Published: Sept. 19, 2021

Virtual volunteers help organizations make social impact through the use of online volunteering platforms, scarcely studied until now.

Gloria Urrea Wins Best Humanitarian Paper AwardAfter decades under the radar, the practice of online volunteering really hit its stride with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before COVID, most people thought of volunteering as giving their time to soup kitchens or animal shelters. But with the pandemic’s restrictions of in-person activities, many turned to online volunteering platforms of humanitarian organizations (HOs) to help with sustainable development challenges around the world.

Until recently, there had been little tracking of best practices with these online platforms. But Gloria Urrea, an assistant professor of operations management at the Leeds School of Business, saw a need to explore how HOs manage great variation in volunteers’ amount of experience with volunteering platforms.

Her research paper, “The Role of Volunteer Experience on Performance on Online Volunteering Platforms,” recently won the 2021 POMS Humanitarian Operations and Crisis Management (HOCM) Best Paper Award Competition.

“I am very honored and grateful to have received this award,” said Urrea, who co-authored the study with Eunae Yoo of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. “I feel it is a recognition of a project that is motivated by a real and relevant problem, developed in a rigorous manner and that proposes realistic practical recommendations for organizations.”

"It is recognition of a project that is motivated by a real and relevant problem.”

Gloria Urrea, Leeds Assistant Professor

Specifically, they investigated the role of volunteers’ experience with the online platform, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team Tasking Manager, and how it impacts project completion rates and volunteer retention. They found that completion rates increased when a volunteer’s experience level matched a project’s priority level. Furthermore, they found that volunteers were more likely to continue volunteering if they felt incentivized to reach the next experience level.

“Something that I have really liked about this project is that we have had the opportunity to collaborate very closely with the online platform, sharing our findings with them and talking about future collaboration,” said Urrea. “They found our research informative and published a blog post about our findings.”

She pointed out that the study’s increased visibility from the award will allow more HOs and online platforms to benefit from their recommendations.

At Leeds, Urrea studies operations of HOs whose mission is to alleviate human suffering and improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable populations. Her research focuses on how organizations can manage the donations required to perform their work and how they can make their operations more efficient.