Online Volunteering during the Pandemic

by Bruce Zanin, Brussels UU Fellowship (BUUF)

I count fish.

As I watch, the fish swim upstream and I count. Sometimes there are just one or two, other times hundreds. What the heck? I’m participating in a citizen’s science project online. With the pandemic, and given my too-busy work demands, it is hard to fulfill my UU commitment to service. I have found a few opportunities online that you might want to check out.

The fish counting is part of the Mystic River Watershed Association river herring count. I’ve never seen the Mystic River in New England and didn’t know that every spring, herring migrate upriver to spawn. But I can watch a handful of videos in 10 minutes (they’ve got a motion-sensing camera in the river) and count fish. Last season (the 2021 season starts in May), I counted over 8,000 fish in 560 videos and was the 24th most prolific counter out there. Yes, I’m a competitive fish counter.

If you want to look into citizen science projects, go to You have to set up an account, and then there’s a dashboard where you can peruse projects. You can identify the type of project you want (environmental, for example) and how (online) and when (on your lunch breaks). It also has appropriate age groups, so you can find something for the family if you want. A list of projects will come up once you’ve put in your parameters. I’ve found that there are a lot of false leads – old projects, projects that have enough participants, etc. – but if you have enough patience, you can find something that fits. There also are EU-based citizen science projects; the European Commission has a site for them, but I haven’t used it.

Through scistarter, you can get to Smithsonian Institute projects too, or you can go directly to You can help transcribe handwritten notes from field biologists from the 19th century or the notes from the Reconstruction-era Freedmen’s Bureaus. I’ve done both. It takes more effort and is still rewarding.

If science isn’t your thing but you still want to volunteer online, you might try mentoring. One source could be your university alma mater. Often universities try to link graduates to students to help the students envision and create their futures. Another mentoring possibility is through Scholar Match, where mentors are linked to under-served high school students to help them with the (brutal) college entrance process. There is coaching training involved and the program usually opens in the spring to link mentors with students come fall.

So, don’t let the pandemic isolation stop you from some sort of service. There are many virtual projects that need volunteers. I’ve just scratched the surface with the above links. Google “virtual volunteer,” and you’ll find many more. Enjoy!