Last year I wrote the articles “Technology & its impact on volunteer management to date” and “Technology and its impact on volunteer management in the future”. Since then we’ve had a global pandemic which has got us all embracing new ways of using technology, both personally and professionally. But has technology transformed the act of volunteering during 2020?

In some ways, the answer is yes. More attention has been given to virtual volunteering than at any time since this way of giving time first developed some thirty five years ago. Perhaps more people have used an online platform to facilitate their in-person volunteering, for example signing up as one of the UK’s NHS Volunteer Responders using the GoodSam app? And I’m certain more volunteers than ever have done some form of video calling via a platform like Zoom, either to do their volunteering and / or to attend support meetings, volunteer social events etc..

I’d argue, however, that whilst these tech driven changes to volunteering are important, they are not really reflective of the scale of change that could happen. Take, for example, the decision by Microsoft earlier this year to replace human journalists with AI content curation. That’s a pretty fundamental shift in the role of paid staff, way beyond those people communicating remotely whilst working from home or applying for their job online.

It’s also a shift that could be coming to volunteering. Yes, that’s right, technology replacing volunteers! This is something I touched on last year when I discussed autonomous vehicles and volunteer drivers, but since then other examples have appeared.

Consider the announcement in February 2020 that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed an ‘text generating system’ that can accurately and effectively update content on Wikipedia. The AI even ensures the grammar and style of the text it adds matches what was there before. It’s not a stretch to think that before long thousands of volunteer Wikipedia editors will no longer being needed.

It’s also worth reflecting on the UK government’s investment in technology to transform the care system. Reporting on this in 2019, CNBC stated:

“The scheme, backed by funding of £33.9 million across five years, could result in the development of sophisticated “care robots” which would be deployed to assist the elderly. Actions that could potentially be taken by such robots include helping people up after a fall, making sure medication is taken, and delivering meals.” – CNBC, October 2019

In a world more aware than ever of the risks of disease transmission from human contact and where people in care have been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s not difficult to see volunteers in the care system being replaced by so called ‘care robots’.

If all that seems a little far fetched, just think about the growing use of drones for household deliveries. This could be used right now to replace the work of volunteers who delivered food and medicine to vulnerable people during the pandemic lockdown earlier in the year.

“The drone company Manna Aero, which began fulfilling takeout orders in Dublin at the end of March, also got permission from Ireland’s aviation authorities for a trial to deliver prescription medications to elderly and immunocompromised people in early April” – Slate.com, April 2020

Given how important and high profile such volunteer roles have been this year, the introduction of current drone technology could be transformative in the development of post-pandemic volunteering.

You may now be thinking something like, “OK, I get it, but our organisations need volunteers, they are fundamental to our work, we can’t just replace them with technology”. I agree, but consider:

  1. Organisations generally don’t exist to give people an opportunity to volunteer. They exist to fulfil a mission. If they can do that in a different and potentially more effective (and cheaper?) way then why not embrace technology?
  2. During lockdown, some organisations that previously proclaimed they couldn’t do their work without volunteers stopped all volunteering. That’s right, volunteers were so integral to the work that they could all stop whilst the organisation kept on going! In that context why wouldn’t a different way of doing things be considered?

Put it all together and I have to ask, if we faced another global pandemic in ten years time, would volunteers be as needed as they were in 2020, or would technology have replaced them? Will it even be ten years and need a global crisis – is technology coming for our volunteers sooner than we think?

3 thoughts on “Technology and the changing role of volunteers

  1. This blog is provocative and I LOVE IT.

    If organizations think of volunteers only as cost-saving free labor, if they value volunteers only per the dollar / pound / Euro value each hour of service gets assigned and that’s how the report volunteer success then, indeed, replacing as many of volunteers as possible with tech makes absolute sense!

    If organizations think of volunteers as an essential part of community engagement, of giving a diversity of people first-hand looks at what the organization does, so that the organization cultivates understanding, awareness and, probably, donations, if they talk about their value in terms of the awareness and understanding achieved, and how that volunteer engagement contributes to the agency’s mission, then there will always be a place for human volunteers.

    Perhaps what this seismic shift will do is, at last, create a much better way to think about why we need volunteers?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great, thought provoking post, Rob with so much to consider. Will volunteers be replaced by automation and if this is true, what does this say about where volunteer roles land on the organizational hierarchy? Low level? And where does that leave the volunteer manager profession? Replaced by AI technicians? Or, in a parallel scenario, as automation overtakes jobs, will displaced workers be encouraged to volunteer while receiving basic income? Can we position ourselves to weather whatever changes are coming?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great article Rob! It makes me think adaptability is the reality, whatever direction the future may hold. I think if we are able to balance an embrace for technology as well as a recognition that human volunteers bring with them unique ideas and insights, community connections and spirit that robotics will not be able to replace, our organizations will adapt along the way to ensure mission delivery continues with both volunteers and technology. I see our roles as being central to balancing this combination and using it to help enhance our organization’s capacity and that of volunteers.

      Like

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