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Responding to COVID-19: Actionable Steps for Volunteer Managers

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, communities are looking toward social service organizations for support. So how are Volunteer Managers keeping themselves and their volunteers safe while responding to the persisting needs of their communities? Here are actionable recommendations (plus additional resources) to help Volunteer Managers respond effectively to the COVID-19 outbreak: 

Decide How to Respond

Is your volunteer program prepared to respond to community needs during the COVID-19 outbreak? Take a moment to think about how your volunteer program will respond and the resources available to you to carry out this response: 

Questions to ask yourself and your team:

  • Have our goals changed (i.e. fundraising, volunteer recruitment, crisis response etc.)? 
  • What core services must remain in place despite the outbreak?
  • Have we been assigned additional responsibilities by our state or local government, or our board?
  • Do we have the resources (i.e. funds, skills, volunteer power, equipment) to respond effectively?
  • Do we have the capacity to safely take on new volunteers at this time? 
  • Can we structure our volunteer needs in a way that achieves social distancing?
  • With all of this in mind, is our program prepared to respond to COVID-19?

These are just some questions designed to help you determine whether your program and its volunteers are prepared to respond directly to the COVID-19 outbreak. You may decide to follow one of these three likely responses:

  1. If your program is equipped to respond, you can take the necessary steps to shift your focus and resources toward  response and recovery efforts specific to COVID-19. 
  2. If your organization is not prepared to assist immediate COVID-19 efforts, you may simply decide to maintain focus on your core services, using the adaptations like the ones that are outlined below. 
  3. If your organization chooses (or is required) to pause your volunteer program entirely due to the outbreak, consider steering your willing volunteers toward other vetted community organizations that have the tools to respond to COVID-19 effectively.

Communicate Necessary Information

What information do your volunteers need to know? How will you communicate this information to your volunteers? 

  1. Send an email update to your volunteers. This email should communicate your organization’s plan for responding to COVID-19 and where your volunteer program fits into this response. Feel free to reference the correspondence outline below. 
  2. Keep your volunteers updated. Maintain regular communication with your volunteers. Situations can change rapidly, and it’s important to keep your volunteers in the know. 
  3. Share key resources. Pass on local resources and other information that you think will be useful to your volunteers. Ensure the resources you share come from a trusted source. 
  4. Use your website and social media channels. Your website and social media channels are effective tools for communicating key information. Include a banner on your volunteer page to direct volunteers toward the need-to-know information and FAQs.

COVID-19 Update Email Outline for Volunteers: 

  • Introduction – What is the purpose of this email/correspondence?
  • How is our organization as a whole responding to the COVID-19? 
  • How does this response specifically affect our volunteer program and volunteers?
  • What are the next steps or actions that volunteers should take (if any)?
  • Contact information for questions and concerns. 
  • Links to additional resources for volunteers. 

Incorporate “Social Distancing” Into Your Volunteer Programs

As you’re providing essential services to your community, you may have to adjust your strategy in order to keep you, your coworkers, volunteers, and other community members safe. Here are some ways you can adapt your programs to adhere to virus protection protocol:

  • Restructure your volunteer needs. Provide opportunities for volunteers to work individually or in small groups. 
  • Take advantage of the internet. Instead of holding volunteer training sessions in person, ask volunteers to join you via an online conferencing service like Skype or Google Hangouts. Upload documents online so that volunteers in self-quarantine can access training and onboarding materials easily. 
  • Reinvent the drive-through. Consider organizing a drive-through station for supply donations and distribution to limit person-to-person contact. 
  • Create help-from-home projects. Develop projects and creative ways your volunteers can support your mission from home. Writing letters, gathering and delivering supplies, even virtual mentoring are just some examples of activities that keep volunteers engaged. 
  • Schedule volunteer shifts. If your programs involve human contact, schedule volunteer opportunities in staggered shifts, and keep the maximum number of participants between 3 and 5 per shift. This will minimize the number of volunteers congregating in a single location at one time. 
  • Allow small groups of friends. Invite volunteers to create small teams with people (like friends and family) they trust to carry out volunteer activities that require more than one volunteer. 

Help Your Volunteers Feel Safe

If you do choose to maintain your volunteer programs while public health recommendations are in effect, ensure your volunteers feel safe with these three tips:

  1. Prepare your volunteer space. Set up hand sanitizer and hand washing stations. Print out and hang up CDC guidelines for effective hand washing and sanitation. Dedicate extra time for cleaning your spaces, and provide personal protection equipment when necessary. 
  2. Be aware of your vulnerable populations. Support your volunteers who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, especially older participants. If you think it’s in your volunteers’ best interest to stay home, make them feel valued and let them know you’ll be ready to receive their help when it’s safe to do so. 
  3. Be responsive. Your volunteers probably have lots of questions. Even if you don’t have all the answers, you can help your volunteers feel safe by simply being responsive to their concerns and questions. Carve out extra time in your day to communicate with your volunteers on a personal level. 

Remember that just like your service recipients, volunteers will look to your program for stability  and positivity when events seem unpredictable. You can reassure your volunteers and maintain morale by keeping lines of communication open, acknowledging concerns, and practicing recommended health and safety measures. Together, we all can overcome adversity and make our communities happier and healthier. 

Additional Resources:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: COVID-19 Dashboard
World Health Organization: COVID-19 Guidance and Updates
Center for Disaster Philanthropy: COVID-19 Report
National Council of Nonprofits: Nonprofits and COVID-19
The Chronicle of Philanthropy: How Nonprofits Respond to COVID-19
FEMA: Emergency Communication Plan Template