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Virtual Volunteerism

By Lee Sproull, Leonard N. Stern Professor of Business Emerita

Lee Sproull on Virtual Volunteerism

Understanding interactions between online and offline endeavors and how each contributes to broader social welfare will be important in our continuing effort to understand and build the Internet as a public commons.

If you always admired the Peace Corps but never quite managed to get your inoculations or a plane ticket, you can still pitch in to help the developing world – virtually. Offline organizations such as the UN are signing up volunteers by the hundreds of thousands to do such things as write a grant proposal, translate a document, or build a database. You can find online opportunities to be an online mentor, upload weather data, or donate idle computing cycles. The Internet is changing how we help others.

So writes NYU Stern Professor Emerita Lee Sproull in “Prosocial Behavior on the Net,” published in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ journal Daedalus (Fall 2011), an issue with the theme of protecting the Internet as a public commons.

Sproull’s paper describes how offline charitable organizations are using the Internet to become more efficient and effective and how online “prosocial” behavior is in turn affecting the philanthropic universe.

Online philanthropic projects share key attributes derived from the underlying network technology and communications applications, Sproull points out. First, the people or projects needing help and the volunteers willing to help are able to find one another and interact independent of geographic or social location. Second, they are able to interact asynchronously. Finally, volunteers are able to participate in brief segments of time at any hour of the day or night.

The US is one of the most charitable countries in the world, with 63 million Americans contributing more than 8 billion hours of their time to help others in 2009. As the scope and diversity of online opportunities expand, says Sproull, “Understanding interactions between online and offline endeavors and how each contributes to broader social welfare will be important in our continuing effort to understand and build the Internet as a public commons.”