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How You Can Be a Hero From Your Own Desk

CHICAGO ( MainStreet) -- We all have a "should do" list, consisting of everything from home repairs to calling mom more often. Many of us put volunteering somewhere on that list: We know we should be giving back in some way, and we want to do it, but who has the time? When you're running your own business, it's easy to shy away from nonwork commitments.

But just as the business world has been transformed by changes in technology, volunteer opportunities have changed as well. While being a volunteer once meant signing up for a set number of hours delivering Meals on Wheels or tutoring struggling students after school, it now encompasses work you can do from your own home office, on your own time. Volunteer work can be thought of as a project, rather than a regularly scheduled appointment.

The United Nations runs an online volunteer program that matches volunteers with development projects around the world, part of a new wave of "virtual volunteerism."

Lee Sproull, professor emerita at New York University's Stern School of Business, has studied and written about the rise of "virtual volunteerism," the ways in which the nature of volunteering has adapted to a wired world. Amid all the horror stories about Facebook bullying and the dangers of online porn, Sproull's work is a reminder of all the good Internet communication can facilitate.

Sproull's interest in the topic began when she conducted a study of email use in large corporations. "I was struck by the fact that employees were being so helpful to each other," she says. "A person would send out a question to the office, and co-workers would chime in with advice and suggestions. They were taking time out of their own work to do it, even though this wasn't going to end up on anyone's performance review. I've been fascinated by the phenomenon ever since."

Big Business Hugs Small to Help Themselves

From the very beginning, the Internet has fostered this sort of pro-social behavior -- that is, behavior intended to help someone other than yourself. The Internet's predecessor, Arpanet, was built in part so researchers could collaborate virtually, posting questions and getting answers from people they had never met. Today, that same pro-social impulse continues on numerous Web sites, from Amazon's (AMZN) product reviews to online medical support groups to open-source software collaborations. Everywhere, people are giving up their own time, for no pay, to help out strangers.

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