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Is coronavirus reshaping volunteering?

21 April 2020 at 5:20 pm
Maggie Coggan
The volunteering sector has taken a massive hit during COVID-19. We take a look at what that means for the future of the sector.  

Maggie Coggan | 21 April 2020 at 5:20 pm


Is coronavirus reshaping volunteering?
21 April 2020 at 5:20 pm

The volunteering sector has taken a massive hit during COVID-19. We take a look at what that means for the future of the sector.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has left an enormous workforce gap in many volunteer-reliant charities, but some experts say the pandemic could be a chance for the sector to recreate itself. 

With corporate volunteering programs grinding to a halt as businesses move to working from home arrangements, and older people who might have casually volunteered being told to stay inside for their own safety, the traditional volunteer pool for many charities has dried up. 

But according to research by Professor Kirsten Holmes from Curtin University, the outbreak of coronavirus hasn’t stopped people from volunteering, it has just meant they are going about it in slightly different ways.  

“People are wanting to help, and are wanting to do something, and so we’re seeing some new needs emerge and new ways of doing that,” Holmes told Pro Bono News. 

She said over the past few weeks there had been a surge in grassroots volunteering groups such as Adopt a Healthcare Worker, a Facebook group that connects time-pressed front-line healthcare workers with people in the community who can help with their grocery shopping and daily needs. 

The group has now spread to all corners of the country, with several state-based Facebook groups now running to help out health-care workers.   

Holmes also said that more official organisations such as Volunteering WA were tapping into remote tech solutions to service the new needs.  

“Volunteering WA has set up an emergency volunteer site where people can register to be sent a text when an essential worker needs their shopping bought, or check in on vulnerable people in their neighbourhood who don’t have family around,” she said.  

“So we are seeing these organisations using online and social media platforms a lot more now than they would have in the past.” 

There has also been a surge of people finding ways to help from their living room. 

Matthew Boyd, the co-founder of Vollie, an online service that matches skilled volunteers with charities, told Pro Bono News that since the outbreak of COVID-19 volunteer applications on the site have jumped 300 per cent. 

“Even in very challenging times where people are stuck at home because they’ve lost their job or they’ve had their hours cut or they just needed to work remotely, empathy is still there, and people’s desire to make a positive impact is only growing stronger,” Boyd said. 

COVID-19 accelerates change 

Holmes said that while online volunteering wasn’t a brand new concept, the pandemic was forcing change at a greater speed. 

“We know volunteers or potential volunteers have been looking for more flexible opportunities for many years… but I think it’s been hard for volunteer-involving organisations to think about how they can reorganise the way that they do their work to create these more flexible opportunities,” she said.  

“And now we’re seeing an acceleration of what they were trying to do anyway.” 

Boyd said he was seeing charities really starting to understand the value of virtual volunteering.   

“So many charities had the attitude that if they needed a volunteer to work on their business strategy, they wanted them to come in and do it in person,” he said.  

“But this crisis is showing that you can virtually connect with a talent pool right across the country or even right across the world.”

While charities such as Meals on Wheels, which rely heavily on volunteers over the age of 60, are now faced with a gaping hole in numbers and increased demand for services, Holmes said it would force a rethink around the age-group of their volunteers. 

“In theory, there’s a lot of young people at home because they have lost work,” she said.  

“So I think it’s about looking at how you tap into that, because these younger people are the ones who would probably turn more to the social media, grassroots type of mutual aid organisations.”

Cutting out the middle-man 

One of the major obstacles the volunteering sector has faced in recent times is the paper-work and administrative burden that accompanies signing up as a volunteer.  

Holmes said that one of the reasons the more unofficial community-based volunteering groups were so successful is because there wasn’t any of that. 

“Some of the problems people might come up against is waiting to be called on by the official responder, lengthy registration processes and repeated case checks,” she said. 

“That’s where, for example, the emergency volunteering sites that Volunteering WA has set up makes it so easy, because people can just sign up and then get a text when a product or service is needed.” 

Boyd said this was one issue that had to be ironed out in the future of volunteering. 

“People don’t have the time for all the paperwork and inductions anymore,” he said. 

“It’s got to be a few clicks online. You’ve got to get people when they’re most interested and excited, they’re putting their hand out. They’re passionate, they want to work for that animal welfare organisation, or on a marketing strategy, let them in and let them get started.”

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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