Chantelle Cobby has always been passionate about community action, but during her time at Waikato University in Aotearoa-New Zealand, she found it difficult to contribute through traditional volunteering practices. Time constraints, geographical barriers, and limited opportunities often make it difficult for people to engage with their communities in a meaningful way. Through her conversations with other students, Chantelle realised there were plenty of people who were eager to contribute. They just needed a more accessible approach.
Micro-volunteering is a new avenue for community action, which is based on the idea that lots of small actions can collectively create a huge positive impact. It breaks down the barriers to volunteering and allows people to catalyse change through bite-sized activities. In 2019, Chantelle started the Waikato Micro-volunteering Collective, which has already empowered over 1000 people to make a meaningful difference in their communities. Last year, Chantelle also hosted Aotearoa's first nationwide micro-volunteering conference, which was a huge success. In our conversation with Chantelle, we discuss how micro actions can create macro change, how micro-volunteering allows you to tap into your creativity, the relationship between collective and individual wellbeing, and why we need to reframe the way we think about the societal issues we face.
It's such an honour to speak with you Chantelle! Could you start by telling us what micro-volunteering is and how this differs from traditional volunteering practices?
Absolutely. Micro-volunteering is defined as any easy, low cost, no commitment, volunteer action [which] typically takes less than 30 minutes to complete. In recent years, we've seen an increase in this more episodic, periodic way of volunteering. Micro-volunteering takes the idea that [a] huge impact can be created when a group of people unite together to do a little bit of good, [and] it turns that into a new approach to community action. So micro-volunteering is really about making it easier for people to come together, and use their skills, strengths, and creativity to make a meaningful difference in their community.
It's complementary to traditional volunteering; it's not here to replace it. Compared to traditional volunteering, which is normally an ongoing commitment, [micro-volunteering] is more of a 'come along and give five minutes, give ten minutes of your time.' It's here to engage people who can't engage in the traditional ways, or to provide people who do with a new way to contribute to their community.
That's great. Are there any specific barriers to volunteering that this approach is able to overcome?
I would say that time is the main factor. We live in a world where we do a million things, so often [we] just don't have the time to volunteer. Transport and geographical barriers are another major [aspect] that it overcomes, [because] there's no expectation to go into an office or to a particular place. You can do it from anywhere. Micro-volunteering is a 'meet you where you are' volunteering experience.
I think another barrier would be the skill fit between yourself and the foundation you want to work with. Often, with traditional volunteering, it's quite specific. [They're] looking for someone with [a] particular skill set, and if you don't fit it, there may not be a whole lot of opportunities for you to engage. Whereas micro-volunteering is [about] tapping into the skills that you do have.
That's the beauty of micro-volunteering, I guess. Everyone can find or create a place for themselves, it's so inclusive.
Definitely! We had this kid once who was great at graphic design, and he created this 3D Christmas tree that was then gifted to lonely residents in local rest homes. We would never have [approached] someone and been like, "Can you please create a tree?" He came [up] with that idea, he felt connected to that. I think it's so beautiful to bring that [talent] out in a way that, otherwise, [we] probably wouldn't have the opportunity to.
That's awesome. Looking at your own journey, it was during your time at Waikato University that you founded the Waikato micro-volunteering collective. What first led you to micro-volunteering and how did you go about setting up this club?
I've grown up around volunteering. My parents gave very selflessly to the communities that we belonged to, and I found that from age eight or nine I was wanting to get out and volunteer. I've always loved it. But when I went to [university], my time was a lot more limited. I was trying to balance work and study, and I didn't have the transportation options that I did when I was living at home. [Through] talking to others, I found that it wasn't just me that was facing [these barriers]. There were a lot of people around me who were the same: they wanted to engage, they're willing and ready to contribute to a community, but there was just a bit of a gap between what we could offer and what organisations were looking for.
It was actually through Google that I came across the concept of micro-volunteering. I [found] a few other organisations who weren’t necessarily doing micro-volunteering, but [who] had created groups that brought people together in a similar way. I thought, let's give it a go. So I took it to our university clubs day, and we had a couple of hundred people sign up to join us! It was amazing. Every fortnight after that we held an event. So it was just finding the concept and bringing it to life, and people got behind it!
That's so inspiring! What sort of events did you do with the club?
We rotated through a series of fairly regular activities, most of which continue to stick with us today. [One of our] main three activities is creating 'love letters' [which are] placards that are then donated by New Zealand’s incredible Love Letters team to children in hospital, to write their names on the walls and add a splash of colour to their bedrooms, and hopefully bring a little bit of joy to tough, lengthy hospital stays. Another main one is re-purposing old clothing and fabric into toys for animals at the SPCA. The third main activity—my personal favourite—is making cards and postcards for lonely residents at local rest homes. There's so much isolation and loneliness amongst that demographic, so it's a little something to try and help overcome that.
In addition, we'll chuck random [events] in there, in response to things that are happening in the community. Earlier in the year, we had an 'ice cream for breakfast' day, which is [an international event] to raise awareness of childhood cancer. We got together online and ate ice cream and made some love letters and chatted. So we jump on where we can, but otherwise we rotate through those quite regular ones.
I love that idea of re-purposing old clothes into toys for the SPCA. There's such a sustainability aspect to that too, which is really great to see.
Yeah, it's so cool. We had a lady from the SPCA come and talk at a couple of our events, and she said that it saves them money too, because they don't have to go and buy toys. [They] can use that money to help their charity in another way—which was a component I hadn't even thought of. It's just all these little follow-on effects that contribute to more meaningful change.
That's amazing. I just wanted to take a moment to talk about the mental health aspect of micro-volunteering. I really like the idea of looking outward instead of inward to improve your mental wellbeing. I feel like so many self-care practices focus on self reflection and personal analysis—and while there's certainly a place for that, I think there's so much power in channelling your energy into something bigger than yourself. As a micro-volunteer, how do you find this practice contributes to your own wellbeing?
I couldn't agree more. I love it. I think for me personally, purpose is a huge part of my mental wellbeing. When I have a sense of purpose, [of] who I am or what I'm doing, it's just transformational for my wellbeing. I've definitely found that there's no better way to find and experience that sense of purpose, than by using what I love, what I'm good at, and what I care about, in a way that serves others.
I think it really just comes down to those warm fuzzies, you know? [Laughs] Just those warm feelings on the inside, that I don't think you can find anywhere else compared to when you're serving others and helping a community of different people.
Have you seen this playing out for other people in the Waikato collective too?
I can't speak on behalf of everyone else, but definitely anecdotally, we've [been told] how micro-volunteering has created a space for people to come together and share love, feel positivity, and care for others while caring for themselves.
Actually, another random offshoot that we've had reflected back to us a lot, is how people have loved connecting with their creativity. Micro-volunteering really allows for creative activity. I talked before about writing letters and creating art pieces, which is something that, as adults, we just don't do. I don't know the last time I coloured in before I started micro volunteering! [It's] nice for people to practice their creativity, which in itself contributes to wellbeing. Micro-volunteering is creative, it's community, it's the warm fuzzies, it's a sense of purpose.
I love that. Yeah, I think one of the things I struggle with creatively, is that as an adult you have so much freedom, but not enough time or direction. It's like "I want to paint something, but what do I paint? What am I doing it for? What's the point? How will I find the time?" It's just so hard to get started and tap into that part of yourself. It sounds like micro-volunteering can really provide that framework and purpose.
Yeah exactly. Another thing I love about those creative activities is having a whole team of volunteers doing it beside you. It's such a supportive environment.
That actually leads us perfectly into the next topic I wanted to discuss with you, which is collective wellbeing. Volunteering is such a powerful way to connect with and uplift your local community, so I was wondering what you think of the relationship between collective and individual wellbeing?
I think community is everything. We're such social beings, and I think when you're in a room with people who are so diverse, but so united, and so driven by this desire to do good; it just creates this indescribable feeling. [When we] help others, that just naturally feeds back into our individual wellbeing. So it's really a two for one.
A huge part of micro-volunteering, [is that] it's not about connecting individual volunteers to individual organisations, but about bringing a group of people together. A group of people who, in a lot of cases, may not otherwise meet, but [they come] together for [the] shared purpose of enriching the lives of others. When you've got all of these people [together] in a space, wellbeing is naturally uplifted.
One thing that's always fascinated me is how literally every single person on the planet has a unique set of experiences, a unique set of skills and strengths. When we each figure out how to tap into that, and use that to advance the lives of others in some way, that's when we collectively flourish.
That's so powerful, thank you. Earlier this year, you hosted Aotearoa's first micro-volunteering conference. Congratulations on that! How did it go?
[It was] such a cool experience! We had eight [online] sessions throughout the day, and we had people that would come for one or maybe two; then we had others that stayed for the whole day. Regardless, every session was just this chance to bring people together from all around the country. It was fascinating how people actively chose to spend their day in a room with people they [hadn't] met, doing something that they're probably a little bit unfamiliar with, but [they] wanted to be there to help others and to serve their community.
I think being online—which we've had to be so often, in the past couple of years—can be so disconnecting. But in this case, to open up the chat box and see the messages come through from way up north to way down south, and to think [that] we're all here at the same time doing something kind for each of our communities, it was wonderful.
I'm so glad it was so successful. What sort of sessions did you host?
We started the day with yoga because—classic thing, you know—you gotta serve yourself before you serve others [laughs]. So we had a quick yoga session to set ourselves up for the day, and then just did a bit of an exploration of what micro-volunteering is all about. We did all of the activities that I mentioned earlier, making cards for lonely residents and local rest homes, making art pieces for children in hospital, and making toys for animals at the SPCA.
One of the most powerful sessions was a sign language class. If you're out in the community and trying to communicate with someone who can't hear, but you're able to use a bit of sign language to help out, that's an act of service in itself. It was incredible to be in a room completely silent, but you look at the screens and everyone's doing the same sign language together. It was beautiful.
Wow, that must have felt so special.
Yeah, it really did. We also had the Cancer Society come and do a session. They couldn't do their Relay for Life campaign because of [COVID-19], but part of that [event] is that at the end they light candles. So, we decorated candle bags and had a virtual remembrance ceremony, and encouraged everyone to light their lights in the window at the end of the day. Then we finished it all off with a baking session, an at-home bake-along. We had Alby Hailes, who won The Great Kiwi Bake Off, show us how to bake a cake. Then we encouraged everyone to donate their baking to a friend or a cause or something like that.
Oh, that's so nice. I see that you have worked closely with both the SPCA and the Cancer Society. Do you think charities are harnessing the potential of micro-volunteering?
Yeah, they're starting to!
It's still a relatively new practice in terms of public knowledge, right?
Yeah definitely, it's still a somewhat new concept. In my experience it's a 50/50 split. I 've talked to people who are like, "yes, I have heard of micro-volunteering, and I love the concept" or "I have never heard of it, I didn't even know it existed." I'm definitely starting to have more conversations with charities who are keen to learn about it, keen to figure out how they can integrate it within their volunteering. The Cancer Society is a great example. They recently wrapped up a ‘31-days of micro-volunteering’ campaign, [which] we were so excited to be able to support them with. In the lead up to Daffodil Day, they set different challenges. It was like: get your kids to do a chore and pay them $1 [to] then have donated, or collect up scarves and beanies and donate [them] to your local cancer society.
That's so great to hear. Do you think that we will see more of that in the future?
I work for a charity, and our CEO is amazing and wants to have conversations all the time to figure out how to micro-volunteer. So I think that's the direction that we're heading. I [see] it naturally becoming part of an organisation's suite of opportunities. Not to replace traditional volunteering, but to allow individuals to connect with their organisation in a new way, to mobilise their community of supporters, and empower their community to contribute in ways that they couldn't before. For the organisation itself, it also allows them to tap into the diverse perspectives of people that they may not otherwise be able to connect with, and expand that tribe of people who are advocating for the work that they do.
It just takes a little bit of a re-shift, a reframing of the mind [over] how volunteering has always been done. It [requires] encouraging parties to have a look and see what can be redefined and turned into a micro-volunteering action.
Is that mindset shift one of the biggest challenges facing micro-volunteering?
Definitely, I think that's probably the main challenge. It [means] taking bigger pieces of work, and just breaking that down into smaller pieces. I think the challenge there is that it's not always easy to see, or connect that significance. When we look at a big issue, like isolation and loneliness, [we think] how are we ever going to overcome that? [But] it's just about figuring out that, actually, if we pull it apart, and really break it down, everyone can [do] complementary things. Writing letters to rest homes is a way for us to play a very small role in addressing the big issue. It is only a small action, but for a lonely resident, it's a big action. It can make their world a better place.
If we want these micro moments to make a significant difference, it'll take an ecosystem effort. It involves building that ecosystem, [growing] that awareness, getting people to redefine it, getting people to collaborate in ways that we haven't before. It's [about] figuring out how we can inject small actions to make a big difference.
Honestly, I think that mindset shift is something so powerful within itself. Even just from my own point of view, when I was younger, I was always on this big, "I'll save the world!" buzz, thinking I'd be able to single-handedly end poverty and climate change or something [laughs]. But then the more you learn, the more insurmountable these problems feel, because they are just larger than life. So I think the mindset shift that micro-volunteering requires will be such a powerful direction for society to take, because you realise that a simple action can be a whole world shift for another person.
Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. I think one of my favourite things about micro-volunteering is, like you said, we live in a world that is so overwhelming. There are so many issues, and it's crazy. But for micro-volunteering to be able to break them down and, I guess, give people a sense of control, show them the power of their actions, show them how they can catalyse change even in the tiniest way, it will build some confidence in facing these massive, insane issues.
I like what you said earlier, about how social change takes an ecosystem effort, and I think micro-volunteering really encourages that idea of collective thinking. To finish us off, can you tell us how people can find opportunities to micro-volunteer?
It's a little bit of everything, to be honest. I think there is always an opportunity if someone wants to get involved. In the case of the 'love letter' [placards] for kids [in] hospitals, that was actually created by a woman whose son had been in hospital. She wanted to make some art for him to go on his wall, and then it went from there. That's a case of one person seeing an issue or something that [they] want to help with, and then using micro-volunteering.
[If] there's something that you care about, chances are [a volunteering community already exists] that you can join, or you can create a micro-volunteering activity in and of itself. There's also global opportunities, there's a lot of app-based and online [options]. I think the most prominent global one is an app called Be My Eyes [where] you can connect with a blind person and help them read a medication bottle, or read a set of instructions or something like that. Otherwise, there are spaces like what our collective tries to create, hosting events, campaigns and opportunities for people to come together, connect with others and engage with their community.