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This article was published on April 13, 2011

From Staff To Superheroes: Inside the world of microvolunteering

From Staff To Superheroes: Inside the world of microvolunteering
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Face facts, Dave – you’re never going to cut it on the catwalk wearing underpants on the outside. I don’t even work remotely close to a phone booth and when I spin really fast, I get a nasty case of vertigo.

But since discovering the world of microvolunteering I can still be a superhero to someone, simply by logging on and giving five minutes of my time to craft a charity’s perfect About page.

Our virtual cape is called ‘microvolunteering’, and it matches heartbeat-quick our craving to help others with the tech needs of non-profits across the world.

microvolunteering:an un-paid task that can be done via an internet-connected device and in small increments of time.Wikipedia. calls itself the world’s first microvolunteering network and it promises to fulfil civilisation’s thirst to validate its usefulness, however heavy business schedules may be.

Anathema indeed to the 400 million hours we spend ruining our minds on Facebook every day, to the two billion YouTube videos served daily and 24 million hours of Solitaire.

Quick and easy

Jacob Colker, CEO of, is co-founder of The Extraordinaries – a San Francisco-based philanthropy-focused tech team that’s spent three years working on a platform making the process of getting your hands dirty for the benefit of humankind quick, simple, and fun.

It’s been time well spent, with hundreds of charities such as the American Red Cross enjoying the support of highly skilled workers providing for free practical solutions to problems that would otherwise have cost them big in time and money.

It’s the simplicity and competitive nature of Sparked that’s been inspiring both contributors and charities alike to ravish the platform. Sign up, punch in your strengths – from blogging to design, social media to SEO – then attack with relish the feast of mini projects proffered by good causes the world over.

Changing the world

Some of the success so far give us a glimpse of the scale and versatility of Sparked. Colker cited the story of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati, which provides parents of seriously ill children with a place to stay while their progeny is being treated nearby.

Ronald McDonald House provided an information pack in English but many families in residence spoke different languages, including Arabic. Realising it would cost thousands of much-needed dollars to go down the conventional route the charity dialled in Sparked and within two days a microvolunteer from Oman, Jordan, had translated the documents for free.

Colker explained the multiplicity of benefits of getting involved in this newfound phenomenon: “Microvolunteering is about sharing skills built up over the years. We’ve already seen research in such titles as the Harvard Business Review that says doing good helps companies do well.”

“And there’s a big plus in using microvolunteering for self-development, too. Staff can experiment beyond their normal skillset, and many people have told us how much they’ve learned simply by reading other project submissions.

“Some staff use this system to show their expertise to peers and bosses. Jane in accounts, who’s fluent in Spanish, fancies a job at the Chile office – and by translating for charities at Sparked, she can show she’s more than up to the job.”

Social philanthropy

With Sparked managing the needs of the non-profits – who are flocking at the rate of about 15 a day to join the system and get help – businesses are also finding it easier to instigate volunteering programs. “For bigger companies it can be a logistical nightmare working out this kind of scheme. Sometimes they have to allocate a full-time member of staff to such an initiative. That burden is now taken away.”

“The nature of these microvolunteering projects at Sparked is such that you can get involved in your lunch hour or while waiting for a conference call.”

There’s another big benefit to microvolunteering the Sparked way – the competition of crowdsourcing. No matter which project you set your sights on tackling, there’s someone else ready with a challenge and to get you thinking laterally to ‘win’ the kudos of being crowned champion by the good cause. I still feel an overbearing need to go ‘huarr!’ when one of my random marketing gestures gets the nod, and I’m pretty sure it’s not just me who enjoys a moment in the sun.

If only to distract attention from the cerebral wastage that are Angry Birds and Farmville, microvolunteering is destined to be a big hit. With 95% of non-profits needing more volunteers, according to Colker, Sparked looks set to bring us a real opportunity to shift from downtime to an upturn in motivation, creativity and productivity in the workplace.

And me? I’m going to make sure those underpants are tucked safely out of sight…