Why Online Volunteering?
Like a lot of people, I like to try and help others. My preference is to give my time rather than money – as it’s more valuable to me and so feels more meaningful on my part.
Whilst working, I always thoroughly enjoyed mentoring my younger colleagues. Sharing my hard-earned experience in the hopes of being able to help others achieve their own goals. I knew it would be one of the few things I would miss when leaving work to retire early – and as such I researched ways I could volunteer post-FIRE.
It was interesting what I found. A lot of places weren’t interested in your time – just your money. I understand why but it was a little disheartening at times to see. There were a few great schemes that wanted actual volunteers that I was really interested in joining – but they all demanded a regular time commitment – something I was reluctant to give having only just achieved my freedom from work! Especially with all the travel plans we had, I just knew it was unlikely I could meet those kinds of requirements.
And so I turned to online volunteering instead. It didn’t demand a regular time-slot and I could do it wherever I happened to be in the world, so long as internet was available. It seemed to tick all the boxes and I went ahead and signed up to a couple of different places.
This post is for those who may be thinking of doing the same and may be interested in reading my experience of the reality of online volunteering.
Chat-Based Online Volunteering
Now, before I get into this one – it’s worth saying I’ve only tried one of these, which was 7cups. It’s one of the biggest as far as I’m aware, with a lot of material available to help both those looking for advice and those volunteering.
It’s a pretty simple sign-up process, you take a few online “exams” to show you are a sane human being capable of holding a decent conversation. The website makes it sound harder than it is – it’s really not very difficult to pass and be accepted on as a listener. Perhaps almost too easy to be honest, though I understand why.
You then create your profile and indicate what topics you have experience with. This was the first eye-opening moment and perhaps something I should have paid more attention to. There were a lot of boxes I didn’t tick.
A bit like blogging, there seems little point or value in talking about things you have no experience with
Once done, your profile is complete and before you know it, you are ‘live’ and available to people looking for someone to chat to. Like anything, the first time is a little scary and this was no different. The chat box pops open and there’s someone who you know is struggling for some reason or other, reaching out for help. It feels a big responsibility not to ‘mess’ it up and put them off doing so again.
A Real Mixed Bag Of Experiences
I spent about two months putting serious time into 7cups, by which I mean a couple hours a day, usually 3-4 days a week. The flexibility to sign in and help others when you knew you had time to do worked perfectly, though often my chats would over-run and I would need to manage expectations leaving and organise catching up another time.
I had several great experiences – where I could tell I’d really managed to help the other person. Either just listening and supporting them – which is what you are supposed to do. But sometimes also offering pragmatic advice if it was on an area I really had a lot of experience, which apparently is similar to what a lot of people do. The hard part is judging what people are in a fit state of mind to be able to decide for themselves what is best – as you never, ever want people to do something just because you suggested it.
I got some great feedback from these types of chats, lots of appreciation for helping them through a tough time. Seeing I’d made a difference to these people’s lives was exactly the reason I’d signed up and it was a great win/win situation from that perspective. But it wasn’t all good.
Even though I’d taken care to only include topics of conversations I knew I could help with, I’d often still end up in a number of chats on subjects I knew nothing about.
These would range from various addictions and an awful lot of shall we say the more extreme sides of sexual issues. These were things I knew nothing about and even though I’m pretty broad-minded, they were hard to deal with – mostly since I had no real idea what was the most helpful way to respond to things like young lads fantasising about their mothers or husbands lusting after step-daughters. As some of the lighter-weight examples.
Worst still was the number of people who claimed they wanted to chat and you’d start off all nice and friendly. Then before you knew it they were enquiring if you would be ok ‘listening’ to them by supporting them through masturbating then and there. I guess at least they asked first??! Obviously, these kind of chats I got better at spotting coming and getting out of them with a polite “well, that’s a nice offer but I don’t think I’m the right person to help you with that” type response, before swiftly ending the chat and blocking them.
It’s not like these kind of chats were the mainstream – the ‘good’ kind where I could actually help others definitely outweighed these ‘bad’ kinds. But it wasn’t something I was expecting to be exposed to – if you will pardon the poor attempt at a pun there.
Reality Of Online Volunteering: Conclusion
After a couple months of this, I worked out that I was in fact much better at being able to help people when I had time to write a considered response, rather than the near real-time response this chat system required.
It just meant I had more time to think about what I wanted to say and consider the impact on the person. Plus the obvious benefit of only replying to situations where I knew I had some experience and thus hopefully be able to actually help support the person to see the situation from different perspectives.
Frankly, the long-term volunteers on this site are awesome people, the kind of quiet heroes who truly deserve more recognition than they ever get.
I’m not one of them – and I’m ok admitting I tried and failed. I did my best but it wasn’t something that worked for me. Instead, I learnt from the experience and moved on to something which did.
Online Volunteering - What's Next?
I still love volunteering online – whilst I continue to travel and be unable to commit to a regular schedule, it’s a good compromise solution. It lets me donate my time and experience to help others, something which remains important to me.
By keeping to sites that are either forum or email-based, I’ve learned that I can have a much better chance of actually achieving my aim of helping others. As opposed to unknowingly perhaps doing the opposite, all be it with the best intentions.
I still get a great buzz when someone takes the time to let me know how much I helped them through a tough time. It’s worth the time investment – which after all, is our most precious asset.
I hope sharing my reality of online volunteering has encouraged you to find the right way for you – not put you off entirely! It truly is a great way to give back when you need to stay flexible.
I hope sharing this has been helpful and I’d love to hear about your own experiences in the comments below.