Digital Volunteers Help Out in the Protection of Human Rights and in the Event of Natural Disasters

Year of production: 2023

The illustration was created for MIHUS by young Estonian artist Maria Elise Remme.

The rapid development of technology affects us on all levels. Volunteering is no exception. Thanks to technology, we are able to reach more people much faster, contribute more flexibly and regardless of location. However, it is difficult to ensure the quality of the volunteer work and the well-being of volunteers.

Digital volunteering (also known as virtual volunteering or online volunteering) is here to stay. Are the people and organisations working with young people making good use of this opportunity?

Untapped potential with its own risks

Barbara Eglitis, a Coordinator at the SALTO European Solidarity Corps Resource Centre, confirms that online volunteering is a largely unexplored opportunity both within the European youth programmes (Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps) and beyond.

‘We are in the process of exploring the opportunities and challenges of digital volunteering in European youth work. To be honest, we still know very little about it. The programmes in Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps are not currently ideally suited to support virtual volunteering. While projects that involve digital volunteering can be supported as activities, only activities where volunteers have contributed in the traditional way can be funded,’ claims Eglitis, giving an example of one of the developmental needs of youth programmes. ‘There is also the risk that the quality of the volunteering experience might suffer when digital volunteering is used. For example, it’s important to ensure that volunteers receive necessary mentoring, feel like part of the community and that their mental and physical well-being is guaranteed,’ notes Eglitis regarding other related concerns. She adds that virtual volunteering should not become a way of ostensibly ticking the boxes of, for example, involving young people with disabilities in projects. Voluntary participation needs to be carefully planned and educational, as well as being meaningfully inclusive and encouraging participation.

Despite the risks, Eglitis views virtual volunteering as having great potential, as it enables the possibility to include more people and communities. In certain cases, volunteering online can even be safer than volunteering in a more traditional way. ‘The positive impact can be huge, particularly in projects that integrate online volunteering with traditional volunteering. For example, online participation may be safer for volunteers when it comes to sensitive topics. Europe is very diverse. There are areas where it is not safe for certain minorities to actively speak out on certain issues, or where it is very difficult for them to participate. This risk can be mitigated with digital volunteering,’ Eglitis explains, but adds that enabling virtual volunteering also requires making sure that the online environment for volunteering is safe. Data protection as well as other factors affecting the safety of young people need to be considered.

Youth workers and the designers of European youth programmes have the task of working out how online volunteering differs from traditional volunteering, and how to ensure the full development and well-being of young people in a virtual environment. Safety, participation, inclusion and development are important in both physical and virtual spaces, but the nuances are different.

Flexibility and variety

Many studies and reports have shown that the way young people participate in and contribute to society has changed. Young people associate themselves less and less with long-standing, traditional structures. At the same time, there is a trend towards a greater willingness to invest small amounts of time for a specific goal. This makes it possible to volunteer for a wide range of issues at both local and international levels, regardless of location. Flexibility and the ability to change activities and areas make participation easier for those who do not have an appealing volunteering opportunity close to home, or who find physically going to volunteering spots at specific times impossible or simply uninteresting.

Citizen OS, a civic initiative that started in Estonia and now works internationally, promotes e-democracy and regularly engages with virtual volunteers. The Citizen OS online platform has been translated into 11 languages. All translations have been made with the help of volunteers. Volunteers have also contributed to the development of the platform by testing features or providing valuable feedback. Young people interested in programming can volunteer internationally and contribute by coding for projects important to them. Those involved with social media can be involved in campaigns – be it on animal welfare, environmental issues, human rights, sports, mental health or any other important topic. Web design, translating, editing texts, helping to organise research or gathering information are all possible ways of volunteering. Offering counselling or mentoring, helping with fundraising and much more besides is possible through online volunteering.

Virtual volunteering is all about flexibility and variety. It enables organisations and civic initiatives to engage volunteers in a versatile and creative way. As our whole society has gone digital, and much of the work of non-profit organisations is virtual as well, the inclusion of digital volunteers is a great opportunity. For example, around one hundred people have volunteered online to help Citizen OS over the years.

Digital volunteers can save lives

While programming, running social media campaigns, translating or counselling may not seem like life-saving volunteer work at first glance, there are many examples of how digital volunteering saves lives. For example, the availability of virtual counselling is crucial for dealing with mental health problems, but also with intimate partner violence. Online volunteering can also be life-saving in the event of earthquakes and floods.
The organisation YouthMappers has representatives on more than 379 campuses in 78 countries. The project includes young people and experts mapping various geopolitical data, creating maps that help give an overview of natural disasters.

‘For us, online volunteering means people helping both remotely and locally to create open data maps, which collect information that can help tackle a wide range of major humanitarian problems. For example, when Syria and Turkey were hit by earthquakes, students from all over the world came together to check satellite images of the affected buildings,’ explains Patricia Solis of Arizona State University. Damage from the floods in Libya has now also been mapped. Such mapping can help us to more quickly direct the help needed – from rescue teams to food and water – to the right place. This information can help people avoid dangerous areas or find out whether their loved ones are at risk.

‘Being able to go online and join in solidarity with people from around the world to help those in need will hopefully help us empathise better, and help us get to know other people on this planet,’ says Solis.

Solis adds that online volunteering has the potential to bring us together, but it could also make us take distance for granted. This is why YouthMappers has agreed on an internal Code of Ethics, which helps to maintain structure and quality in volunteer work coordination. Young people’s individual experiences can be read about on the YouthMappers blog or in their recently published book.

Both Patricia Solis and Barbara Eglitis note that the so-called hybrid volunteering, where one can contribute virtually as well as physically on site, is effective. Most young people prefer to combine these options and expect flexibility. Can we, who engage volunteers, offer this flexibility and developmental tasks in a mixed reality where both virtual and physical participation is equally natural and expected? I hope that we can thrive in this together alongside technology and the youth.


This article was originally published in Estonian youth work magazine ’Mihus’ on 9 November 2023.
Translated into English by


Meelika Hirmo

Meelika Hirmo is a Communications expert who is currently working at Citizen OS promoting digital participation worldwide. The topics of democratic participation, environment, media and information literacy and culture are very close to her heart. She has campaigned for lowering the voting age in Estonia, coordinated international events, led the communication of the international civic movement World Cleanup Day, and is eager to put her skills into practice to create a positive social change.