The long tail of volunteering

When Clay Shirky, social media guru, talked about power law distribution, he demonstrated how equal access to participate in an activity almost always resulted in an unequal range of partipation. Some participants were active, while others (usually the vast majority) were a lot less active.

“Anything that increases our ability to share, coordinate or act increases our freedom to pursue our goals in congress with one another. Never have so many people been so free to say and do so many things with so many other people. The freedom driving mass participation removes the technological obstacles to participation. Given that everyone now has the tools to contribute equally, you might expect a huge increase in equality of participation. You’d be wrong.” (p.122-123)

After this quote taken from his book ‘Here Comes Everybody‘, Shirky used examples from popular social media websites such as Flickr and Wikipedia. He observed that frequently, you see approximately 20% of the participants delivering 80% of the total value produced, whether that’s a Wikipedia entry and a set of photos of Flickr tagged with the same word.

long tail
Taken from Clay Shirky’s article, Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality

Figure #1: 433 weblogs arranged in rank order by number of inbound links.
The data is drawn from N.Z Bear’s 2002 work on the blogosphere ecosystem.
The current version of this project can now be found at


Chris Anderson referred to this in his oft-quoted book called ‘The Long Tail‘. He pointed out that the web without the physical constraints of the real world could extract much more value from the 20% of participants. Amongst many others, he used the example of Amazon that was able to make money selling a huge volume of titles that individually sold few copies, but in aggregate added up to a considerable income. Traditional bookshops limited by how many titles they could stock, by necessity had to focus on the most popular titles and neglect the less popular. Amazon with its network of virtual stock had none of these constraints.

Two groups of volunteers

I’m really interested in how we can apply this thinking to volunteering with an online dimension. When I checked my own stats on the level of participation of online volunteer peer advisors in a programme I used to manage, I found an interesting result. Online peer advisors answer questions submitted online via askTheSite – a question and answer service for 16-25 year olds.

long tail peer advisors

Sure enough when I plotted how many answers each volunteer had written to users over the course of a year the long tail effect was clear to see. In fact, the long tail underlined the two distinct groups of peer advisors. There was a group that was incredibly active, and roughly 20% of the peer advisors almost accounted for 80% of the answers over the given year. There was another group though of many more volunteers who had been relatively less active.

The point that is interesting for volunteer managers to contemplate is how to support and engage with these two very different groups. One group that is more engaged in many ways requires a different kind of support. For example, frequently they’re looking for progress further in the role, more advanced training and ways to more intensively network with their peers. However, those who are less engaged often required a very different approach to support. For example, they wanted flexibility in how they could commit, along with a low barrier to being able to contribute meaningfully to the project.

Holy grail of volunteerism

On reflection, it hit me how the new opportunities presented by social media are stretching volunteer managers in two different directions. We’re being stretched by the increasing variation in the way volunteers can now participate, particularly online, in our projects. Stretched between the smaller group of more intense participants and the larger group of more flexible participants. In the past, a favourite question of volunteer managers was: how many volunteers can a volunteer manager manage? It’s almost the holy grail of volunteerism. Finding the balance between the needs of the project and the needs of volunteers has been a volunteer manager’s primary tightrope walk.

It’s all wrapped up in the broader challenge any volunteer manager has of finding the sweet spot between the stakeholders: service user, volunteer and host organisation. In simple terms, it’s about ensuring that there is enough volunteer capacity to deliver what the project requires, while at the same timemeeting the support needs of the volunteers involved.

Are we taking sufficient advantage of this long tail in volunteering? I think we’ve only just scratched the surface.

Volunteering and participation

If all volunteering activity could be plotted on a graph, I wouldn’t be surprised if it demonstrated the contribution of a kind of volunteering that is often labelled as being participation rather than full blown volunteering, e.g. taking part in a survey, consultation, commenting on a website, posting on a blog, etc. Despite the adhoc nature and short duration of many participation activities, in aggregate it’s likely that they make a surprisingly significant contribution to the work of charities and not for profit organisations.

Are volunteer managers creating enough of these kind of these online roles that can scale, so that the larger more flexible group can meet their potential?

Do volunteer managers understand how those participating and engaging in their work can be converted in more active volunteers?


About Patrick Daniels

I work for Resolution as Operations Manager.

2 thoughts on “The long tail of volunteering

  1. Dear Patric, I try to transfer your thoughts about the long tail of volunteering to the German work and managing of volunteers. Can you perhaps send me more stuff about your studies in the field?!Thanks a lot and best regardsHannes Jähnert

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