Opinion: The future of volunteering in the coronavirus era

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Photo by: European Union / EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / CC BY-NC-ND

It is hard-wired in all of us, as social beings, to connect with each other. While COVID-19 has self-isolated billions of people, it has prompted millions to volunteer in many innovative ways — from making face masks to helping elderly neighbors with shopping to virtual concerts and Pilates classes.

Despite the coronavirus, volunteering for others has continued to thrive as people find new means of connecting and giving their time and skills.

After COVID-19 evacuations, volunteers fear for future of Peace Corps

Following the Peace Corps’ largest mass evacuation of volunteers, questions remain about the organization's capacity to resume international service.

In recent weeks, the pandemic has seen international volunteer cooperation organizations, or IVCOs, repatriate thousands of volunteers from hundreds of countries. It has been an unprecedented logistical feat in unprecedented times. Many international volunteers who are strategically important for the COVID-19 response remained in their placements. Now, IVCOs are adapting their work so they can continue to support partner organizations and communities overseas and thinking about when and how they can safely deploy essential volunteers.

The United Nations estimates that 1 billion people volunteer every year, giving their time to help their own communities or travel abroad. Added to this, the pandemic has sparked a surge in volunteering at the local level. Millions of people are sharing their time, skills, and knowledge to support their fellow self-isolators — from food deliveries for the elderly to walking front-line health care workers’ dogs. In the face of lockdowns and social distancing, volunteers are mobilizing, moving online, and finding entirely new ways to play a crucial role in the coronavirus response.

COVID-19 is also presenting very real challenges for well-established approaches to international volunteering. Moving overseas, living and working with local communities, creating mutual respect and trust by building relationships, and developing capacity according to local needs are now much more challenging.

Fresh thinking is needed now more than ever because volunteers have unique attributes that make them essential to the response and that will put them at the heart of restoring societies and economies when this stage of COVID-19 has passed.

Skilled international volunteers build relationships — with communities, organizations, and governments. These relationships form a solid foundation on which volunteers can create positive change and improve the skills and abilities of their local colleagues.

Because volunteers are part of the communities they support, they develop a deep understanding of local needs and the challenges. Volunteers, and the in-country teams that support them, are uniquely placed to gather and share intelligence with head offices and home governments as to how foreign nations, businesses, and civil society partners are faring during the health crisis and what support they need.

Volunteering is also uniquely flexible. People from all backgrounds sign up to support a wide range of organizations across social, economic, and environmental development. The approach is universal and adaptable; we know from experience that it works in every context and adds value to every type of program, from training medical staff to mentoring small-business owners.

As a result, IVCOs are reimagining their models and pivoting to new ways of working. We see two approaches coming to the fore: online volunteering and support to local, community-level volunteers. Neither of these concepts is entirely new, but they have come into focus in recent weeks as the best ways for volunteers to continue supporting communities, both in their own countries and abroad.

Skilled volunteers who have returned home from overseas placements are continuing to support their host organizations through virtual platforms, and volunteers whose deployments have been delayed are beginning their placements online. Meanwhile, local and national volunteers are being mobilized to keep on-the-ground programs going, and in-country staff are providing direct support to host organizations.

As IVCOs pivot to new models, they are also tackling the challenges of getting volunteers back into the field and of helping volunteers navigate social-distancing restrictions so that they can do their jobs and make an impact. Organizations will need to cooperate and share intelligence on risks, travel, and visa restrictions to make this work.

As in so many areas of our lives, we anticipate a new normal for volunteering, with new models of participation for people and collaboration between IVCOs, and expect that the fresh thinking happening today will have a long-lasting impact on the future of volunteering for development.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • James O'Brien

    James O’Brien is executive coordinator at the International Forum for Volunteering in Development. Prior to joining the forum, he spent a decade in various roles with Voluntary Service Overseas, most recently as Volunteering for Development leadership adviser. He has served as coordinator of the Volunteer Groups Alliance and chair of the Post-2015 Volunteering Working Group and worked with Better Care Network and Lumos on responsible volunteering.