Remote Volunteerism: Driving Community Impact from Home – a Conversation with GivePulse
With office closures and physical distancing restrictions still in effect across much of the country, many in-person volunteering efforts have been put on hold indefinitely, and nonprofits and companies alike are shifting to a remote volunteering model.
What is remote volunteerism?
- There are a few different approaches to remote volunteerism—volunteer work done from a distance. It spans at-home activities like making masks or writing cards to seniors, to virtual opportunities such as mentoring or translating documents online.
- Skills-based volunteerism is an option as well, where volunteers can use their professional skills to offer pro bono support to nonprofits.
To learn more about this transition, we spoke with GivePulse, an Austin, TX-based tech platform that matches people with organizations and causes they care about. Born out of a side project by co-founder and CEO George Luc, and amplified by his own experience working with a nonprofit that was struggling to find volunteers, GivePulse launched in 2012 to streamline and enhance the volunteer matching process.
Today, GivePulse works with nonprofits, companies, higher education institutions, cities and municipalities to drive and measure community engagement. Read on for our conversation with George Luc and Marketing Lead, Kaitlin Sandmann, as we hear how GivePulse has helped facilitate the move toward remote volunteerism and what they’ve learned along the way.
Changing Our World: How have you seen interest in remote and virtual volunteer opportunities grow among your partners since the start of COVID-19?
GivePulse: Back in March, in-person volunteer opportunities came to a halt seemingly overnight. Organizations were left with many unanswered questions on how to provide safe in-person volunteering. At the same time community members were looking for ways to help, so interest in remote/virtual volunteerism grew exponentially. But meeting this sudden demand was not easy for nonprofits; between March and May we saw many struggling to figure out what remote and virtual volunteering even is, let alone how to transition to it. Still today, some organizations have felt their only option is to postpone volunteering altogether. But as we come to accept that this pandemic will not be over quickly, more and more are looking for ways to make remote volunteerism work.
CW: What internal adjustments have you had to make to the GivePulse platform to accommodate this transition?
GP: We have always had the option to filter for remote/virtual opportunities, but we now emphasize them further on our search page. We also added a filter under our “Emergencies” tab for COVID-19 response activities. For opportunities requiring an online conferencing platform, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, we added workflows to integrate these systems directly into the listing. In parallel, we’re training nonprofit staff on how to leverage technology, facilitate a safe and successful activity and create a well-defined experience that sets expectations from a communications and outcomes standpoint.
CW: What seem to be the biggest challenges your nonprofit partners are facing with the transition to remote and virtual volunteering? And what are some of the best solutions you have seen?
GP: How to structure virtual engagement – most nonprofits have activities that can’t be reproduced remotely. Those that can may not have the necessary technology, skills or interest to manage volunteers remotely. Virtual opportunities especially require a great deal of communication and oversight from the nonprofit, so staff must learn how to adapt their volunteer coordination skills. The nonprofits faring best right now are those whose resiliency allows them to be flexible and think outside of the box, pivoting as needed.
CW: What are some of the more meaningful remote/virtual opportunities you have seen available on your site recently?
GP: We’ve found the most impactful engagement comes from nonprofits that have reassessed their programs and shifted operations to meet community needs. One of our partners—a mentoring organization—thought about transitioning to virtual mentoring sessions but realized the kids they serve were not getting their basic needs met. So, rather than immediately shifting to virtual mentoring or delaying the program, staff made care packages for mentees with food, school supplies and other items essential to being a healthy and engaged virtual learner, which were sanitized, stored in a warehouse, and then delivered by volunteers.
On the corporate side, one of our partners runs a year-long employee mentor program supporting K-12 students throughout the school district local to its corporate headquarters. In light of COVID-19, the company is working collaboratively with teachers and administrators to switch to a virtual mentoring program. This process has included identifying new funding needs and adjusting the program model, scaling back where necessary.
CW: Those are great points about the need to slow down, assess community needs and remain flexible with programming—both for nonprofits and for companies with community partners. What advice do you have for companies rethinking their volunteer programs?
GP: Refocus your idea of success to mean helping nonprofits fill meaningful gaps. It’s not the time to think about big numbers. It’s the time to collaborate and figure out how to meaningfully lay the foundation for mutual benefit. Use this shift as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with your nonprofit partners and work with them to address their current needs, without overwhelming them.
It is crucial not to put more stress on nonprofits as they are still trying to figure out how volunteerism looks for their organization moving forward. So, don’t send more volunteers than needed or expect nonprofits to accommodate big groups right now. Instead, keep in close touch with your community partners, think strategically about how you can help and focus on stories of impact.
CW: In your opinion, do you think interest in remote volunteerism will continue to grow once physical distancing measures relax, or will we revert back to more traditional volunteerism?
GP: In order to survive and thrive, nonprofits and companies need to diversify their engagement opportunities; there are benefits to having a varied set of volunteers and providing meaningful experiences— in-person, remote, project-based, episodic and long-term. As a society, we also need to prepare for the possibility of future pandemics. Moving forward, offering different ways for volunteers to engage safely—whatever the situation—will increase organizations’ accessibility to individual and corporate volunteers and help nonprofits build resiliency.
Brady Press is an Associate Director in Changing Our World’s Corporate Social Engagement Practice, where she brings experience in building employee engagement strategy, corporate volunteerism, nonprofit strategy development, research, proposal writing, and fundraising.