Remote volunteering – continuing to support organisations overseas
5 October 2020 at 7:00 am
When COVID-19 forced the Australian Volunteers Program to suspend travel, the organisation pivoted to remote volunteering to ensure it could continue to support the more than 600 overseas organisations it works with.
In March of this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic crisis unfolded across the globe, the Australian Volunteers Program repatriated more than 450 Australian program participants from 26 countries. It was the first time in the program’s 60-year history of sending skilled Australians overseas that it was required to suspend travel to all countries.
The program partners with over 600 organisations, working with them to achieve sustainable development in their communities. Volunteers often become valued members of the community, sharing their skills with local counterparts to help build capacity and support change.
The needs of these organisations didn’t stop when their volunteers left, in fact, in many cases they grew even greater. The program needed to adapt quickly to continue to provide ongoing support for partner organisations and ensure volunteers could stay connected and continue their work.
To respond to this extraordinary situation, the program turned to its Innovation Fund, an initiative that identifies, develops and pilots new ideas and solutions to increase the impact of the Australian Volunteers Program.
Prior to COVID-19, the fund had been exploring how to support a more diverse range of Australians to participate in the program, recognising that not all Australians can move overseas for a 12-month assignment. The fund developed an “Open Volunteering” prototype, which included a short-term stay in-country for volunteers where they established their relationships before returning to Australia to complete the assignment remotely over a number of months.
Anna Trahair, Innovation Fund manager, said the success of Open Volunteering proved to be great preparation and learning for the first cohort of remote volunteers.
“We had initially planned to implement a Remote Volunteering initiative later in 2020 but the pandemic saw us fast-track the process to make remote volunteering work at a greater scale than the prototypes,” Trahair said.
After some quick thinking and collaboration across the program, the first iteration of the Remote Volunteering initiative was launched in May 2020, targeting those volunteers who had been repatriated and the organisations they were supporting.
A phased approach was taken, enabling the program to continually improve and enhance the Remote Volunteering initiative. Following the initial rollout, it was expanded to include other partner organisations and their volunteers who had been in various stages of the recruitment process prior to the pandemic. To date, more than 100 volunteers have supported partner organisations remotely, and that number continues to grow.
Internet connectivity and access to online platforms and technology were identified as potential barriers for participating in remote volunteering.
“Connectivity and digital inclusion are challenges for some volunteers and organisations, making it difficult for some partners to join remote volunteering, but we are looking at how we can work with them to open access further,” Trahair said.
However, it has been a challenge that many volunteers and partner organisations have been able to overcome. Robyn Whitney is a remote volunteer for the Wangsel Institute, Bhutan’s first and only deaf education school. Whitney, who is deaf herself, is researching best practices to support students learning remotely and is navigating these technology challenges with her counterparts.
“In spite of different time zones, technology and internet connection challenges, we still manage to communicate with each other fairly well across quite a few apps,” Whitney said.
An unexpected benefit of remote volunteering for the Wangsel Institute is that with the support of Whitney, they have now learnt to add captions to videos. An important skill to ensure their videos are inclusive for their students and teachers.
Another challenge facing remote volunteers has been how to develop an understanding of the cultural context and foster strong working relationships without the face-to-face contact, as these can make all the difference to the success of an assignment.
Dr Bryan Humphrey is volunteering remotely as a project design mentor for the Cambodian Organisation for Children and Development, an NGO based in Phnom Penh. Having built strong working relationships in person, Humphrey and his colleagues recognised the importance of discussing more than just day-to-day tasks in their online meetings.
“The biggest challenge has been to ensure I keep up to date with information on the local context. This means that our online meetings have been about sharing this information in addition to strategic planning,” Humphrey said.
Mathilda Martin recently completed a three-month assignment as a finance and grant writing mentor for the Marshall Islands Council of Non-Governmental Organisations. In addition to achieving the assignment objectives, volunteering remotely presented an opportunity to build the capacity of her colleague’s online skills and learn more collaboratively.
“During my three months of volunteering remotely, I not only achieved my initial assignment objectives but also encouraged the participants of the online training I was running to embrace technological communication platforms. We have all learned to collaborate, share ideas, knowledge and skills – all online,” Martin said.
Remote volunteering has provided a vital solution to bridging the gap and ensuring volunteers stay connected to the country they were volunteering in, and to continue to fulfil assignment objectives from Australia. In the four months since the first remote volunteer assignment began, there is still much to learn and refine as the program’s Remote Volunteering continues to evolve.
As Trahair explained, “We hope to learn not just what makes remote volunteering work well enough, but what its real strengths – and advantages – might be over other volunteering approaches and how it might sit alongside our traditional offering.”
Over the coming months, the program is planning to continue to broaden the range of Australians who can participate in this exciting new initiative. For more information visit the Australian Volunteers Program website.