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Virtual Volunteering
Increasing its role post-COVID-19

The COVID-19 Emergency has challenged the volunteering sector globally, and our Peel neighbourhoods and their residents in Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon are right in the thick of this.

Hundreds of residents who have never volunteered before have stepped up during the pandemic to meet immediate needs, and local community service organizations have faced a very steep ‘learning curve’ in seeking to adapt volunteering opportunities to the physical ‘social distancing’ requirements in place, designed to preserve the health and safety of all involved. In so many words, the last 3 months have been a ‘mutual exploration’, undertaken with a common goal: Assist our neighbours most ‘at risk’ and vulnerable, especially those compelled to ‘self-isolate’ without access and resources that prior to mid-March we took for granted. 

Some volunteering ‘roles’ emerged fairly early on that were obvious and of necessity, notably delivery services, gathering of ‘essentials’ to be delivered, and ‘remote’ check in’s (by phone, principally) in order to keep those isolated ‘connected’. More recently, given signs of relaxation of physical restrictions (ie. a gradual return to the kind of ‘in person’ society that we’re used to), the need to have non-medical masks universally available has been recognized, and Volunteer MBC’s ‘mask marvels’ initiative, and that of many others, both anticipated and is answering that important need.

Volunteer MBC has been on the forefront and in close collaboration with our ‘member’ community service organizations and partnered Peel stakeholders, supporting municipal and regional efforts to identify and maximize effective responses to COVID-19 that assist and respect our residents in every capacity (vulnerable individuals and volunteers). Response has been truly magnificent, yet we owe it to our communities to persevere post COVID-19 in seeking ‘solutions’ that will sustain meaningful volunteer ‘roles’ in the volunteer/community service sector.

And as has been the experience of other ‘volunteer centres’ across Canada, volunteer response locally in terms of sheer numbers has far exceeded the availability of ‘roles’ during the Emergency. Volunteer MBC has recognized a growing urgency to restore, adapt, and create volunteer positions in order to engage as many eager volunteers as possible, and we continue to offer guidance and resources to community service organizations to expand volunteer inclusion.

That leads to a very big question: Post pandemic (and the landscape is as yet not known), what will volunteering look like amidst the ‘new normal’? (and there is growing consensus that the ‘normal’ that we knew will no longer exist).

The word ‘virtual’ (telephone, online) has been writ large in the volunteering lexicon of late, although it has always been there, for certain ‘roles’. Given what is bound to be lingering uncertainty, it’s likely that ‘connectivity’ will be redefined to import ‘virtual’ on a much larger scale. Information technology is rapidly responding, and we are beginning to adapt to and utilize it, admittedly with varying degrees of ability, capacity, even reluctance. (After all, isn’t volunteering supposed to be a ‘people to people’ exercise?)

Recognizing the reality of ‘virtual’ volunteering is a must, because to do otherwise (rely upon an exploded ‘status quo’) will severely limit, if not negate, vital ‘connectivity’ within the volunteer sector. Plus, to ignore it will inhibit the ability to engage in a broad spectrum of volunteer experiences and effectiveness. We’d be ‘sidelining’ ourselves, and furthermore, we must offset frustration created by COVID-19 through a basic rethink of ‘connectivity’ to our communities.

We could simply shout, “Get with the program!”, but that wouldn’t do much, because right now, a lot of us continue trying to figure out what ‘the program’ is. Granted … and in order to do define a new way to ‘connect’, we need unprecedented collaboration amongst the sector’s key constituents, with Volunteer MBC and its ‘members’ (indeed all stakeholder service providers and funders) leading the way to achieve a ‘connectivity’ that completely counteracts any lasting effects of COVID-19, then convince established and aspiring volunteers that not only is this (‘virtual’) volunteering an option, but also that it’s the most effective solution for restoration of delivery and impact of volunteerism.

Everyone must face this challenge together. Time to really ‘roll up our sleeves’, engage in mutual enlightenment about how volunteering can be both ‘virtual’ and effective, explore use of resources (including latest ‘IT’), then bring our forever willing volunteers into the conversation. We owe this to ourselves, our sector, and most of all to those within our communities whom we serve.

Robert MacFarlane
Consultant, Referral Services