An international report on volunteerism says that while involvement by young people in formal organizations is declining, there appears to be a shift to less structured forms of engagement.
The internet and a rapidly growing range of technology have paved the way.
Volunteers can use technology to track food insecurity, monitor violent conflict and provide early warning of impending disasters, said the United Nations State of the World's Volunteerism report. Volunteer health workers in developing countries even send text messages to report symptoms of illness and disease.
"Online volunteering, online activism through social media, and micro-volunteering are fast growing trends," the report said.
The first-of-its-kind report by the UN was launched Monday in cities around the globe.
Digital divide may exclude some
Ruth MacKenzie, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, said her organization has seen a real interest in virtual volunteering opportunities.
"But the other side of the coin we've seen is that few organizations are really looking to engage volunteers that way," she said in an interview from Ottawa.
At the website getinvolved.ca, she said about 80 per cent of individuals posting interest in volunteering are looking for virtual opportunities versus about 20 per cent of organizations looking for volunteers in a virtual setting.
"So it's a real growth area."
Organizations that are among those leading the way include the Canadian International Learning Foundation, TakingITGlobal and Apathy is Boring, which uses music and technology to engage young people in the democratic process, MacKenzie said.
'We want to make sure we're engaging people' —Ruth MacKenzie, CEO Volunteer Canada
But there are a few concerns about the online trend cited in the international report, including that "the digital divide may further exclude people with limited access to technology and that benefits are not as accessible in low-income countries."
Some observers also worry that mobile technology has made volunteerism more impersonal by discouraging face-to-face interaction.
"It's something to be watchful about," MacKenzie said.
"These are things that we're seeing anecdotally and we probably need to have an environment where there's a bit more evidence-based research in Canada to help answer some of these questions, and examine them into the future...
"Stepping away from that face-to-face engagement creates an environment where volunteerism engagement is more individualized and we want to make sure we're engaging people in causes in a way that works for them as individuals but also meets the needs of organizations, that those two needs are on an equal footing."
Rise in volunteer tourism
Young people are finding that some of the traditional structures and forms of engagement of organizations don't resonate with them anymore, she noted.
But the UN report said organizations such as Sparked.com offer online volunteering opportunities which last from 10 minutes to an hour. Distance and restrictions on mobility are no longer impediments.
"Online volunteering may allow people to overcome social inhibitions, and social anxiety, particularly if they would normally experience disability-related labelling or stereotyping," the report stated. "This empowers people who might not otherwise volunteer. It can build self-confidence and self-esteem while enhancing skills and extending networks and social ties."
Technology is just one facet of the weighty report, which also points to a rise in volunteering tourism and increased involvement by the private sector — a sense of corporate social responsibility — in contributing to human development. It notes that volunteerism is an effective way to implement community-led strategies, which could help UN member states meet Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
Reimbursement of expenses and some payments may be justified for volunteers, it said.
And the report challenges the view that gross domestic product provides an adequate picture of a society. UNV executive co-ordinator Flavia Pansieri said new methods are needed to measure progress.
"Measures of individual and social attainment also need to be considered along with environmental sustainability," she said in a statement.
"Values like participation, engagement and inclusion are all needed to promote the well-being of individuals and society."
The report also urged each country to assign a single public body to be responsible for measuring volunteering instead of relying on sector by sector counting.
MacKenzie said a fuller picture of volunteerism in Canada will be available within a few weeks when a new survey on giving, volunteering and participating is released.