Projects Abroad Volunteering as Crowdsourcing?

Interesting take on volunteering, nice essay from the folks at Projects Abroad – thanks Will for sending over.

Projects Abroad Volunteering as Crowdsourcing, By Thomas Pastorius

The most famous example of Crowdsourcing is Wikipedia.  By accepting the input from random web surfers, Wikipedia has built an Encyclopedia that rivals Britannica.  Less famous, but more important, has been crowdsourcing’s impact on computer programming.  Open Source programs like Firefox and Linux, which were created and tested primarily by amateur volunteers in their free time, have changed the business models of Microsoft and Cisco.

Crowdsourcing is about more than just computers: it’s about using groups of amateurs to solve a problem.  In fact, crowdsourcing is the very same concept that Projects Abroad uses in setting up its self-funded service projects.  Like the makers of Wikipedia and Firefox, Projects Abroad defines projects and creates the infrastructure that enables motivated amateur volunteers to do their work.  By collecting and focusing the group’s efforts, Projects Abroad creates effective solutions at a fraction of the cost of traditional international development agencies.

Self-funded volunteering is changing the way that we think of international service work, just as open source software is changing the computer business.  We’re both bringing down costs, involving a broader community of people, and creating a generation with real connections to a project that is bigger than any individual.  As with most changes, some groups stand to lose in the revolution, and those groups will naturally fight against it.  For example, Microsoft complains that Open Source programming does not produce quality products, that it exploits the contributions of individuals, and that it has a higher failure rate than other software endeavors.  In the same way, traditional development charities and aid organizations complain about the quality and values of self-funded volunteering.

Contrary to their claims, the results speak for themselves.  To start, take just the economic benefits of Projects Abroad: our 5,500 volunteers will create over $45 million of local expenditure in 2009 alone.  Since this expenditure is not touristic or administrative, but is used mainly on locally provided services, a significantly higher than average multiplier effect should also be expected.

Moreover, the service work provided by our volunteers is well received.  In fact, this week Dr. Peter Slowe, Founder and President of Projects Abroad, is presenting at the Conference on Tourism and the Third Sector in Neuchatel, Switzerland on this very topic.  Dr. Slowe’s research indicates that 70% of our placements view the impact of our volunteers’ work as either “positive” or “strongly positive,” while only 11% considered it “negative” or “strongly negative.”

I believe that the 2000s will be remembered as the time when we discovered, as one of my idols James Surowiecki called it, The Wisdom of Crowds.  We discovered that a group of motivated amateurs, when organized into the right structure, can effect enormous positive change and create innovative new solutions.  Projects Abroad is an important part of this movement because it brings the power of crowdsourcing out of the computing world and into – not just the real world but – the parts of the real world that need it most.


One thought on “Projects Abroad Volunteering as Crowdsourcing?

  1. I actually read Projects Abroad Blog posts. I’m a subscriber of their Blog because I like the posts. And obviously I think they do good work. I’ve commented on a couple of the posts in the past.

    I do take issue with Projects Abroad full tilt on crowdsourcing. I’m more in the Andrew Keen camp based on his book, The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.

    From user-generated media (and that’s why I also counter-contend) that Wikipedia is absolutely NOT a rival to Encyclopedia Britannica as mentioned in Projects Abroad’s recent post. I don’t allow my children to submit their homework based on ANYTHING from Wikipedia just as I would not allow a group of amateurs to direct a volunteer project from start to finish without the in-country professionals who are actually there 24/7, 365 days a year.

    What I do agree with and support 100% is the notion of self-funded volunteer projects, which also can occur without crowdsourcing. It is very clear, unlike the Blog post you had here a few days ago about AK’s notion of philanthropy, that it isn’t only the work that gets done, it is the money that is left behind being spent by volunteers, invested in the community and local area and therefore helps more than a single projects…it has the potential of helping hundreds of people. In this, Projects Abroad is right on target and I thank them for eloquently making this point.

    Randy LeGrant

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