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Too busy to volunteer? Not if you've got a spare couple minutes

Ben Johnson knows you want to do some good, you just might not want to do it all the time.

As he sees it, most organizations want volunteers to jump right into a long-term relationship, whereas many people would rather start with a first date, or maybe just have a fling.

"There needs to be a way to have a first-time experience," says Mr. Johnson, co-founder of Vancouver-based micro-volunteering website.

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Traditionally, non-profit organizations have asked that volunteers make an open-ended commitment to perform tasks that may not reflect their special skills, which often makes recruitment difficult. Micro-volunteering, however, offers people the chance to do specific tasks they are ideally suited to, and to do so in bite-size chunks.

Most of the tasks posted on Urbantastic require a few hours or a few days work at most, Mr. Johnson says.

Organizations have used the site to recruit help in writing grant proposals, creating websites and even sewing book bags.

Kevan Gilbert, project manager of creative technologies at Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission, used the site to get help on several projects, including a report on technology that would allow donations via texting.

Online outsourcing saves non-profits the trouble of creating positions for volunteers, he says. "They can work in the areas of their specialty from the comfort of their home and still make a huge difference."

Earlier this year, Mike Rowlands was on the Urbantastic website when he saw that New Hope Community Services, a Vancouver-based agency that assists immigrants, was looking for help in how to use software to keep in touch with donors. In particular, the agency wanted to know details about Salesforce.com, a website for customer relationships management.

It was an easy question for Mr. Rowlands, 37, the president of Octopus Strategies, a Vancouver firmthat provides brand, communication and fundraising strategies.

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"I just shed some light on implementations of Salesforce that we've done with clients and shared some best practices," he says. "That's really the nice thing with Urbantastic, you can just jump on and answer a couple of questions and make a contribution that's actually really valuable because it's simply expertise that they don't have in-house."

Or you could make a difference wherever you happen to be, and in less time than a commercial break.

The Extraordinaries, a San Francisco-based organization launched in 2007, is capitalizing on the fact most people have a cell phone to deliver micro-volunteering opportunities to mobile phones.

"People are excited to figure out that they can use two minutes of their spare time to connect with something they're passionate about using their phone or personal computer," says co-founder Jacob Colker.

The site has a tool that lets users tag photos to help a museum catalogue its photo collection, he says, and another tool that collects photographs snapped on a mobile phone or taken with a digital camera.

First Aid Corps, a coalition that is working to improve survival rates of cardiac arrests, is using the Extraordinaries site to build a database of defibrillator locations around the world by asking people to upload pics of defibrillators along with location information.

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Asking people to upload a photo from a cell phone is an ideal way for non-profits to reach out to younger people, says Ruth MacKenzie, president of Volunteer Canada.

"They're strapped for time but they want to contribute. So they want to know that when they go in to an agency or when they work at an agency they've got something very specific to work on and they know the amount of time it's going to take and they know when it's going to be over."

While roughly 46 per cent of Canadians volunteer in one form or another, 11 per cent of those people do about 77 per cent of the volunteer work, she says. "And those people are over the age of 55."

Many non-profits have yet to embrace the new model. "Many of them are still recruiting for the more traditional concepts of volunteering, which is long-term opportunities and people who will make a consistent commitment on a weekly basis and they'll do it for 20 years," says Ms. MacKenzie. "That is the kind of volunteer that is pretty rare these days."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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