Volunteering in the New Normal: How the Pandemic Changed Us All for Good

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COVID-19 may have forced nonprofits to change the way we use volunteers, but it has not stopped people from caring. In some ways, the pandemic has shown us how to be better helpers and neighbors and given rise to an era of grassroots volunteerism. Now the question is: Will we revert back to “life as usual” as our country begins to reopen, or has COVID-19 ushered in a new culture of volunteerism that is here to stay?

“As states reopen it’s important that for many people life won’t go back to just how they were prior to COVID-19,” said Dr. Jamie Aten, Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. “Volunteers can expect to hear many they are serving saying things like ‘Life before COVID-19 and life after COVID-19.’ When we hear people say things like this, one of the ways we can help is by supporting their search for meaning as they attempt to integrate their COVID-19 experience into their new normal.”

It’s quite possible that we will never return to volunteerism as we once knew it… and that may not be a bad thing. Let’s look at some ways that COVID-19 has changed how we volunteer for good.

“…One of the ways we can help is by supporting their search for meaning as they attempt to integrate their COVID-19 experience into their new normal.”

-Dr. Jamie Aten, Wheaton College

Streamlined Processes and Adapted Systems

Four months ago, none of us would have considered thermometers, masks or hand sanitizers to be essential tools of our volunteer program. And yet in this new day of enhanced safety standards and social distancing, we find ourselves needing to modify our systems in order to create a better environment for our volunteers. 

For some organizations, this has necessitated a complete overhaul of their system.

“We went from having over 100 volunteers per shift to 10 in a matter of a couple of days,” said Haley LeCoume, Volunteer Experience Coordinator at the North Texas Food Bank. “We had to adjust the number of people for each production line in order to maintain social distancing requirements. That meant going from 40 people on our Food 4 Kids line to 12 people. It was challenging having to adjust to this change, but we were up to the task.”

The food bank, which has moved 2.5 million pounds of food a week during COVID-19 and who has been working with over 250 partner agencies, put a contactless donation system in place for both monetary and food donations. They also created a one-touch policy to cut down on the number of people handling the food in their kitted boxes and modified the layout of the production floor to accommodate the new safety guidelines.

Volunteers at Amazing Grace Pantry give a thumbs up to fighting hunger together
Volunteers at Amazing Grace Pantry, a partner organization of the North Texas Food Bank, show their support for fighting hunger together.

The need to renovate facilities and update physical space has become a priority for many organizations–so much so, that nonprofits like United Way in Victoria County, Texas, have started fundraising efforts to help their partners with renovations.

“Some of the remodels are being funded through grants from large campaign partners, who typically hold huge fundraisers and volunteer efforts on our behalf,” said Jill Blucher, Community Engagement Coordinator for Victoria County United Way. “Since those events have all been canceled, this is a way our partners have still been able to help.”

So far, the donation drive has enabled them to remodel the kitchen for Meals on Wheels, allowing more volunteers to prepare food while maintaining a safe social distance. They’ve done some landscaping on the grounds of another nonprofit in order to expedite the drive-through grocery pickup. And in a third location, they knocked out a wall and expanded the space to make the flow better for both clients and volunteers.

Change is never easy, especially when the need for it is thrust upon us. But in the long run, we may discover that these changes are a blessing in disguise. As nonprofits build safer and more streamlined systems and discover better ways to utilize volunteers, it only helps to have a greater reach and impact within our communities.

Natalye Paquin, President and CEO, Points of Light

As communities begin to open back up, we expect people will continue to find ways to volunteer while exercising recommended safety practices by the CDC, World Health Organization, and state and local agencies. We believe these new ways of volunteering are here to stay.

-Natalye Paquin, Points of Light

Generated Creative and Unique Channels for Volunteering

Another way that COVID-19 has changed the way people volunteer is that it has opened the door for virtual volunteerism, grassroots movements, and crowdsourcing. As needs have exponentially multiplied, concerned neighbors have sought out ways to help while still maintaining social distancing and safety guidelines.

“First, what hasn’t changed is the needs of communities. In fact, the vulnerable have become more visible,” said Natalye Paquin, president & CEO, Points of Light. “The second thing that hasn’t changed is people’s innate desire to help. People are being innovative in how they show up to help others. Some have pivoted from in-person opportunities to virtual and remote experiences in an effort to practice social distancing.

As communities begin to open back up, we expect people will continue to find ways to volunteer while exercising recommended safety practices by the CDC, World Health Organization, and state and local agencies. We believe these new ways of volunteering are here to stay.”

One of those new avenues that people have discovered is virtual volunteerism. Even global leaders in the nonprofit sector, like Points of LIght and the United Nations, have created extensive opportunities for people to engage in serving from the safety of their homes.

In many ways, virtual volunteerism has opened up a new frontier in community engagement and enabled organizations to fill gaps that needed to be addressed prior to the pandemic. One place where this has been most evident is in the area of education. As stay-at-home orders made it apparent that families would have to teach children at home, the demand for virtual tutors skyrocketed. For one organization, it was high school students who stepped up to the plate to meet the need. 

United to Learn is a coalition of public schools, private institutions and engaged community members who have come together to transform the relationship between schools and community. Through their program, over 1,000 high school students engaged in mentoring and tutoring on elementary school campuses throughout this past academic year. 

“When schools closed, the teens quickly created a way to stay connected to their elementary peers,” said Carol Goglia, President of United to Learn. “They created over 200 skills videos to post on the United to Learn YouTube Channel. Other teens signed up to serve as virtual tutors to young learners so they can continually grow their literacy skills throughout the summer, helping to close not only summer slide but the ‘COVID slide’, too.”

Teen from United to Learn Talks About Skills Videos
High school students share creative videos with elementary students in the United to Learn educational partnership.

Another new front for volunteering has been through grassroots organizations. Volunteer movements have sprung up across the nation as people begin to realize their own neighbors are in need of food and basic supplies. In Louisiana, a group called the Greater New Orleans Caring Collective started after a member posted a Facebook post asking if anyone in their community needed help. The group soon discovered that food insecurity already existed in their neighborhood before the pandemic, but they were unaware of it.

“This has shone a light on the problem,” said Alyssa Silverman, one of the members of the group. “Now we know more about the needs across our city and can work better towards a solution. We plan to continue these efforts even after the COVID-19 crisis is over.”

Another crowdsourcing movement, called North Texas Relief, has found that there are many people who for various reasons fall through the cracks when it comes to receiving public assistance.

“Some of them simply are not able to provide all the required paperwork to qualify for help,” said Nirav Desai, one of the organizers of North Texas Relief. “We encountered one senior who had been living on nothing but crackers and water for a week.”

The group has since been able to help over 1400 seniors and continues to deliver fresh produce and dairy to multiple locations on a weekly basis. On one occasion, when members of the group ran across an impending eviction while making a delivery, they pooled their money and paid the landlord. 

“The level of generosity has been incredible,” said Desai. “There are people in this group who just lost their jobs, but they don’t even hesitate to buy groceries or pay the rent for someone else in need.”

Brought Sectors of Society Together through Shared Technology

Another benefit that has come out of the pandemic is that sectors of society, enabled by shared technology, have been able to come together to coordinate efforts across communities and cities. Zoom meetings, webinars and conferences have become part of daily life. Google hangouts have replaced in-person gatherings. And people have found ways to leverage technology for good.

Numerous campaigns have popped up around the country to encourage frontline workers and support COVID-19 relief. Craftwork Coffee, a coffee shop and co-working company launched a campaign on social media to provide coffee care packs for up to 500 frontline workers. Members of the public submitted nominations, and then Craftworks would send a signature mug, bag of coffee, and a handwritten note to the nominee. 

Craftwork Coffee co-owner, Riley Kiltz, shares how his company provided coffee care packs for frontline workers like Pamela Sibanda (pictured below) during the COVID-19 crisis.
ER nurse Pamela Sibanda sitting in room at B,S & W hospital
Frontline worker Pamela Sibanda

Across the country in Pittsburgh, another company called Richbarn Roasters decided that for every bag of coffee purchased, they would donate a bag to someone who had lost their job in the pandemic. 

Rebecca Walls, whose nonprofit UNITE Greater Dallas raises up champions to address specific problems and needs in the city, believes that collaboration across the social sectors is the only thing that will bring lasting transformation and enable cities to flourish.

“We’ve seen multi-sector collaboration occurring on various levels since the pandemic started,” said Walls. “The National Guard has stepped in to support local food banks. Churches and restaurants have partnered together to feed school children. Nonprofits like YMCA have provided childcare for frontline workers. One company that employs refugees even started making masks to be given to vulnerable populations.”

But collaboration requires organization, and organization is not always an easy task. 

“One thing that has helped tremendously,” said Walls, “is that online platforms like VOMO, HelpFinder, Gloo and CarePortal have pivoted and worked cooperatively to play vital roles in relief efforts.”

VOMO, our volunteer engagement platform that helps organizations do good things with great people, even dropped business-as-usual, opened up the platform for free, and started a COVID-19 relief campaign called “Be A Neighbor” when the crisis hit.

“Our country was hurting, and we knew we could help,” said Rob Peabody, co-founder and CEO of VOMO. “We believed it was the right thing to do. People across the nation and in 32 countries signed up to assist with COVID-19 relief. In just 12 weeks we saw 226,995 hours of volunteer time logged and 154,491 projects completed to help those who needed it the most.”

Now as the country begins to reopen, VOMO has made the decision to continue offering the basic platform for free. “We exist to serve those who serve others,” said Peabody. “And we truly believe that we can help spark a movement for good and make the world a better place. We need each other. We have to collaborate together. And VOMO has the means to make that happen.”

So as we transition into a post-pandemic world and face a new normal, let’s reflect on the positive changes that COVID-19 has brought about. We’ve streamlined our systems, pioneered new channels, discovered the benefits of collaboration, and learned how to leverage technology for good.

Now let’s move forward into a new era wiser, braver and stronger… together.

To learn how your organization can utilize technology for good, visit www.vomo.org.

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