According to a recent AmeriCorps report, “Volunteering in America,” Iowa ranks fourth in the nation for volunteerism, with 41.5% of the state’s residents contributing their time to a variety of charitable and nonprofit organizations. But while the volunteering game is essentially the same, and most nonprofits still have a substantial need for volunteer help, the […]
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According to a recent AmeriCorps report, “Volunteering in America,” Iowa ranks fourth in the nation for volunteerism, with 41.5% of the state’s residents contributing their time to a variety of charitable and nonprofit organizations.
But while the volunteering game is essentially the same, and most nonprofits still have a substantial need for volunteer help, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the rules of engagement in many ways and brought some new strategies to the playing field, according to those who deal with the volunteer community on a regular basis.
Kayla Paulson, senior manager of community resource and volunteer engagement for the United Way of East Central Iowa, says many agencies who regularly employ volunteers have found new ways to work together since the pandemic’s onset.
“It’s been kind of a hodgepodge,” Ms. Paulson said. “We’ve got some organizations that aren’t needing the same volume of volunteers as they have before. Perhaps their services or events have (decreased). So, some of them are asking us, ‘How can I help my volunteers serve somewhere?’ They’re biting at the bit to serve here, but we don’t have any opportunities for them.”
Ms. Paulson pointed to the Riverview Center, a Cedar Rapids agency that serves victims of domestic violence. Riverview wasn’t able to work directly with victims in local hospitals at the pandemic’s peak, but formed a partnership with the Willis Dady Center, an agency primarily serving the homeless community, to help reach those needing Riverview’s services.
“They (Riverview) were able to connect with people and serve the population that they needed to, while also helping Willis Dady,” Ms. Paulson said. “So, we’ve seen some great synergy.”
Ms. Paulson said she’s even proposed a term for this new phenomenon with colleagues nationwide.
“Could we call this volunteer co-oping?” she said. “It’s almost a collaborative model, where agencies are saying, ‘you know what, we have similar missions. My work is kind of slowed down or paused. Your work has ramped up. How can we work together?’”
Being able to keep volunteers engaged is critical to retaining their services long-term and perpetuating the volunteering habit, Ms. Paulson said.
“That’s something that I love about nonprofits, because we know that once volunteers volunteer, they volunteer more,” she said. “It’s a snowball effect. Being able to keep those volunteers serving, they’re more likely to come back to that agency that they originally were with when there’s opportunity available. Once you quit that behavior … if they become (accustomed) to not being able to spend their time volunteering, they’re trying to refill and rearrange their schedules. I have so many retirees that say, ‘I don’t know how I had time to work before. Now I’m so busy volunteering and serving the community.’ And I say it’s because you have 24 hours (a day) to spend. We all choose how we spend it each day. Now, you get the privilege of being able to choose to spend it in a way you want. And serving the community is important to them.”
COVID-19 precautions have played a critical role for a large cross-section of volunteers, said Betsy Shelton, communications and engagement officer for Volunteer Iowa.
“Typically in Iowa, the majority of our volunteers are retired individuals,” Ms. Shelton said. “And with that group being the most vulnerable to COVID-19, they’ve been a little more cautious getting back to in-person volunteering.”
However, Ms. Shelton also pointed to another large-scale volunteer group that’s helped fill many volunteer gaps in Iowa — AmeriCorps workers.
“AmeriCorps programs tend to have younger members serving, and many of those positions were in-person, volunteer service situations (before the pandemic),” Ms. Shelton said. “We flipped them, so a lot of them who were no longer serving in person at their regular sites went into working in food banks and food pantries, where there was a great need for more volunteers and retired folks were staying home. Or some of them pivoted to remote service, figuring out how to still be able to serve as an AmeriCorps member in their role but from a virtual position.”
Unfortunately, that strategy didn’t work in all cases, Ms. Shelton said, and it’s been difficult in some cases to bring new volunteers into the fold.
“We did also have (AmeriCorps) people who ended their terms of service,” she said, “either because they weren’t comfortable being in person at a food bank or a food pantry, or I wasn’t able to figure out how to have them continue to serve in a virtual setting. We’ve been trying to fill some of those volunteer gaps where there was the most need. We are seeing those volunteer numbers pick back up now, but we still aren’t back to pre-pandemic levels.”
The world of virtual volunteering has opened the door to a number of people who might not have previously considered volunteer service, particularly those with specific professional skills that many organizations are routinely seeking.
“We are always encouraging nonprofits to think of skilled volunteer needs that are more often done at a virtual level,” she said. “Some organizations might need assistance with accounting or auditing a website or graphic design work – things that take a little more skill than sorting through food or packaging food boxes. They might be temporary projects that could take three weeks to three months to a year. Especially moving forward, you might not have somebody in the office to answer phones for you, but you might be able to find somebody that can help out with designing a weekly newsletter, or something to that effect.”
Some previous volunteers may be reluctant to return to their previous roles, while others are eager to get back into action. It’s all about the intangible benefits of serving others, Ms. Paulson said.
“If you look at our highest volunteer base in Iowa, it’s a very mature crowd,” she said. “Some of them might not be comfortable doing virtual, but even for those that are comfortable, the reason they volunteered to begin with was that human interaction. They got to get up in the morning, they got to go see individuals. A lot of volunteers are single, so they don’t have a loved one at home with them. That was their human interaction. And when you hear the paid workforce say, ‘I miss having in-person meetings, it’s a different connection’ – it’s the same thing with volunteering. For those who needed that social piece, virtual volunteering may not fill that need. It might not be as mutually beneficial as it was before.”
Ms. Shelton said she feels that more people will resume volunteering as the pandemic subsides.
“It’s a lot about giving back to your community,” she said. “There are a lot of studies that show there are physical, mental and emotional benefits to volunteering. Those are the things we try to emphasize, that giving back to the community can make some real differences to your well-being.”
And Ms. Paulson said she hopes volunteerism will continue expanding into new, and younger, populations.
“When we’re connecting with Gen Z and some of our younger generations of volunteers, many of them want to make a difference and want to be cutting edge,” she said. “These new ‘let’s try things virtual, but be innovative and agile’ strategies are appealing to them. We know volunteerism is down and social interaction is down. But is it giving us an opportunity to lean in and engage a younger population? There are some organizations that are saying, we’re not going to go back to the old way. We’re going to go to a new normal.”