Help Others Without Leaving Home

Use your time and talents to support causes you care about, even when you can't be there in person.

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By Molly Culbertson, photo by Jennifer Silverberg

When you picture volunteering, you may think of preparing food at a soup kitchen, cleaning up a city park or tutoring a child in need. But did you know that you can make a difference without leaving your home? It's called virtual volunteering, and it's ideal for anyone who works nontraditional hours, is a stay-at-home caregiver, has limited transportation or simply prefers to volunteer from home.

"Virtual volunteering is any kind of volunteer activity that you do remotely and that somehow involves the Internet," says Jayne Cravens, who has been researching virtual volunteering since the 1990s.

Projects include varied tasks such as bookkeeping, writing fundraising letters, building a website, entering data, translating a document, designing a logo and countless others you can do from home, Cravens says.

Flexibility is one of the biggest benefits, says Sarah Jane Rehnborg, a Thrivent member and leader at the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin. "You can do many of these volunteer tasks whenever you want to – early in the morning, late at night," she says. "You're not tied to specific hours."

Thrivent member Claudia Trautmann of St. Louis agrees. Now retired after a career as a chiropractor, she volunteers remotely as many as 10 to 20 hours a week. Trautmann began volunteering virtually right after college. "I was working full time, and I wanted to give back, but I didn't have the time or ability to volunteer in person," she says. "My first virtual volunteer experience was answering a women's crisis line from my home at night."

Today, Trautmann devotes most of her volunteer time to Bethania Kids, a nonprofit in India. The Christian organization serves poor, abandoned and disabled children through residential homes and before- and after-school care programs while also providing empowerment programs for women.

Trautmann is a board member of Bethania Kids, serving as vice president of marketing and communications. She works virtually with a team of other volunteers to create newsletters and other updates for supporters and donors.

"I was born in South India to missionary parents, and I knew the founders of Bethania Kids," Trautmann says. "The organization and its mission have always been very special to me."

Tap into your talent

Virtual volunteering taps into very specific skills, says Basil Sadiq, marketing manager with VolunteerMatch, an online volunteer engagement network.

"Many in-person volunteer opportunities – like helping with an annual fundraising gala or stocking a food pantry – require time and commitment. These opportunities are also great avenues to explore an organization's work and mission and learn how to give back to good causes in different capacities," Sadiq says. "With virtual volunteering, nonprofit organizations are seeking unique skills, and they can use volunteers with those skills from across the street or across the globe."

A recent search on VolunteerMatch found more than 6,000 openings for skilled volunteers, including tutoring, technical writing, budgeting, fundraising and staff coaching.

Making the commitment

Cravens says that one of the biggest myths about virtual volunteering is that it's for people who don't have time for traditional volunteering. "Virtual volunteer tasks take real time – and require a real commitment," she says. "Once you've signed up as a volunteer, the nonprofit counts on you, just as it does its on-site volunteers."

Some tasks may take a few hours each week. Some – like giving feedback on a new video or tagging photographs for a website – may take a few minutes. "But whether the task takes hours or minutes, they are real hours and real minutes and can have a real impact," Cravens says.

How to get started

Ready to volunteer? Start by considering your talents and your passions. "Think about the kinds of things you might do to support a cause you're passionate about," Cravens says. If you know about a relevant nonprofit, reach out to see if you can help. You also can search for both local and international opportunities online. (See "Be a virtual volunteer")

"Virtual volunteering will take off from your first offer of help, and it will enrich your life in ways you can't even imagine," Trautmann says.

Molly Culbertson writes for a variety of publications and blogs at myviewfromhome.com.