Could coronavirus be the catalyst for a volunteering revolution?

One of the significant demands resulting from the Coronavirus crisis of 2020 has been the need for new and novel ways for voluntary support to be facilitated. The ability for assistance to reach the most vulnerable or living in isolation or quarantine in safe ways is vital to saving lives and mitigating the spread of the pandemic. 

There are also other demands unfolding for food re-distribution, where tech enabled volunteer networks are best suited to respond to the needs of the crisis. Traditional models for volunteering do not quite fit nor have they been able to mould to the size and shape of the Corona Virus challenge under government recommendations and restrictions. 

Instead the crisis has represented an opportunity to catalyse growth to the fullest extent of a relatively new concept to most of us, that is, “virtual volunteering.” However virtual volunteering in a technical sense, is not a new concept. Call centres, which emerged in the 1980’s began a trend of enabling support to reach those in need from ‘remote’ volunteers at telecentres. Fast forward 30 odd years and such technological advances have made app’s such as ‘BeMyEyes’ possible. With the revolutionary BeMyEyes app, remote virtual volunteers are able to assist blind people remotely to read use by dates for example or assist them around the house. But could it be during the Corona Virus crisis, tech enabled virtual volunteering has found it raison d’etre? 

The rally cry resounds

The UK government’s GoodSam initiative call out for NHS volunteers smashed its target of 250,000 sign ups in the first four hours of its it’s launch, a deluge of three quarters of a million committing to volunteer. Resulting from the same surge in sentiment, the vitality of app enabled opportunities for volunteering has resounded rapidly through networks. During this time, the idea of virtual volunteering has captured whole communities, faster than any cost intensive Facebook ad or google campaign. With sweeping sentiments such as this, barriers to technological adoption that would have previously taken a decade to overcome are suddenly non-existent. 

The UK has certainly been a country that has always had a highly giving mentality with 38% of the population volunteering at least once in 2019. However, tech enabled volunteering can take some of the potential pitfalls and barriers out of traditional volunteering in order to truly make the most of our collective generosity. Historically one challenge for volunteering had been individual’s immediate needs not being able to adapt to the busy working lives of volunteers. If somebody didn’t turn up, an individual or an organisation wouldn’t necessarily automatically know, nor would you be able to automatically send a replacement. The fear of would be volunteers letting people down in this way has often deterred more people from volunteering in the first place or stopped them from continuing. 

Building a virtual support network

But virtual volunteering “has been built to take these frictions out of the experience,” explains Clara McGuire founder of ‘Onhand.’ The volunteering app is a virtual network of volunteers who can provide support and assistance to the elderly or vulnerable in isolation in London under lockdown. During the Coronavirus pandemic they have seen their volunteer numbers ‘quadruple’ explains Clara. The app has been developed to immediately respond to the exact needs of a person requiring assistance, adapting to the ability and availability of volunteers in real time. This responsible responsivity built into the backend tech also drives up the repeat ratio of volunteers and provides a better experience for the person in need.

Tech enabled volunteering isn’t just limited to the care of people. ‘OLIO,’ the food waste app, enables volunteers to share what would otherwise be wasted with the local community and was developed by Tessa Clarke and Sasha Celestial One back in 2015. OLIO has now reached two million ‘OLIERS’ globally, with ‘Food Waste Heroes’ collecting substantial amounts of food from the likes of Pret, Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s. Overall, “we’ve seen the volume of redistributed food, double in the past 30 days,” revealed Tessa. Due to the coronavirus imposed restrictions more food would otherwise have gone to waste due to tough inventory management conditions in supermarkets, compounded by restaurant and café closures. Meanwhile, the 1.3 million children entitled to school meals are now not being provided for in this way, putting families under increased pressure.  

In a ballerina-esq pivot from OLIO, virtual volunteer cooks, that include volunteer celebrity chefs, from Melissa Hemsley to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are relinquishing their culinary skills via the OLIO app specifically for those families and people in greatest need. Via their #Cook4Kids and their #Cook4Carers campaign, food does not go to waste and meals are specifically requested by those most in need, with volunteer cooks able to respond to the real time requests of the community. 'During COVID-19 we’ve seen a 30% increase in neighbour to neighbour food sharing,’ explained Tessa Clarke noting the certain rise in virtual volunteering. 

A crisis of missed opportunity 

Though some may claim this crisis a moment of victory for the volunteer sector, it is only virtually so. There are still certain challenges to overcome. Fully tech enabled DBS checks for virtual volunteering are still not permitted where vulnerable people are concerned. In comparison security checks are allowed to be carried out remotely via ‘Onfido’ in the banking sector for example. Instead this tech enabled innovation is held back by local government restrictions and volunteers are required to attend for a face to face meeting. “This severely slows down the on boarding process for volunteers.” explained Clara. “The process for DBS checking is incredibly time consuming and requires an authorised person to validate your identity.” This is perhaps especially unnecessary during a time when we’ve all had to adapt and change our thinking in response to the crisis.

Furthermore, there would be an opportunity during Coronavirus to capture data pertaining to the very specific needs of the most vulnerable in our society; for food, for volunteer services or any other kind of support we can’t otherwise anticipate. With this data we might be able to better prepare for future challenges. However, without prior anticipation of this, mechanisms have not necessarily been put into place and crucial data is potentially being lost. There is no doubt the volunteer sentiment in the UK is strong. With the rise of technical adoption in the volunteer sector catalysed by this crisis, we have an opportunity to strengthen our response on a global scale for now and for the future.