VIRTUAL VOLUNTEERING AND THE FUTURE OF SERVICE

By Ryan Mealy, Corporate Relations Manager for Jersey Cares

Coming on the heels of the most unprecedented year in recent history, civic-minded companies and individuals across the country enter 2021 with an appetite for service as the new year offers a chance for the rebirth of traditional volunteerism.

As we’ve witnessed since the beginning of last year, the initial spread of COVID-19 has prevented millions of seniors from contacting their loved ones, families from accessing healthy food, and disrupted school routines for countless students who have had to adjust to an entirely new type of education. No longer able to rely on in-person volunteer programs to bolster their efforts, organizations such as these were left wanting as the traditional volunteer assistance that they so relied on in the past was then widely unavailable. Despite this desire to pick up where they left off, however, nonprofits cannot simply dive back into their pre-pandemic routines into 2021 as the general business disruptions and the economic effects of the pandemic still loom over a majority of U.S. businesses and organizations.  

Although the distribution of newly minted COVID-19 vaccines are giving many hope for a return to relative normalcy, former CDC director Robert Redfield, vaccine developers, and the FDA have noted that it is unlikely that COVID-19 vaccines will be widely available until the middle of 2021, and it is unclear how many will agree to them or what total effect they will have, forcing nonprofits to rethink volunteer engagement not just for 2020, but also into the new year.

Much like the many nonprofits forced to reconsider their programs because of the pandemic, we at Jersey Cares knew we were in for an uphill battle to keep our programs moving forward. With no end to the virus in sight, we as an organization were compelled to seek out new and inventive ways to ensure our corporate partners stayed engaged and that our community partners received help to meet their respective needs. Having come together, we as an organization took the opportunity to pivot our focus to virtual volunteerism to satisfy the needs of our community partners, holding off what for others had become a seemingly indefinite stop to civic involvement.

With volunteers unable to physically revitalize a school or socialize with seniors in their rec rooms, volunteering in 2020 lived instead on the computer screen. Large-scale company-wide days of service became large Zoom or Webex meetings where our Jersey Cares team would lead eager volunteers in live interactive workshops with interested students, guiding them in a variety of topics like answering questions about different career paths, providing different ways to stay fit and active from the comfort of their homes, and learning about prominent black leaders to name a few. For those who were more interested in working with their hands than hosting virtual classroom activities, we were able to reinvent our ever-popular kit assembly projects, mailing kit materials to individuals’ homes to complete and return all the while under the instruction of one or many of our experienced Jersey Cares team leads.

Although somewhat foreign to traditional volunteering, this video-platform technology (Zoom/Cisco Webex/Microsoft Teams) that we have utilized has been a strong tool in connecting civic-minded individuals to even the most challenged populations with ease and widespread success. Senior homes in particular have been able to greatly benefit from our programming and continue to thrive in our new initiatives created in 2020. As the most at-risk population currently facing down the pandemic, seniors have experienced great isolation in 2020, unable to visit their loved ones or even socialize in the activity room with one another. Thanks to our new virtual efforts, however, we have been able to provide seniors with a much-needed means of connection, having volunteers host virtual bingo sessions for seniors and even maintaining ongoing virtual letter-writing programs to let them know someone out there is thinking about them.

While Jersey Cares was among the select few nonprofits that managed to come out the other side of 2020 with a promising new method of service, many were unable to successfully adapt to the new reality brought about by the shutdown. For many nonprofits similar to Jersey Cares, the physical limitations brought about by the 2020 pandemic dealt a serious blow to their ability to operate effectively. According to a joint study by the Independent Sector (working in tandem with Washington Council Ernst & Young) conducted last June, a staggering 71% of nonprofits surveyed reported reductions in services or available operations, with 67% of organizations having to furlough their staff and 51% being forced to lay off employees since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (see the full list of statistics below).

With the many challenges nonprofits have faced in adjusting to the pandemic fresh in our minds and an end to the pandemic still uncertain, virtual volunteering will continue to be a crucial element in advancing nonprofit programming into 2021. Despite not physically gathering in large groups, companies and individuals have been able to come together over our virtual platform and, in a way, have been able to expand their impact as a result. While in-person volunteering limits engagement to people local to the benefitting organization, focusing more on virtual volunteering has allowed for company and individual involvement to connect volunteers across the nation and world in a single cause. Linking companies’ multiple offices in a single session not only provides a means for companies to include more of their team in service, but also provides those who live in an area where volunteering means are unavailable a brand-new channel to serve their community. Though nonprofits are still subject to COVID-19 restraints as we enter the new year, the inclusion of virtual volunteering provides a great deal of optimism for the future of volunteerism as we navigate these uncharted waters.

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