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Responding to COVID-19: Actionable Steps for Volunteer Managers

As part of COVID-19s ever-shifting impact on community needs, people are looking toward social service organizations for vital support. So how are Volunteer Managers navigating the uncertainty and responding to the persisting needs of their communities? 

Here are actionable recommendations (plus additional resources) to help Volunteer Managers respond effectively and navigate their programming a year and a half into this pandemic:

Decide How to Respond

Is your volunteer program prepared to respond to community needs? Have you evaluated how you will operate in the fluctuating local COVID-19 environment? Take a moment to think about what your program needs to create safety and consistency heading into a new season of the pandemic:

Questions to ask for a re-evaluation of your program’s current response

Are you current on your local masking mandates and social distancing guidelines?

The CDC has provided guidelines for masking and distancing in the current climate, but make certain to check in with your local government regarding mandates specific to your community.

Have your organization’s goals changed (i.e. fundraising, volunteer recruitment, crisis response, etc.)? 

  • What core services must remain in place despite the current safety concerns?
  • 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 and safely?
  • 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 the current COVID-19 climate?

These questions are 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 respond in one of the following ways:

  1. If your program is equipped to respond, you can take the necessary steps to shift your focus and resources toward response efforts specific to COVID-19. 
  2. If your organization is not prepared to assist current 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 in-person volunteer program temporarily due to an outbreak, consider steering your willing volunteers toward other vetted community organizations that have the tools to respond to COVID-19 effectively. Your organization may also choose to shift to virtual volunteerism.

Communicate Necessary Information

Take a moment to evaluate if the current surge in COVID-19 infections affects your locality. If so, you will need to communicate new regulations and information to your volunteers. Ask yourself 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 updated regulations for responding to COVID-19; and where your volunteer program fits into this response. Feel free to reference the email 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. Transparency is key to continued trust and confidence in your organization. Communicate your organization’s policies and procedures for safe volunteering and communication plans in the event of program pauses due to virus exposure.
  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 government source. 
  4. Update your website and social media channels. These 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 – State the purpose of this email/correspondence
  • Share how your organization is responding to the current COVID-19 climate
  • Clarify how this response specifically affects your volunteer program and volunteers
  • State the next steps or actions that volunteers should take (if any)
  • Include  contact information for questions and concerns
  • Add links to additional resources for volunteers

Continue Social Distancing in Your Volunteer Program

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, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. Upload documents online so that volunteers can access training and onboarding materials easily, continuing to reduce in-person contact. Some organizations have shifted to hosting the bulk of their volunteer training digitally.
  • Keep up with the drive-through method. Consider organizing a drive-through station for supply donations and distribution to limit person-to-person contact. 
  • Promote remote volunteerism. Develop projects and creative ways your volunteers can support your mission while at home. Writing letters, making blankets, gathering and delivering supplies, even virtual mentoring and tutoring 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 your program continues with in-person shifts, ensure your volunteers feel safe with these three tips:

  1. Prepare your volunteer space. Set up hand sanitizer and handwashing stations. Print out and hang up CDC guidelines for effective handwashing and sanitation. Dedicate extra time for cleaning your spaces, and provide personal protective 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 volunteer from home, make them feel valued and let them know about other opportunities to volunteer remotely. Provide them with the necessary training to do so. Your program may also work directly with vulnerable populations and it’s important to consider what your policies will be regarding masking, testing, quarantine, and vaccination status for volunteers and employees. Clarity on policies supports your program in continuing to effectively move forward during uncertain times.
  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. Try hosting an online volunteer Q&A session to answer questions at one time while maintaining a sense of community and connection.

Remember, 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 can face the current challenges and continue to make a positive impact in our communities.

Additional COVID-19 Volunteer Management Resources

FEMA COVID-19 Best Practice Information: Managing and Deploying Volunteers in a Pandemic Environment

5 Ways Volunteer Programs Can Stay the Course During Uncertain Times

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: COVID-19 Dashboard

National Council of Nonprofits: Nonprofits and COVID-19

8 Steps Your Organization Can Take to Promote Safe Volunteerism

Center for Disaster Philanthropy: COVID-19 Report

World Health Organization: COVID-19 Guidance and Updates