Tech for Good: Microvolunteers


Let's face it. Our attention spans have waned to the point where we can't even focus on lending a helping hand. Thank goodness for Sparked, the world's first microvolunteering network, formerly known as The Extraordinaries.

It's a concept similar to Gigwalk, the app that pays you to walk around and explore, which we wrote about recently. Instead of offering monetary payment, Sparked gives people that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from doing small, altruistic "challenges," matched to someone's particular skills and interests via mobile phones and web browsers. It's the volunteering equivalent of 140 characters or less, except measured in time and tasks, with most commitments requiring only two minutes to two hours. Whether you're into education or the environment, there's a cause for you to support. And all skills are welcome—from copywriting to Web development. Time to channel those nearly 400 million hours we spend on Facebook every day into something more productive and philanthropic.


The site (and the overall concept of microvolunteering) was pioneered by the San Francisco-based social enterprise, The Extraordinaries, Inc., founded in July 2008 and now a certified B-Corporation for its commitment to social good.

CEO Jacob Colker and Co-Founder Ben Rigby define micovolunteering with four characteristics: convenient, bite-sized, crowdsourced, and network-managed. It's different from "virtual volunteering," which is merely convenient (meeting only one of the aforementioned characteristics) and is "exactly like in-person volunteering, but the work takes place remotely," Rigby writes.

Microvolunteering, on the other hand, harnesses the power of the crowds, where all work is "done and delivered online, and in a place where anyone can see it," leading to a better end result because of the peer-review process. At the micro level, everyone is a volunteer and everyone can contribute to a project. The best work floats to the top; the worst efforts sink to the bottom. For the nonprofit partners doling out the work, microvolunteering is less time-consuming because it eliminates the need to develop and manage a long-term, one-to-one relationship with the do-gooder.

Sparked's nonprofit partners so far include organizations like the Grameen Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, the United Way, the American Red Cross, Room to Read, and First Aid Corps. There's also the "Sparked Enterprise" option for companies to engage their employees in volunteerism from the comfort of their office desks. Kraft Foods, Google and SAP have all signed on.

"Large corporations and small businesses alike have been looking for a way to more easily engage their employees, create community goodwill, and use their professional skills to promote social good," Colker says in a press release. "We developed Sparked specifically to fill that need."

The startup has dozens of success stories, with most of the work related to communications and design (i.e. design a logo, come up with a tagline, write a communications strategy.) Many of the efforts also produce tangible, on-the-ground results. Here's a small sampling from their portfolio of philanthropy:

  • compiling a worldwide map of the locations of defibrillators available for cardiac emergencies
  • asking for advice on how to install water wells in a Masaai village in Kenya
  • finding missing people in post-earthquake Haiti
  • mapping playground locations to determine which ones need to be rebuilt

The microvolunteering movement is still in its infancy but has the potential to be transformative. There's a new initiative coming out of the University of Chicago, called ChangeMachine, that takes the same model as Sparked but specifically connects college students to nonprofits, with the possibility of allowing students to obtain extra course credit by volunteering their skills relevant to their academic department and build their resume.

An iPhone app called Give Work, developed by CrowdFlower and Samasource, lets volunteers fill their spare time by helping refugees in Dadaab, Kenya—the world's largest refugee site—by completing short, on-screen tasks, like tagging a video or tracing a road. The tasks are translated into real dollars for the refugees and also serve as examples of accurate computer-based work, which is what the refugees are learning themselves.

The trend towards pro bono design and communications services for nonprofits is catching on elsewhere, in general. One of the most successful examples of this is Catchafire, a New York-based startup that has provided more than $2 million in pro bono services to local nonprofits. But unlike Sparked, the volunteering is restricted to the New York area (for now) and still relies on match-making—not crowdsourcing—to achieve results.

The Sparked boys are hoping to bring their project to scale, recruiting 25 million people to complete simple tasks to change the world. So far, nearly 300,000 people have already microvolunteered their time using the platform.