The Extraordinaries: Will Microvolunteering Work?

Doing Good-Dot-Org

The microvolunteering movement aims to convince those with big hearts and little time to use their spare moments for the common good. The idea is among a slew of do-good efforts popping up on the Web, including:

The Extraordinaries

Kiva.org

DonorsChoose.org

GlobalGiving

Causecast

Amazee

Got five minutes? Got a cell phone? Want to do good?

The Extraordinaries can help. It's one of a number of newly hatched social-media enterprises that champion speedy cooperation. Here is the 30-second elevator pitch: The Extraordinaries delivers microvolunteer opportunities to mobile phones that can be done on-demand and on-the-spot.

Shazzam! Charity meets brevity. Crowdsourcing for the common good. Turning ADD into AID.

Through The Extraordinaries, you might be able to use your smart phone — while waiting in the dentist's office or standing in the DMV line — to:

• translate a foreign-language document into English

• add identifying tags to photos and videos for a museum

• give advice to a college applicant

During your lunch break you could snap a picture of a pothole that needs patching and zap it to the proper authorities. You could report a dying elm to the parks-and-recreation department or spot a rare woodpecker for the Audubon Society.

"This is an organization that changes the paradigm," says Jacob Colker, 26, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Extraordinaries. "We hope people might look differently at that ride on the bus and not just play video games."

Micro Planet

Fresh off the drawing board, The Extraordinaries is part of a new movement that combines tiny technology and huge social goals. The jury is still out on whether these sites will have large, and long-lasting, effects. But the microvolunteerism movement is undeniable.

It's all part of the micro world. What began with microscopes and microbiology has morphed into microeverything: microchips, microhousing, microjobs. And now: microvolunteerism.

Kiva.org, a microlending site, allows people to easily lend money to the working poor. So far, some 520,000 people have loaned more than $80 million to people in 184 countries, according to Kiva's reports. Using PayPal or a credit card, a visitor to the Kiva Web site can loan a struggling entrepreneur in a developing country $25 or more. The site says the money is usually paid back within a year. Other microlending sites include DonorsChoose and GlobalGiving.

New cause-oriented sites, such as Causecast, which helps people find causes to support, and Amazee, which showcases various social-advocacy projects, are popping up on the Internet all the time.

An Experiment

Like many of the new do-gooder sites, The Extraordinaries' vision of microvolunteerism is only in the experimental stage. And there are plenty of potential pitfalls.

First of all, the idea is based on getting unfocused and time-strapped people to focus and spend some time working together.

Second, digital crowdsourcing — a public call to accomplish a task or solve a problem using networking technology — is still in its infancy. There have been some successes. MoveOn.org and Barack Obama's presidential campaign used crowdsourcing to mobilize — and monetize — support. FamilySearch Indexing, a project of the Mormon church, allows thousands of volunteers worldwide to index millions of genealogy records.

One of the oft-cited crowdsourcing successes is Wikipedia, a global encyclopedia assembled by gazillions of users covering gazillions of subjects. But with Wikipedia, as with many crowdsourcing endeavors — including The Extraordinaries — there are inevitable questions of authenticity and effectiveness.

Allison Fine, who blogs about social media, writes this about microvolunteering: "It is quite possible that we will become frantically busy doing a lot of change stuff that does make the doers feel great — which is important — but doesn't add up to the systemic social change needed in communities. Does busy mean the same thing as impact?"

Third, some hot tech ideas make a huge ker-splash on the front end but don't last for the long haul. The Extraordinaries could be just a flashmob in the pan.

Pats On The Back

Still, the idea has captured the imagination of the philanthropic world. Just this year, The Extraordinaries Web site has copped a number of awards, including a $60,000 two-year fellowship from Echoing Green, a nonprofit group that gives grants to social entrepreneurial organizations; a United Nations World Summit Youth Award; and a $249,000 one-year John S. and James L. Knight Foundation community grant.

"Our selection committee was impressed with the novel innovation of microvolunteering, and felt like Jacob has the skills, passion and credibility to make this happen," says Lara Galinsky of Echoing Green.

Gary Kebbel of the Knight Foundation says, "We think smart phone apps for quick charitable acts are a great way to bring people together around a common purpose and also to improve aspects of life in that community."

The site also has an impressive handful of endorsements. "It's a stellar example of using technology for social good," says Jay Aldous, chief marketing and communications officer for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.

For Colker, the idea of spare-moment do-gooding is "transformative." He takes the long view of short attention spans.

According to Colker and Ben Rigby, also a co-founder, it's sometimes hard for people to find the right organizations to volunteer for, and it can be equally hard for organizations to capitalize on the various skills that volunteers bring to the table.

So far, some 600 users have downloaded The Extraordinaries smart phone application. "These are the early beta testers," says Rigby, 36. "We plan to market it more widely once we learn what does and does not work."

Using the software, a volunteer can record an audio version of a book — a few minutes at a time — for an organization that distributes audio books to the disabled. Or record a personal testimony to be used by the marketing arm of a nonprofit group. Colker and Rigby expect users to volunteer for charity organizations, nonprofit cultural groups and various social enterprises.

'The Warm Fuzzy Feeling Of Doing Good'

Not a nonprofit, The Extraordinaries is in the process of becoming a B Corp., a social entrepreneurial enterprise. The company plans to make money by charging organizations a per-task fee.

Other obstacles exist. Organizations aren't accustomed to accomplishing tasks through crowdsourcing. And there are just some volunteering opportunities that don't lend themselves to smart phone apps: donating blood, for instance, or making a sandwich for the homeless.

But microvolunteerism, Colker says, "is perfectly suited for the Millennial Generation. They are used to text messaging, MySpace, Facebook, get-in, get-out, instant gratification. For them, going out and cleaning up a park — that's not necessarily attractive to them. As we introduce them to the warm fuzzy feeling of doing good, that will increase awareness."

And, Rigby adds, "We're offering another, complementary avenue to giving back."

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