Ideas on How to Engage Volunteers… in an Ongoing Pandemic
By F. Duke Haddad
Because of the nature of the pandemic, the ways volunteers are used and engaged have changed dramatically throughout the months. How volunteers are identified, recruited, trained and employed is different than it was just one year ago. Nonprofits need volunteers, and they are scrambling to find unique ways to find a population wanting to serve yet unwilling to expose themselves to COVID-19.
Sterling Volunteers provided a blog about volunteer engagement amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It noted that many nonprofits had to reduce or eliminate services because of the pandemic. The nonprofit environment is complex because the demands for services like meal deliveries, financial assistance and workforce-readiness programs have increased. Many organizations have changed their operation mode from in-person to virtual and have lost significant numbers of volunteers.
An example of one survey, sent to more than 1,000 volunteers showed that 85% of volunteers were afraid of getting ill or exposing others, 50% of volunteers still wanted to help in person and 45% of volunteers wanted to volunteer virtually. Organizations are currently adjusting practices, planning for workforce shortages, engaging new volunteers in existing roles, developing new volunteer opportunities, adjusting training to online models with virtual check-ins, virtual potlucks, videos and other creative ideas.
sgENGAGE established virtual volunteer mobilization strategies that can solve nonprofit challenges during the pandemic. General guidelines on how to approach new volunteer strategies include determining the problem, think like a political organizer and consider tying in a fundraising ask. With respect to assisting food banks, for example, volunteers can host Zoom calls to write letters, send emails and make scripted calls to others who can assist.
Volunteers can also create a phone bank of volunteers to ask supporters to help and call those in need to see what services are warranted. They can facilitate a virtual gathering for supporters to make masks and other items for distribution. Volunteers can host fitness events plus solidarity walk/run/rides with supporters. Interested friends and supporters can host webinars about best practices and ways to help those who need your organizational services.
Candid suggests that you recognize all your volunteers in various ways during this period. Have staff and volunteers call, mail, email and provide messages of inspiration and support to others. Provide tickets to volunteers, food vouchers and little tokens of appreciation. Post images of supporters and messages highlighting their impact on your mission. Let others know about this important information. Have someone write a statement or make oral comments about the importance of your mission and use this in your communications. Always highlight your volunteers during special events and feature them on your organizational advertisements.
An example of how nonprofits are using volunteers during the pandemic include Together We Rise. This organization hosts events in offices, churches, houses and different locations. It encourages individuals to decorate duffle bags, build bikes, build skateboards and create birthday and superhero boxes. Another example is the Million Meal Movement. Small groups of 25 volunteers or less pack meals for 90 minutes at a time. They follow strict social distancing guidelines. The food is sent to meet the growing hunger needs of individuals in communities affected by COVID-19.
In Oregon, Metropolitan Family Service is running a tax preparation service through a virtual tax-assistance center. Tax preparation is done over the phone to help low income wage earners. A reading mentorship program is using adult mentors to help kids learn to read. Story time videos are distributed through new distance-learning software. Buddy programs are being tested for older people and a variety of virtual volunteer programs are being developed.
The Indiana Division of The Salvation Army has continued to think out of the box with respect to volunteers during this time. A Salvation Army canteen traveled across Central Indiana to visit volunteers. The Salvation Army staff would socially distance and talk to volunteers, plus give them bags filled with appreciation gifts.
The annual Coats for Kids drive, usually a walk-up event, turned into a drive-through event this year where kids received a new coat at their car. Volunteers who wanted to work in person could work in very small groups with masks. Other events included having varied tasks that also involved distributing bags filled with essential items. Volunteer meetings were changed and ranged from exclusively Zoom meetings to a combination of Zoom and in-person meetings over time.
The Jewish Family Service in Denver, Colorado, encouraged volunteers to host a food drive and deliver food to underserved families without access to school-based lunches. Volunteers were also encouraged to donate much needed supplies to organizations in need starting with hospitals, clinics and health care workers. Because of mental health concerns that the virus has created, volunteers were asked to call many shut-ins just to talk.
Wild Apricot suggests seven ways individuals can volunteer virtually. These include:
- Points of Light Global Network
- UN Online Volunteering
- Crisis Text Hotline
- Translators Without Borders
- Table Wisdom
Volunteers can be engaged to check on others, donate supplies, donate blood, support organizations, thank others, help deliver meals, shop locally and take home a furry friend. Individuals are needed more than ever to help others at this time. COVID-19 has not gone away and will be with us for the foreseeable future. All of us must deal with it to the best of our abilities. Seek to help those who cannot help themselves by volunteering. Constantly strive to establish new ways to engage volunteers in a safe and healthy manner. You will be glad you did!
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