Hybrid Volunteering Provides New Opportunity
Volunteer Reyna Lopez takes part in a community garden project operated by the Latino-led nonprofit CLUES.

Hybrid Volunteering Provides New Opportunity

Patterns of volunteering have changed, but people continue to show up and ensure that essential services are delivered.

One might think that a global pandemic and the ensuing lockdown that prohibited many kinds of in-person gatherings would put a damper on Minnesotans’ enthusiasm for volunteering for local nonprofits. But that’s not the case.

Patterns of volunteering have changed, but people continue to turn out in droves to help one another and make sure that essential services are delivered. What’s changed? Like so many other daily activities, volunteering has gone hybrid. If you want to volunteer, there are both in-person and remote opportunities. Minnesota nonprofits are taking advantage of these Covid-inspired hybrid approaches to deliver more services to more people.

Take CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio) as a case study. The statewide nonprofit serves primarily Latino individuals and families with a wide range of services that support the advancement of economic and social equity and well-being.

In place of its pre-pandemic food delivery program, CLUES developed a drive-through food distribution site that allowed volunteers to safely assemble baskets of fresh food placed directly into people’s vehicles, following strict protocols to avoid the spread of Covid-19. CLUES used donated personal protective equipment so volunteers had adequate masks, gloves, and other necessary gear.

For other CLUES programs, such as English as a second language (ESL) and parent education classes, virtual delivery allowed CLUES not only to continue its programs but to increase enrollment substantially. Teachers and tutors received training in virtual service delivery, and if clients did not have access to computers, CLUES worked to provide laptops and tablets so that services could continue, sometimes supported by special grants. Online ESL classes became so popular that CLUES had to limit enrollment to Minnesota residents, after hundreds of out-of-state participants joined a waiting list for openings.

“I was running around like crazy trying to figure out what was happening and how we could continue to serve our community,” says Jennifer Galván-Bautista, CLUES volunteer services coordinator. Demand for services grew substantially as the lockdowns affected employment, parents needed support for homeschooling, and many elders were even more isolated than usual.

But volunteerism also expanded in new ways. Galván-Bautista explains: “Though the overall number of volunteers went down, in part because of fewer in-person activities, the number of hours per volunteer went up substantially.” The average hours per volunteer increased by more than 50 percent between 2019 and 2020, demonstrating to CLUES that people are willing to volunteer remotely and can be trained to do so effectively.

She suggests that remote volunteering will become a permanent way to engage volunteers in CLUES’ work going forward. Some clients, too, prefer virtual programming, which allows them to participate without incurring child care or transportation costs. “It’s just a whole new way to think,” she says.

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A look around the region’s nonprofits shows many virtual volunteering opportunities. Project for Pride in Living (PPL) is training volunteers to provide leadership classes, practice mock job interviews, and support its formerly in-person Young Scholars’ Program, in which volunteers work with staff to offer social-emotional learning, art therapy projects, and relationship-building activities.

The venerable Greater Twin Cities United Way has created a set of volunteer-at-home opportunities for its hundreds of volunteers. Online instructions give individuals or teams the information to pack back-to-school kits for students, create laundry kits and snack packs, and write cards for students and teachers on the first day of school. “Many participants have told us their experiences were more meaningful than making just an online donation. They felt fulfilled and connected to our community,” reports Kelly Puspoki, vice president of communications. United Way plans to continue to offer volunteer-at-home projects.

Remote volunteers will be active in the upcoming holiday season. CLUES’ annual toy drive, Al Niño Con Cariño (“to a child with love”) is a holiday tradition that gathers dozens of volunteers who wrap and deliver donated gifts for children from low-income families. Last year’s event took a hybrid approach; both volunteers and gift recipients pre-registered on the CLUES website, gifts were solicited virtually, and toys were delivered in a “mystery bag” at a Covid-protocol drive-through site.

By creatively working through Covid restrictions and using digital tools to engage volunteers, CLUES provided toys for 400 children and their families. This year’s event? CLUES expects to be back in person. But don’t be surprised if it creates ways to bring a bit of holiday cheer to families virtually.

And if you’re looking for a convenient way to volunteer, it doesn’t get much easier than doing so from home.

Click here to view TCB‘s annual Giving Guide report for more volunteering opportunities.