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  • Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA

The Future of Volunteering Isn’t Virtual, I’ll Tell You Why

Updated: May 5


Virtual volunteering is at an all-time high as the spread of COVID-19 poses increased health risks to in-person engagement. As a result, there’s been an increase in society’s expectation to give time through digital mediums. I’ll be the first to admit this is a silver lining. Virtual volunteerism is finally getting its due respect. We’re even seeing this manifest in other forms. In just a matter of weeks the pandemic accelerated the adoption of virtual and remote practices across many industries. 9 to 5 jobs traditionally performed in office buildings have transformed almost overnight to positions carried out by a workforce that’s almost completely remote. Those in human services pivoted to video consultation while educators adopted distance learning. Hell, even health and fitness instructors are taking greater interest in creating home workout videos in efforts to continue engaging their customers.


It goes without saying this shift is a classic case of adapt and overcome. It’s paving the way and shining a light on virtual volunteerism in a positive way not seen before. I’ll also add that virtual volunteerism isn’t new. Opportunities have always existed, and given the circumstances there isn’t a better time to explore these options if you haven’t done so yet.


That being said, while progress to adopt such methods has accelerated, it’s not the future of volunteering as some claim. So, we must be realistic in expectation setting for both society and the field of volunteer engagement (in both corporate employee and non-profit volunteer programs). With more than 1.5 million non-profits in the United States, virtual volunteerism will never be the backbone or primary way for most non-profits to gain support and deliver services. Anybody telling you otherwise is either lying to you (and themselves) or they’re ill-informed. They’d be guilty of peddling a fallacy that won’t stand up. I’ll tell you why.


The human connection can’t be outdone by any number of emails or video calls. This is precisely why politicians recruit surrogates to host campaign rallies and political agents who stand up field operation offices among the electorate. Simply put, virtual forms of connection are merely tools. Just like every tool that exists, they have their place and limited function. These tools can be overused and even misused or abused. While some tools are great in supplementing or adding capabilities, like everything, too much of anything can be bad. Lastly, some either don’t know how to effectively use these tools, and others simply lack access.

Photo by Anna Biasoli on Unsplash

First there’s the human element that must be addressed.


It’s important to understand the human brain receives information in varying ways, based on the way it’s transmitted. There are some methods of communication that are far more effective than others. There’s no doubt digital mediums play an important part in effective communication.


But when we think about mobilizing volunteers for a cause, human interaction trumps digital more times than not. When moving people to action, you’re attempting to reach a person’s inner most values and emotion. Yes, there’s a place for electronic media and video calls, but you lose the intimate, sincere and authentic connection through the digital divide when doing so, even when using video. Want to know why? The secret lies within the very genetic makeup of the human species; it’s an animalistic instinct built into each of us.


Ironically digital media in many instances has created a feeling of being more connected, all the while making us more disconnected. You know what I’m talking about. These feelings are currently being exacerbated as we self-isolate in our homes. But I’ll concede and admit there’s a place for digital connections. However, the issue remains; digital forms of communication can sometimes come off as detached or even unengaging to people. So why do we still yearn for in-person face-to-face interaction with others?


It’s because humans long for that personal connection. With the earliest known social animal (the primate) dating back over 55 million years, connection through a digital medium is just a blip on the radar in comparison. Knowing this, it shouldn’t shock anyone that humans need to interact, it’s woven through our genetic makeup. Humans are a “social animal.”


The answer won’t be virtual volunteering.


We socialize with our own species (and others), creating distinct societies. As a result, our brains are hardwired to interact and engage with others. Think about it. We hug, shake hands, fist-bump, elbow-bump, high-five, we communicate through body language. Some even argue that the need for human interaction is so strong, by depriving a person of relationships you’d undoubtedly cause physical, psychological and emotional harm.


It’s within our nature as a species to connect with others, so it only makes sense that this is the strongest connection to be made. After all, the widespread use of digital mediums has only existed for the greater part of six decades. Compared to human history, it’s well within its infancy stages as a form of connection. The in-person connection aims to strike the essential emotional chord that exists in every human. It’s for this reason that virtual volunteerism (as one of many forms) won’t take over or become the primary means for many.


As a result, I believe non-profit organizations more often are most effective if they have a physical human presence among the people they’re calling to action and those they serve.


The human connection aside, many non-profits provide services that can only be accomplished by physical labor. Of course, those not working in a direct service of front-line role (i.e. human resources, IT, policy and framework design or other administrative functions) may still work remotely. But some roles can only be done through a physical act.

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

The vast majority of non-profits engage volunteers.


While this number is a bit dated, it’s estimated close to 88 percent of all non-profits engage volunteers in some form of service. This ranges from one-time traditional episodic forms of volunteerism to longer-term skills-based pro-bono projects and even board level services.


But since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many non-profits experienced a dramatic decline in volunteer commitment. Most of this through no fault of their own. With government mandated stay-at-home orders in effect many non-profits simply cancelled most of their events. Compounding on the matter, for those that didn’t (because their services are deemed essential), volunteers simply cancelled out of concern for their own health.


According to a VolunteerMatch survey of their 1,000 close community partners, 93 percent experienced cancellations due to the pandemic. Of course, people still want to volunteer, they’re now just expressing the need for additional options. This makes sense, they want to support, but in a safe manner. As a result, volunteer opportunities must adapt to the current situation. However, there are some non-profits that deliver their services in a way that virtual volunteerism simply can’t satisfy.


Environmental organizations that plant trees and restore our natural parklands and waterways are a prime example. Sure, you might be able to support some functions that may require use of technology like GIS software or other mapping tools, but the execution often requires physical energy being expended by volunteers in the parks laying groundwork. This is also the case for organizations in food service. There’s an aspect of the job that requires the sourcing, shipping, sorting and organizing, cooking (in some cases), packaging and the dispersal of food to families in need.


These non-profits are feeling the greatest strain as they’ve seen a massive dip in funding, volunteers and in-kind and food donations.


While these organizations are modifying their service delivery models, it’s in the form of no-contact or on-site volunteering that’s incorporating practices of social distancing. But even youth-based programs that provide after-school extracurricular and sports-oriented activities have been massively impacted. Again, these are organizations that aim to build emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical resiliency in youth through play, mentoring and companionship. While some programs can offer online or distance opportunities, there’s still a great deal that can’t be performed through a digital medium. Lastly, organizations that serve the homeless require lodging, often in close quarters.


With over 1.5 million non-profits in the United States, this is just scratching the surface. There are many more organizations like those just mentioned.


For the fortunate non-profits that can pivot their services to be delivered online, there are still barriers. Some of these include lack of digital literacy amongst staff, in addition to inadequate IT infrastructure or the funding needed to make that shift technologically.


There’s a digital divide within non-profits and the communities they serve.


There’s an increased appetite by companies with employee volunteer programs (EVP) to incorporate virtual volunteerism into their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies. In addition to responsible businesses pivoting, so are many individual citizens. They’re doing so with a heightened (and maybe even unrealistic) expectation of shifting their support from in-person to virtual. I’ve seen this first-hand. But according to a VolunteerMatch survey of corporate partners, approximately 74 percent have made modifications to their EVPs.


While this isn’t a surprise, I suspect there are many non-profits that simply aren’t equipped to meet that demand. This is resulting in a situation where there is too much demand with too little supply. Now, that’s not to say non-profits don’t want the support, they do, really. However, when I assess the reality, non-profits that want to capture this energy simply don’t always have the digital literacy necessary to pivot to virtual volunteerism. So, while companies are more eagerly offering skills-based and pro-bono expertise virtually, many non-profits are woefully unequipped to utilize what’s being offered.


Why you ask? Well, many non-profits lack the capacity to deviate from their normal services even for one second to think through new concepts, frameworks or delivery methods that may be foreign to them.


They lack that capacity due in part from having limited time, staff, money, infrastructure and in some cases even talent. But wait, there’s more!


In addition to a digital divide experienced by non-profit organizations, there’s also another barrier. Which one you ask? It’s that virtual volunteering is still not accessible by many. I’ll tell you why.

Image by Greg Plominski from Pixabay

There are inequities and COVID-19 has exposed them.


Currently, it’s estimated that close to 10 percent of the United States population doesn’t use the internet. Some of these folks include those who have no interest or don’t feel it’s relevant to their needs. It also includes those who don’t have access because they live in poverty. And while the percentage of Americans who are offline has declined dramatically over the years, it’s believed the number of those who can’t access internet may be greater than assessed.


Let’s address this quickly.


It requires a certain degree of privilege to have adequate internet access. Right this second, there are still families whose children are being forced into distance learning due to state mandates resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, these same families still lack access to the internet to continue the school year, let alone access to the internet to volunteer. For starters volunteering is a privilege. Those with more time and money have more access to volunteering. Those with more time and money also have greater access to virtual forms of volunteering.


Now, while that number is believed to be 10 percent, I mentioned that number may be higher. According to The Guardian, Broadband Now, a company which helps people find ISPs, estimated that number to be closer to 13 percent. Similarly, independent research performed by a team from Microsoft claims it’s closer to 50 percent.


So, on the conservative side, 10 percent of Americans don’t have internet access, but, that number could be as high as 50 percent. Folks, on the extreme side that’s one out of every two Americans. The disparity that exists is an entirely different subject that must be addressed. However, based on these numbers I know virtual volunteerism will be inaccessible to some. But, lets recap this for a second.


At a time while social distancing is what’s needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, virtual volunteering is surging, rightfully so. I’m happy that virtual volunteerism is gaining the attention and respect that’s past due. The increased demand is a silver lining for the culture of volunteerism. However, the demand may exceed the current supply. Sure, companies and those with internet access want to give virtually, but many non-profits simply aren’t equipped to engage in that manner. And really, this expectation of non-profits to deliver (while not having the capability to do so) only further complicates things. Compounding on this dilemma, there are clear inequities in society preventing accessibility for many. So, with all of that said, while virtual volunteerism has clearly received a bump, it won’t be until these gaps are filled that it’ll be understood as a mainstay opportunity. For now, it’ll be what’s sought. But long-term it simply defies logic to think virtual volunteerism is the future of giving one’s time.


It’ll be months after COVID-19 is behind us that people will feel comfortable being near one another. I believe non-profits will still maintain caution while implementing creative in-person services, even after vaccines and therapeutics exist.


But just as people will eventually pack restaurants, stadiums, airplanes, buses, trains and hotels, we’ll eventually see the gradual resurgence of in-person volunteerism. Partly because we’re hardwired this way, but also because many non-profits still need in-person service. This is one man’s thought on the situation thought. I imagine others feel differently. If that’s you, let me know. I value diversity of thought and know I don’t always have the answers, so I’d love to have dialogue on this topic. To me, sharing ideas and opinions (and being open to discussing them) is just one way of staying Responsible AF. In the meantime, stay safe and be well.

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