“Volunteers have the power to change lives, build social cohesion, enhance civic participation, mitigate conflict, and contribute to a society’s well-being.” The United Nations 

Across the globe, 5th Dec is celebrated as International Volunteer Day, and hence we take this opportunity to reflect on the virtues that volunteerism brings to both the organisation and individuals. For an individual, volunteering with an impact organisation provides an opportunity to give back to the community, to develop professional skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, and task management. It also provides individuals with the opportunity to network with other like-minded peers. For an impact organisation, volunteers provide additional support and a new outlook on the achievement of their overall developmental goals. They bring a diverse mindset and help reach a wider beneficiary community with their experience and knowledge.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a very interesting impact on volunteering in the country. Impact organisations have been forced to shift their operations to an online medium. For impact organisations, this sudden transition has been difficult and the contributions of volunteers are more relevant than ever before. For the eighth edition of Samvada: Dialogue for Impact, IndiVillage spoke to four impact organisations that actively work on volunteerism namely iVolunteer, U&I, Concern India Foundation, and Bhumi to understand how impact organisations have successfully adapted their volunteer engagements to meet their needs during COVID. 

Entering the Virtual Space 

During this pandemic, everything moved online, and NGOs were forced to have a greater presence on social media platforms. Many organisations do not have adequate resources to transition to a digital presence, this is where the role of the volunteer becomes very important in providing support to impact groups. 

“Online volunteering existed before the pandemic, however, there was not really a demand for from NGOs or volunteers.” said iVolunteer, an organisation that connects individual volunteers to NGOs based on the interest of the volunteers and the needs of the NGOs. “During the pandemic, there was a transition. Earlier, organisations looked for volunteers for on-field activities such as teaching students or painting schools. Since the lockdown, there is a need for volunteers in domains such as content writing, website design, and social media management.” 

“When the pandemic started, we were quick to adapt our model to an online medium. Prior to the pandemic, we would have orientation sessions at the centres, but we shifted that to an online medium so that volunteers could continue to support the needs of the NGO,” says Bhumi, one of India’s largest independent and youth volunteer non-profit organisations. The organisation provides youngsters a platform to give back to their communities. “We also started a campaign called Digital Utsav where we supported other NGOs with technical and design volunteers to build an impactful website for themselves.” 

Online Fundraising 

The COVID pandemic had strong implications on the economy. For many impact organisations the outcome of this was especially seen in the area of funding. Corporates faced huge losses during the lockdown, and hence their donations to NGOs also reduced drastically. Similarly, a majority of government aids and grants were also directed towards providing support and COVID relief. In order to fill these voids, and raise awareness and funds, several organisations went on online platforms such as Ketto and Milaap. This is where volunteers also played a role in supporting fundraiser campaigns.

“We had several volunteers who came back and said that they wanted to raise money to support our partner organisations,” said Concern India Foundation, an NGO which focuses on raising funds for local grassroots organisations. They also provide capacity training and programmatic support to help grassroot organisations further work towards achieving their goals. “What we have observed is that people are very disturbed by the contemporary set of affairs, so there are more people who are moving forward to provide support in whatever capacity possible.” 

Volunteering for Online Education 

The country is presently in the middle of an education crisis. With schools being shut and access to technological resources being scarce, the possibility of online classes has been limited.. Individual attention needs to be given to children who are transitioning to a virtual platform. There is a great need for volunteers to support education programs. Before the pandemic, U&I worked extensively with volunteers to provide support for their after-school learning program which consists of teaching underprivileged children courses in English, Maths, Science, and Social Studies.  

“When the lockdown was first announced, we realised that this was here to stay and hence planned an online transaction accordingly. Since Summer vacations were going on, we used the time to map out technological resources that were available to children in their homes and our centers. We made sure to provide equipment to students so that we could conduct online sessions,” said U&I. “We also spent time training our volunteers so that they too could handle a switch to an online model. Many of our old volunteers chose to return to the program and reduced our responsibility for new recruitment. We expect our volunteers to give around 2 and a half hours every week for an academic year, a nine-month period. We also pair our volunteers with only 3-4 students so that each student gets individual attention and a chance to develop themselves.” 

“Usually in government schools, children are not given much attention, but here students will be given individual attention because of the volunteer to student ratio. And due to this, we have seen some improvements in children’s performances. The majority of these children are first generation learners, and they do not receive support at home, so we are trying to bridge that divide by providing them with support. Many of them would have dropped out of school due to the lack of attention or space for their skills to develop. Since almost all of our volunteers belong to the best universities or the best workspaces, we are able to provide the most deserving students who need support, the best the city has to offer,” adds U&I. 

“At the start of the lockdown, we observed a sudden increase in the number of volunteers. As they were keen to work in the education domain, we connected them with underprivileged children. The volunteers taught English, Hindi, Maths, or computer science based on their skills.” said Bhumi. “We also introduced a program called ‘Eco-Champs’ which is an environment sensitisation program to empower students to become proactive practitioners of an eco-friendly lifestyle through an immersive and hands-on experience, spanning 5 months. Ensuring  continuous efforts, we tried to engage our students in different kinds of activities at home, virtually.” 

What comes next? 

While online volunteering was something that was forced upon many impact organisations during the pandemic, there are many advantages to it that cannot be overlooked. Virtual volunteering during COVID has brought meaningful ways for volunteers to give back within the comforts of their home. For NGOs, virtual volunteering helps reduce costs and provide the needed support in the middle of this crisis. Moving online also increases the scope of volunteering. The barrier of location is no longer there, someone sitting in Singapore can now teach one of our children from a shelter home in the outskirts of Chennai. 

“At the end of the day, we knew that the online model was here to stay, so when we planned our intervention, we wanted to ensure that it was not a band-aid measure but a long term solution. In these months, the pandemic forced us to up our technological capital. Hence, what would have happened in 4-5 years, happened in months. While the online model is not a replacement for the offline one, there are many benefits to it. We can also introduce new elements to our programs with an online model, so moving forward our operations will have a blended approach of learning,” adds U&I. 

The online medium is not without challenges. For organisations it becomes difficult to monitor volunteers’ activities and to ensure that they honour their commitments. Since there is a lack of technological resources, it becomes difficult to connect individual volunteers with stakeholders. Without the face to face interaction, it is challenging for volunteers to engage children in activities. Another major obstacle for these organisations is managing the expectations of the partner NGOs. There is an increased demand for work, however, volunteers cannot be overburdened. Organisations need to find a balance between setting expectations whilst ensuring that volunteers are not overburdened. 

At the start of the pandemic, there was an increase in the number of volunteers. Impact organisations attribute this increase to the fact that individuals had more time on their hands. There was also a greater desire to give back to the community. However, with the easing of lockdown restrictions, there has been a gradual reduction in the number of volunteers. Presently with the ongoing pandemic, impact organisations need volunteer support now more than ever. So while many may not be able to donate money, there is scope to donate your time, in kind. 

Written By: Nikita Chatterjee

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