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Article 8 min read

The brave new world of virtual volunteering

By Laura Shear

Last updated September 21, 2021

The college student who delivers donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals. The 7th grader who sews cotton face masks for neighbors. Housemates who spend weekends preparing meals for healthcare workers. The tech program manager who distributes backpacks of food and toiletry supplies to the homeless. In homes and neighborhoods around the world, people have been compelled to act in all new ways during the coronavirus crisis, doing things in the service of others we might not have imagined a couple of months ago.

And, like individuals, companies have responded to the global crisis in whole new ways. For leaders used to empowering employees with paid time off for volunteering, shelter-in-place edicts present real challenges—and opportunities—in the quest to give back.

The benefits of volunteering on employee morale, satisfaction, and retention are well documented. These days, however, the by-products of doing good feel trivial compared to the drive to just do something, anything, to help out right now. The call to volunteer feels like an imperative in a world turned upside down.

These days, however, the by-products of doing good feel trivial compared to the drive to just do something, anything, to help out right now.

What’s also true is that volunteering now looks different. Like so many other activities, giving back has moved online.

When COVID-19 fears compelled work-from-home requirements and restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people, life for nonprofits like food pantries, homeless shelters, and senior centers changed overnight. Suddenly, community organizations needed to find new ways to support at-risk populations that didn’t involve eager volunteers showing up at their door.

“Nonprofits are facing new and unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. Partnering with them in this situation has meant a lot of listening, learning what they need, trying to understand how we can be good neighbors,” said Megan Trotter, director of Social Impact at Zendesk.

In many cases the first step has been purchasing equipment to allow partners to adapt to remote operations, Trotter shared. Things like chromebooks, headphones, and microphones so that tutoring and mentoring can still happen.

What counts as volunteering might surprise you

In this new world of virtual volunteering, lending a skill takes the place of lending a set of hands. And what counts as a “skill” may include abilities we took for granted before. Case in point: Speaking another language with passing fluency. What used to be an afterthought on a CV or LinkedIn profile is now in hot demand as nonprofits race to share information-rich and sometimes technical COVID-19 updates in multiple languages within one community.

When the Department of Health in Manila needed to circulate new guidelines around health practices and protocols, it needed help translating the communications into some of the most prevalent regional languages. After organizing in a Slack channel, a group of Zendesk volunteers determined they could help with at least ten of the region’s most common languages, and immediately began translating the material, creating as many new versions as possible. The effort became a cross-generational collaboration as younger Filipinos turned to their parents in faraway provinces for help with local dialects.

Zoom for good

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations are working to connect volunteers with new opportunities that allow for one-off engagements and flexible schedules. San Francisco Bay Area resident Ryan Nichols recently gave time to, a nonprofit that connects volunteers with remote volunteering engagements. Nichols notes that this was his first time volunteering virtually—he typically volunteers in person in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood or close to his home in San Mateo, California. Nevertheless, he wanted to find a way to be helpful that could fit in with his other commitments to family and work. And, of course, it needed to be done while sitting at a computer. After his experience, he sang the praises of volunteering virtually:

“Virtual volunteering was fast, easy, and interesting. There are an incredible variety of projects available—I’m not very technical, but was able to find a project related to Zapier, an easy-to-use integration tool that I’ve had a tech-crush on for a while,” he said. “There really is a way for everyone to contribute. Applying and setting up a time to meet was easy, and just a few days later I was hopping on a Zoom with two of the dedicated staff at Plummer Youth Promise, a non-profit offering child welfare services in Massachusetts, where I went to college. We dove right into things. It was interesting to learn about their challenges, and hopefully I was able to help guide them towards a decision on how to use Zapier to bring their systems together.”

Quote 1

Since 1991, Dublin-based Jobcare has been offering recent graduates, those who are long-term unemployed, or seeking a change in their career the support needed to make the dream of a job a reality. The organization typically offers skills training, mentoring, networking, and more and partners with local companies. At the start of the year, the organization had a full calendar of rewarding volunteer opportunities.

After learning they would have to cancel all of their in-person mentoring events due to COVID-19 restrictions, Jobcare scrambled to quickly replace those in-person volunteer opportunities with virtual sessions. They decided to start with what they already knew, and called on some of their regular volunteers to host video calls with job seekers, carrying out interviews and mentoring sessions. In a very short time, the organization and its volunteer partners were able to pivot to a roster of virtual volunteer opportunities capable of achieving the same goals as before.

Quote 2

The benefits of virtual volunteering were unexpected but real: job seekers got to know how to participate properly in a video conference, ensuring success for a future virtual meeting or interview. There were benefits for the volunteers, too, who are now joined in a shared Slack channel and able to connect with a community of like-minded people. Going virtual also makes it possible for all employees to lend a hand, even if their home office isn’t located in that particular community.

Donate your time

There’s likely never been a more important time to volunteer than now. And for those who worry that working from home, or lack of necessary skills or previous experience are barriers, fear not. Conscientious companies and compassionate citizens are navigating uncharted waters, working to find solutions that work for an army of new volunteers, ready to serve a host of organizations that so desperately need their time, attention, and skills.

Conscientious companies and compassionate citizens are navigating uncharted waters, working to find solutions that work for an army of new volunteers, ready to serve a host of organizations that so desperately need their time, attention, and skills.

And you can join them—here are some opportunities for remote volunteering, and add any additional ones in the comments.

Virtual Volunteer Opportunities

Create the Good connects nonprofits and volunteers. You can help a family in need, collect school supplies, start a community garden, and much more.

Catchafire plays matchmaker between nonprofits and professionals with skills to share. You can search projects that meet your skill set and sign up to volunteer right away. mobilizes people around the world to take action on socially minded campaigns. You can find many initiatives needing virtual volunteers here.

Translators Without Borders depends on volunteers to translate medical texts or for crisis response. You can volunteer with them if you are fluent in at least one language other than your native language.

Zooniverse enables anyone to take part in cutting edge research in sciences, humanities, and more. They need help classifying and managing their data sets. There is no minimum time requirement—you can just pop in and do some volunteering.

CareerVillage is a community where students can get free personalized career advice from real-life professionals. You can join the community and offer your advice while you work.

eBird is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year. You can volunteer and contribute your bird sightings here.

United Nations Volunteering online volunteering with UNV allows organizations and volunteers to team up to address sustainable development challenges—anywhere in the world, from any device.

Missing Maps is an open, collaborative project in which you can help to map areas where humanitarian organizations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people. Just hop on their platform and map some of the most vulnerable places on Earth.

Become a Smithsonian Digital Volunteer by donating your time to transcribing log books, diaries, and field notes to be preserved for history.

Volunteer your time in bite-sized chunks from the comfort of your home with Help from Home. You can choose the time you want to give, your focus areas, and even the “pyjama rating.”

Support education in developing countries via Skype with Granny Cloud. Volunteer to engage children around the globe in conversation, story telling, and solving puzzles.

Search through thousands of volunteer opportunities both virtual and where you are located with VolunteerMatch.

Vello is the innovative, 1:1 tutoring program from United Way that matches tutor teams with local classrooms for guided reading support.

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