 2020 and 2021, some organizations are now leaning into the use of virtual volunteering as a way of gathering volunteers regardless of physical location. But how does this influence the ways that volunteers give their time? And how does this affect the “why” behind volunteering?

Volunteering rates are a function of commitment behaviors. When the Current Population Survey was last analyzed by AmeriCorps in 2019, the average number of hours volunteered per person was 74. Although this mean obscured an underlying problem: for an entire year, 25% of volunteers contributed 10 hours or less, another 25% contributed 90 hours or more, and a measly 5% served at least 360 hours. At the same time, volunteers have started to volunteer for multiple organizations at a time. These trends could signal a problem for nonprofit organizations, which view experienced and repetitive volunteers as a particularly valuable resource. And as engagement rates increase, so too do other kinds of support, including donations and alternative forms of physical participation.

A study by Jennifer Ihm from Kwangwoon University and Michelle Shumate from Northwestern University found that of the 816 individuals surveyed, many reported only volunteering for fewer than six months. Episodic volunteering such as this suggests that these individuals were motivated by short-term trends, as opposed to the longer-lasting commitment reported by most subjects. But other factors can motivate an individual to volunteer: communication and identity. Volunteers may personally identify with a cause and feel that giving their time is a way to express that identity. They can also identify with the organization or a larger group. But Ihm’s and Shumate’s study reveals that these identities could motivate online and offline volunteers differently.

Graphic comparing online and offline volunteers. Offline volunteers = volunteer identity + organizational identity Online volunteers = organizational identity + collective identity

An offline volunteer can be thought of as a more traditional volunteer. They are physically present on-site and fill positions not otherwise filled by paid workers. Maybe they are a receptionist or a greeter, or they help with miscellaneous errands. Regardless, their volunteerism is accomplished through physical participation. Offline volunteers are most motivated by their personal identity, “I am someone who volunteers at the animal shelter;” and their identity as part of the organization, “I am a part of the animal shelter.” The focus is on self-affirmation, which can therefore be strengthened by communication with peers inside and outside the organization. Communicating with other organizational members allows offline volunteers to affirm their identity with similarly identifying individuals. This strengthens their personal commitment. On the other hand, volunteers often share their worries and passions with individuals outside the organization, which can increase their commitment to the cause. Once both conditions are met, offline volunteers become more committed to volunteering as an activity and are less likely to volunteer in episodes.

Nonmember communication in the center of three ovals containing organizational identity, collective identity, and more time spent


However, online volunteers experience different motivations for their activities. Online volunteering can often take the shape of online mentoring and tutoring or managing a call center. The internet allows individuals to choose their causes regardless of physical location, making different identities more important to commitment behaviors. Because they can choose any organization with an online presence, committed online volunteers are most motivated by their identity as part of the organization. This is what sets their chosen site of volunteerism apart from their alternatives. Interestingly, online volunteering also is more mission-focused, with these individuals gaining inspiration from their identity with a particular cause rather than their personal identity. Just like offline volunteers, online volunteers gain a greater sense of commitment to the organization when they talk about the organization they are a part of. But whereas offline volunteers draw from their personal identity as a volunteer, online volunteers tend to draw from their collective identity within a larger group of people who support a cause.

Member Communication in center with three ovals indicating connections to volunteer identity, organizational identity, and more time spent volunteering


Here are three tips for encouraging virtual volunteers to make a bigger commitment:

  1. Pay special attention to how their work connects to the organization’s larger mission. The more virtual volunteers see their work connecting with the greater mission, the more likely they are to commit time to the organization.
  2. Encourage virtual volunteers to share their volunteering experience with other members of your organization and their friends. A simple toolkit with brand materials and key talking points can help enhance their communication.
  3. Remember to celebrate your virtual volunteers’ contributions to your organization and recognize them. Developing a relationship beyond the work done is important for retaining virtual volunteers and can enhance their identification with your organization.

Interested in learning more about online and offline volunteering? Access the full article here: 

Ihm, J., & Shumate, M. (2022). How Volunteer Commitment Differs in Online and Offline Environments. Management Communication Quarterly, 36(4), 583–611.