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.

Over the past decade, a number of programs have sprung up to channel that desire to help into specific volunteer roles. "We can create opportunities online that would have been impossible before," Sproull says. "We can connect volunteers around the world with community development projects in Africa that need specific expertise they're not going to find on the ground."

For These Businesses, Profit Isn't Sole Goal

The plus for volunteers is that their work can be done anywhere, at any time --no plane flights required. Think of it as the nonprofit version of outsourcing: A volunteer with accounting experience can review financial documents over a few evenings at home; another volunteer with Web design skills can be brought in to overhaul a Web site. Rather than signing up for a set number of hours indefinitely, the volunteer can work on a project-to-project basis, giving as much or as little time as their schedule permits.

The United Nations, for example, runs an online volunteer program that matches volunteers with development projects around the world. Recent in-demand skills included writing and editing; graphic and website design; IT development; and project management.

Another initiative is the Business Council for Peace, which supports small entrepreneurs in conflict-affected countries. While cash contributions are vital to the group's work, volunteers can also sign up to share their expertise. The group runs on a membership model; you pay a set fee per month ($15 to $50), which gives you access to volunteer opportunities; you also have a chance to meet sponsored entrepreneurs when they travel to the U.S. for further training.

In addition to donating your time or specialized skills, you can also donate a resource most businesses take for granted: computing power. The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (known as BOINC) allows researchers to access the processing power of personal computers around the world; download the software, and it puts your computer to work on a particular project when you're not using it. Both public and private research projects from around the world are posted on the site, from climate studies to astronomy research.

Of course, if you believe good works should start at home, the Internet also makes it easy to find specific volunteer projects in your community. Visit volunteermatch.org, and you can get a list of needs customized to your ZIP code. The tough economic times have hit nonprofits particularly hard, and most are willing to work with individuals to craft flexible volunteer opportunities.

Small Businesses Can Make Big Difference

Private businesses and nonprofits depend on the same human capital to stay afloat. The skills an entrepreneur has honed by starting a business can also make life better for those less fortunate -- down the street or halfway around the world.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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