Psychology Today: Volunteering and COVID-19

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Originally appeared on Psychology Today

Volunteering is a great way to get connected with and give back to your community. Local volunteerism is one key way that communities will strengthen and move through the current pandemic. Now, more than ever, volunteers are needed to combat the burdens people face because of COVID-19.

Rob Peabody is the Co-Founder and CEO of VOMO, a web-based platform and application that leverages technology to power a global volunteer movement. Rob is a visionary who recently moved back to the US after living for six years in London. He founded a nonprofit called Awaken and started a national conference in the UK for millennials. Rob previously served as Global City Leader for London for the International Mission Board. He has also served as a megachurch pastor in the US. He received his BBA from the University of Texas at Austin and his MACE from Dallas Seminary. Rob has authored several books, including his latest, Citizen: Your Role in the Alternative Kingdom. Rob and his wife, Medea, live in Plano, Texas, and have three children.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally describe what is happening with volunteering during COVID-19?

Rob Peabody: The last three months have been chaotic and unpredictable, and many people are isolated. Everything feels out of control. There is a massive awareness in the news and media that help is needed, and people want to take action, but nobody knows quite what to do. We have collected data proving there is a shortage of almost 6.5 million volunteers nationwide.

That is not going to change anytime soon. Just as healthcare workers and first responders have been on the frontlines during the pandemic, nonprofits will be at the epicenter of the rebuilding process.

One of the challenges will be moving people from hype into action. It’s really cool to talk about helping, but to see actual change, people are going to need to have the courage to step out. I believe that is going to require two things. First, we’ll need a digital platform where we can get the word out on a national level and grab the attention of as many people as possible. Second, hyper-local engagement will be critical as we engage people in actively helping within their own communities.

JA: What are some ways volunteering can help us live more resiliently amidst this pandemic?

RP: We already know from studies conducted at Harvard that volunteering is associated with better physical and mental health. Volunteerism is also an effective remedy for loneliness.

When people stop focusing on themselves and engage in meeting the needs around them, they cease being a consumer and become a producer within society. Volunteering provides a way for people to take back control, which enables them to recover more quickly from the crisis.

Now we’re learning the same principle applies to communities. The United Nation’s 2018 State of Volunteerism Report determined that volunteerism is a “fundamental survival strategy” that builds resilience after a crisis because it “enables collective strategies for managing risk.”

Injustices and faults were in the system before COVID-19 hit. The pandemic puts everything under a microscope so we see it more clearly. Traditionally, many nonprofits and churches have operated as silos. In this new season, the walls are coming down and we’re being forced to collaborate, which is going to lead us to resiliency.

It’s the “all boats rise” idea. If we can pump a community full of volunteers and streamline their approach, then the nonprofits receive the help they need, people are unified, and the community wins.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate a desire to volunteer?

RP: The basis for cultivating a desire to serve is relational. One of the most important lessons that COVID-19 has taught us is to take initiative and get to know people who are not like us. Start with your neighbors. Learn their names. Find out who they really are. Build a friendship. Listen to their stories. With understanding comes empathy, and empathy leads to action.

Then we need to educate ourselves. There’s an ignorance barrier. People want to help, but they don’t know what the needs are or how to meet them. That’s why we built VOMO and Be A Neighbor the way we have. We enable individuals and organizations to determine what their needs really are and provide a platform where they can publish those needs and request help.

It’s then the responsibility of the individual to make a commitment to be part of the solution. Commit to one or two hours of giving back. Everyone has unique contributions to make. Our individual skills, experiences, and passions are an innate part of our humanity. If we’re not activating those for the greater good, then we’re robbing our community of our gifts and everyone suffers.

JA: Any advice for how we might use volunteering to support a friend or loved one struggling right now because of COVID-19?

RP: Last Fall our staff volunteered at “Meals on Wheels.” We learned that the contact we had with seniors when we delivered their meals was the only human interaction that many of them would have that week. It was sobering.

I think one of the most important ways we can support others is to learn to be good listeners. We have to slow down and hear people to understand what they really need. Then we are able to respond in a manner that is truly beneficial.

That’s why we built the “submit a need” function on VOMO. It gives individuals a way to submit requests for help, and lets organizations and users be aware of deficits in their own communities. We’re trying to democratize finding those needs so different people can go out and source them. It keeps the most vulnerable from falling through the cracks.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

RP: For the past three months, we have conducted the Be A Neighbor campaign to draw national attention to the volunteer shortages across our nation. In the process, we learned that real, lasting change must happen at the local level.

We decided to continue giving VOMO away for free, even after the pandemic, so that needs can be addressed in local communities, but we also realized we were missing something.

People who want to serve their community want an easy way to find needs and sign up while organizations desperately need volunteers. So, we created a new, hyper-local product called “VOMO Community.” This will allow organizations in a local geography to work together in a streamlined experience on one common platform with volunteers. Together they can serve their community’s greatest needs and help solve the problems in their neighborhood.

All of these lessons are things we have learned through the Be A Neighbor campaign. Now we want to share our knowledge and experience with you as you strive to impact your local community.

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