Nearly every day since the coronavirus outbreak, I have had the privilege of participating in calls with organizational leaders and volunteer engagement professionals about how to function amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The funders, nonprofit centers, and professional associations that are convening these calls are providing a valuable opportunity for practitioners to hear how others are navigating the unmapped waters of keeping staff, volunteers, and community members safe while still trying to deliver mission-critical services.

Meanwhile, our clients and colleagues are also desperately trying to avoid reinventing the wheel – whether it be messaging around volunteer opportunities, protocols to keep people safe, virtual volunteer activities, or other policies and practices – and are hungry for these examples.

With that in mind, today’s COVID-19 response blog is a sampling of what we have been hearing on these calls, organized in four common threads:

  • Considerations to ensure the safety of volunteers, staff, and clients
  • New volunteer opportunities
  • Maintaining connections with volunteers who are now inactive due to the pandemic
  • Enhancing engagement strategy overall

These are just a sampling of ideas – not an exhaustive list – but we hope they will help you determine how to sustain engagement or leverage volunteers during these times.

1. Keeping volunteers, clients, and staff safe. Of course, a primary concern is the safety of staff, volunteers, and the community. Here is what we are hearing and recommending:

  • Screening of volunteers. For the safety of everyone, volunteer screening protocols should not be diluted as a result of the pandemic. Nonetheless, practices may need to be adapted. Any volunteers who have access to vulnerable populations should still undergo background checks. Background check companies such as Sterling Volunteers, can turn around the checks quickly and efficiently. Meanwhile, interviews can effectively be completed online through teleconference or phone calls even if the normal practice is to interview in person.
  • Already vetted volunteers. Don’t overlook the volunteers in your organization or through partner organizations who have already been vetted and cleared for service.
  • Revised volunteer protocols. Adjust protocols to minimize or eliminate contact, such as adopting “knock-n-drop” protocols for grocery delivery, wellness phone calls rather than home visits, limiting the number of people in a food pantry to ensure proper social distancing, etc.

2. Creating new volunteer roles. Needs are continuously changing. While some services have been discontinued, such as museum tours or theater ushers as cultural institutions have had to shutter their doors to protect the public, other opportunities have emerged. Among the many, a few examples include:

  • Wellness checks. Many organizations have developed new ways for volunteers to provide virtual check ins with youth, older adults, vulnerable populations, caretakers, or, frankly, anyone including parents now helping to school their children, people who’ve lost their jobs, etc. At organizations like Dorot, volunteers play a vital role in connecting on a regular basis with older community members who opt in for the service while the Greater Miami Jewish Federation has set up a “wheel of wellness” for volunteers to call and check in with thousands of community members. Other organizations like CASAs, have adjusted protocols so that volunteer advocates can check in with the children they are serving through phone calls or videoconference instead of in person, as a protection, of course, for everybody’s health. Maintaining those connections is especially important given that courts have postponed many trials and so families may be experiencing delays in the resolution to their situations.
  • Friendly connections. Like virtual check ins but designed to serve anyone, we see organizations such as Boomers Leading Change offering opportunities to write emails or letters with a paired individual to ensure social connection and promote mental health amid the isolation of “stay-at-home” orders in many states.
  • Mask making. Many organizations are organizing mask sewing on an informal basis, while organizations like AFYA Foundation are processing donations of personal protective equipment and redistributing to medical centers.
  • Letter writing. Advocacy is needed now, so some organizations, through their advocacy branches, are tapping into their current volunteer pools and providing templates and tools to share messages about needed funding or other issues to local and national legislators.
  • Tech training. One of the most compelling new roles we have heard are the volunteer-led classes offered by the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan focusing on how to use Zoom. With so many businesses moving to remote work and families seeking to connect through technology, these Zoom tutorials are wildly popular and fill a vital role to keep community members connected to each other and to the JCC as well during these challenging times.

3. Maintaining connections with all volunteers, active or inactive. Whether due to suspended services or health concerns, millions of volunteers are taking time off from their service. Maintaining a relationship with them remains vitally important for your organization, for the volunteers, and for the future! Here are some ways we are hearing organizations are doing that.

  • Updating terminology and policies. Many organizations are updating policies about minimum hours required of service. Taking time off now should not count against an individual’s eligibility to serve in the future or maintain the benefits of being a volunteer. One orchestra in Minnesota has adopted the term “intermission” to describe the pause in service, which seems not only “on brand,” but also a nice way to differentiate this from being considered “inactive,” which often carries a negative connotation.
  • Weekly communications. Most organizations we know are trying to send weekly updates via email or video and to include some inspirational information as well, whether they be tips for staying healthy in mind and body, humorous notes, or impact updates on how the organization is continuing to serve the community in response to Coronavirus. Given that April is global volunteer month, thanking volunteers and sharing their collective impact over the previous year can also be an important message to share to remind them of how important their contributions have been over the past year. Including tips on how volunteers can stay involved – through donations, checking in with each other, or taking advocacy actions – is also valuable. All of these can help keep volunteers engaged and connected.
  • Virtual gatherings. Providing teleconference technology to convene volunteers formally or informally can help your volunteers as well – but we don’t only mean virtual potlucks and other social gatherings. For volunteers who normally work side by side with staff, including them in staff meetings that are now virtual may be appropriate and will be important to maintain the teamwork… which leads to the next tip…
  • Virtual volunteers. Despite all the social distancing, many volunteer roles can and should be simply adapted for virtual. Volunteers who work on databases, help with recruitment, manage projects, or serve on committees can still do their work virtually. Organizations should ensure volunteers have access to the tools they need to work virtually, such as remote log ins to internal databases. Working with your IT team will be helpful to achieve this. For ideas of other virtual volunteer roles, check out VolunteerMatch’s and All For Good’s virtual volunteer opportunities.
  • Virtual training. While we wouldn’t recommend making training required during these stressful times (as some volunteers on hiatus may need to focus on caring for children or other family members), we do see many organizations ramping up training opportunities for volunteers and adapting traditional in-person training for presentation online – whether live or recorded. We will share more tips on adapting training for virtual next week, but in the meantime, offering training to volunteers to keep their skills sharp and to learn new skills is a great use of time right now.

4. Enhancing Your Strategy. For some leaders of volunteers, this is a very busy time. But, for others, these weeks or months may be exactly the time you need to update your policies and practices and invest in planning. Here are a few directions we’ve seen the community taking.

  • Focus on planning. Whether developing an engagement response plan for COVID-19 or developing a strategic plan overall for engagement, having a well-developed plan will ensure that you are being efficient with resources, can prioritize your work, and demonstrate the value of engagement to leadership, funders, and your colleagues.
  • Updating volunteer engagement practices and policies. Just yesterday, on a weekly check-in call with members of MAVA, we heard from at least two organizations who have temporarily suspended many of their volunteer activities share that they are using this time to update their volunteer position descriptions, review policies, and develop some new trainings. Of course, we recommend engaging some virtual volunteers to help with these efforts… and applaud all who are taking the time to get their houses in order.

This is certainly a time when we all must act differently, but we all have the chance to act. Let’s be strategic about our actions.