IFRC sees global surge in volunteer sign-ups

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Bahamas Red Cross volunteers before delivering meals as part of a Meals on Wheels program. Photo by: Eartha Hanna / Bahamas Red Cross

ALICANTE, Spain — The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has seen a global surge in volunteer numbers this year, according to new figures released to mark International Volunteers Day on Saturday.

While a total figure is yet to be announced, the humanitarian aid organization says thousands of new volunteers have joined its national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies — including 78,000 in the U.S., 60,000 in Italy, and 35,000 in Kenya — in hopes of aiding their local communities.

COVID-19 is thought to be behind the influx.

“In response to unprecedented humanitarian need during COVID-19, we are really witnessing unprecedented humanity and kindness,” Francesco Rocca, president of IFRC, said in an email, adding that beating a pandemic requires such solidarity.

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Volunteer activities include delivering essential items, transporting patients, distributing personal protective equipment, and helping with testing and contact tracing. Volunteers might also help with providing health information to communities or psychosocial support to vulnerable and quarantined people.

While the loss of jobs and shuttering of universities could have contributed to the rise in volunteerism, Rocca said many want to feel connected and serve their local community.

Tracy Kyomuhendo, a student from Kampala, said she joined the Uganda Red Cross Society when COVID-19 hit to help protect her community. “Some people here didn’t even think coronavirus was real,” she said, explaining the need for outreach.

While the surge has allowed IFRC to reach more people, there have been challenges in bringing on so many volunteers in such a short span of time.

Kenya Red Cross youth volunteers take part in a COVID-19 response on infection prevention and control in communities. Photo by: Kenya Red Cross

Typically, volunteer training takes days or even weeks, Rocca said. During the pandemic, IFRC had to pivot to providing online courses and tools and, where possible, having volunteers conduct their activities online too — such as turning field data into reports, translating health-related messaging, and sourcing PPE.

“I think that once you build trust, you are accountable and transparent, you are delivering to your local communities, it is relatively easy to add some tools — such as webinars and virtual meetings — to keep up with these times and to provide the virtual answer needed,” Rocca said.

For example, a new program in Italy enabled volunteers to join after the completion of an online course about protection measures before performing tasks such as delivering supplies to vulnerable people and working in local branches. “This was a way to get new volunteers on-board in a short time frame,” he said.

IFRC has also been working hand in hand with the national societies to put in place more robust internal systems — such as training opportunities, volunteer recognitions, and involvement in decision-making processes — to handle and retain new volunteers.

Another challenge has been the procurement of PPE for volunteers. “This is why one of my actual priorities is to make sure that our Red Cross/Red Crescent volunteers — at least the ones responding to COVID-19 — will be prioritized in getting vaccines as the health workers,” Rocca said.

“In response to unprecedented humanitarian need during COVID-19, we are really witnessing unprecedented humanity and kindness.”

— Francesco Rocca, president, IFRC

COVID-19 has highlighted concerns that local volunteers do not always have the same level of support as other aid professionals.

“Volunteers must get the proper tools, training, services — [for example] mental health support — which will give them the idea that they are valued and supported by their organization,” Rocca said. “I believe volunteers will stay if they feel that the Red Cross/Red Crescent is a second home, a second family.”

Already, many temporary volunteers have registered to become permanent after the pandemic, Rocca said. Volunteer numbers are typically boosted by around 40% when a disaster happens, and numbers remain high for at least two to three years, according to IFRC.

“There are other pressing situations every day, even if we don’t realize it,” said Ludovica Pugi, an information technology worker and volunteer in Florence, Italy, adding that she plans to continue volunteering after the pandemic.

How to mobilize people and how to retain them — especially younger generations — with new tools will form part of IFRC’s Strategy 2030 for the next decade, Rocca said. The strategy outlines a focus on finding “creative ways to connect volunteers” while using innovation and digital engagement tools. Though a COVID-19 vaccine might be in sight, volunteers remain vital to the many humanitarian crises IFRC works to address.

“So while International Volunteers Day is rightly a moment to celebrate their extraordinary efforts in this extraordinary year, I want our volunteers to know that we support and appreciate them every day, and that every single hour they dedicate to serving their communities counts,” Rocca said.

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  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.