Volunteering and the ethics of cyber-space

Raquel Dias, a journalist and volunteer at Converdgencia in Brazil, considers the rise of virtual volunteering.
03 February 2008

New forms of social interaction and action have developed through the emergence of new technology. This article looks at some of the new forms, specifically related to the volunteer sector. Volunteering can be defined as an activity involving people who offer their skills and time, out of their own free will, to individual projects or society at large. They do it in a variety of ways, aiming to have a positive impact on the community or environment. It is a way people from all parts the world can join together to use their talents, knowledge and time to do something for the present and for the future.

Nowadays, companies are unable to ignore the rapid change and connections created by the Internet and new technology and have had to change their way of thinking and working as a result. NGOs have similarly had to adapt the volunteer sector being no exception to this. As a sector it has undergone changes and new forms of community service and mutual help have emerged. Cyber-volunteering is one such form, involving individuals with ICT skills in both online and onsite activities and action. It provides new ways to promote an organisation's values and messages, with potentially very high coverage, giving more people the opportunity to get involved in actions that they consider worthy regardless of their physical location.

With the idea of progress comes the responsibility of making sure the initial message of the organisation remains alive, independent of the technology. In this case, the web has to be a tool, a catalyst for cooperation. An example is ICVolunteers (www.icvolunteers.org), 'an international non-profit organization specialized in the field of communications, in particular cybervolunteerism, languages and conference support'. The Executive Director of this institution, Viola Krebs, explains that 'individuals involved in Volunteering and the ethics of cyber-space the CyberVolunteers Program offer their information and communication technology skills to development-related projects'. Krebs adds, 'by offering their skills, they learn new things, build their network of social connections, increase their awareness and might well be in a position to further their chances of finding employment'. Thus, volunteering gives people the opportunity to develop and improve themselves whilst helping others.

According to the President and Institutional Coordinator of the Brazilian NGO, Converdgencia (www.converdgencia.org.br) and ICV Desk Brasil, Renata Moraes, people have some wrong perceptions about volunteerism. People's motivations are often not as you would expect. They often volunteer to fill a space in their life. They also have found that many young people without any experience who have the time and no money worries may opt to become a volunteer so they can acquire some experience. With these motivations, there tends to be little commitment and actions are short lived.

Cybervolunteering is very new in Brazil and often occurs without people knowing it exists or that it has a name. It can take on many forms including creating websites, sending emails, working on projects or even lending others their computers for work. 

With regards to the opportunities this provides for corporate volunteering, NGO's cannot function in a vacuum and it is therefore important that companies get involved and engage with them. Of course, in some cases, companies' motives for creating partnerships with NGO's are to put their own brands in the spotlight, another way to promote themselves. Successful Brazilian companies have traditionally started their own Foundation or Institution as a way of dealing with social and environment dilemmas. Another way is to use NGOs to solve their problems with communities and society in general. When there is no conflict or pressure from government it is very rare to find a collaboration between NGOs and enterprises. As support for socio-environmental issues grows, companies are increasingly open to debate on these issues and so opportunity for collaboration is increasing. Therefore, it is essential that NGO's maintain a strong position and do not compromise or forget their beliefs and principles under the influence of this kind of market driven positioning.

When wanting to get involved as a volunteer, it is important to look for meaningful institutions engaged in serious projects. Then candidates can visit these organisations, get to know the people involved and engage in their activities. Each institution has a particular focus, implementing specific kinds of activities. ICV's cyber-volunteers (www.cybervolunteers.info), for example, typically 'participate in local, regional and international projects ... offering their skills in areas such as web or software development, system administration and content generation'.

Being a cyber-volunteer requires more than just time and technical know-how: indeed, it is all about having the willingness and determination to make a difference by sharing skills and knowledge. In order to see our planet move in the right direction, we need to become actors rather than being passive spectators and cyber volunteering is providing new opportunities and arenas in which we can do this.

This article was written with imput from Renata Moraes, Converdgencia ICV Desk Brasil, Viola Krebs, ICVolunteers, Carlos Accioly, a Converdgencia volunteer and Patrícia Mantovani from Vale's interprise.

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