5 Insights to Revitalizing Volunteer Connection and Purpose

Posted Wednesday, July 20th, 2022 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

As volunteerism picks back up across the nation, the need for human connection has been revitalized, and finding purpose in volunteering is stronger than ever. Partnerships with organizations like Meals on Wheels America (MOWA), which work to improve the health and quality of life of seniors, are a glowing example of a collaborative, nationwide volunteer community brought together in shared purpose.

Sterling Volunteers’ Executive Director, Katie Zwetzig, along with Sharron Corle, Director of Learning and Development at Meals on Wheels America, joined together for an episode of Sterling Live, hosted by Sterling’s Social Media Manager, Katelyn Bower. Their lively discussion focused on the current state of the volunteer community and identified key insights on how organizations are revitalizing volunteer connection and purpose.

Read on for the conversation highlights, or watch the full live recording below. To watch more episodes in the series, visit Sterling’s YouTube channel.

Insight #1: Reviving Volunteerism From the Covid-19 Pandemic

Sharron: With MOWA members volunteering in every geography, we have found that the Covid-19 restrictions impacted them all similarly. Some programs are now completely going back to pre-Covid days, except they’re serving more people now. Others aren’t fully open yet, and those are largely the congregate programs where seniors meet, have a meal, and interact with each other in a public space.

Many volunteers are seniors themselves and were homebound at the beginning of the pandemic due to risk of contracting the virus. Programs lost those volunteers, some of whom then became new clients. Now we are moving to the flip-side of that. Our programs are looking at this more promising period as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and revitalize their meal deliveries. Many of our volunteers now do a hybrid delivery with a hot meal and frozen meal.

Additionally, some programs offer a kind of virtual volunteering using telephone connections, and they’re making plans to continue this outreach. Many programs have also transitioned to doing all their volunteer training online, and they are never going back.

Insight #2: Shifts in Volunteer Recruitment and Engagement

Sharron: Increasingly, there is interest in recruiting volunteers who are more reflective of the communities they serve. For example, if our population is largely Hispanic or Vietnamese, we’re asking ourselves, how can we recruit those volunteers? How do we go about building relationships in those communities so that we become a trusted resource, and people are willing volunteer for us?

There has also been an upsurge in the past couple of years with interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Virtual opportunities are also growing to help form connection and purpose.

At MOWA’s volunteer symposium, a panel of members discussed recruitment strategies. One of the most popular strategies that a member program had was using yard signs. Believe it or not, a yard sign that reads, “We’re looking for volunteers: call this number or look at this web page,” is popular.

On another front, some programs recently saw an opportunity to revitalize their social media. One program has a live cat who “posts” on their social media channels. The cat is actually recruiting volunteers and is extremely popular online.

Katie: A rising number of nonprofits we serve are indicating that virtual engagement in volunteerism is here to stay. While Sharron highlighted the organizational perspective, we also hear from volunteers that they like virtual opportunities too. That’s one good thing that has come out of Covid-19 and has benefited both the organizations and their volunteers. Many organizations are also reporting a lot more virtual fundraising.

Insight #3: Hybrid Workforce and Virtual Volunteer Programming

Sharron: We found that people based in offices could work virtually and remotely, but the people who produced meals had to show up and be in the kitchens. There was some uncertainty at the beginning of Covid-19 about whether Meals on Wheels was an essential business or not. Getting everyone to wear masks was quite a transition, and then programs had to decide what they were going to do with vaccinations.

Most programs are happy with virtual volunteering and other virtual opportunities such as virtual exercise classes that you can join from a Zoom link and do yoga-style exercises using a chair. While they weren’t able to perform these exercises before, our audience of seniors is now well-acclimated. There are a lot of these great connection opportunities available for people who are homebound but who make the most of these virtual opportunities.

I think that a lot of these programs are going to remain hybrid. Especially because our members are so geographically distributed, most of them like that educational programming is virtual anyway. With the virtual space evolving so quickly, we developed a whole series of product lines. We will likely keep some of those moving in the near future to keep members connected, and also to share best practices on what’s working. Some programs will transition out since they are no longer relevant or serve a purpose.

Katie: We quickly pivoted and altered our thought leader series to include webinar topics and tools on virtual volunteering, recruiting in a virtual world, and so forth. The feedback has been positive, and more of these resources can be found here.

From a product standpoint, in this virtual world you don’t necessarily get to meet the volunteer face-to-face. Nor can you check their driver’s license and make sure they are who they say they are. With this issue in mind, Sterling has an exclusive partnership with ID.me, where we are overlaying identity verification on a standard background check and finding a lot of success.

Insight #4: Economic Impact on Volunteerism

Sharron: Many of us are experiencing the impact of larger supply chain issues in some way or another. Last summer there were problems getting fleet vans to deliver meals due to supply chain issues when computer chips weren’t available. MOWA is still dealing with the ramifications.

Food supply chain issues have created constant modifications needing to be made in meal planning. Additionally, food prices are going up exponentially and that’s a concern, especially when it’s not budgeted. We already have programs serving 200-to-2,000 more clients than they did previously, which further impacts their budget. Now you’re layering on increased food costs.

Katie: People are also concerned about their organization’s fundraising dollars. Specifically, how can they raise more money, and should an event be virtual or not? I’ve seen a lot of organizations go to in-person events again to draw their volunteers, constituents, and stakeholders together, specifically, in the hopes of fostering that sense of purpose which ultimately helps drive fundraising.

Insight #5: Building Trust and Safety Among Those Who Serve an Organization’s Mission

Sharron: There is a vulnerability in any type of relationship, including a partnership, and both parties must live up to what they promise. For example, MOWA’s partnering with Sterling on learning events intrigues our members with information about Sterling Volunteers’ offering. Especially on the risk management side, we are thrilled anytime we can highlight that, because it increases our members’ awareness and boosts trust.

Increasingly, there is more interest in screening volunteers and asking them to cover the cost of their background check themselves. Mostly this is done since a lot of our programs struggle with financing volunteer background screening. In partnership with Sterling Volunteers, having different payment mechanisms is important, while the safety and security of their clients is everything to them.

Serving vulnerable populations emphasizes the importance of our partnership, as we don’t want to have a volunteer who can’t be trusted or might have a potentially-dangerous criminal background going into the home.

Katie: We have built our brand reputation and our business on partnerships. With over 100 partnerships, one thing I love is how Sterling Volunteers is directly in the middle of this ecosystem — between national partners like Meals on Wheels, technology partners, and regional partners, among others.

Particularly, we have seen partner ordering of background check packages on the rise. Volunteer screening is similar to employment screening. In fact, the amount that is spent on volunteer screening is increasing, catching up to what a company would spend on employment screening.

As nonprofits, volunteers, and all those who support them work to revitalize purpose and human connection, may we all do so safely and build a foundation of trust along the way.

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