Normalizing Virtual Volunteerism

April 5, 2021

Volunteering looks a little different now than it did a year ago. The COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations across Georgia to rethink how they could continue operating—if at all—and how to safely welcome volunteers eager to lend a hand.

In honor of April being National Volunteer Month, Georgia’s Cities caught up with Tim Adkins from HandsOn Atlanta, an organization that connects volunteers with events and non-profit groups in the greater Atlanta area.

GC: How has the pandemic changed how GC HandsOn and partner organizations attract and coordinate volunteers?

TA: Early in the pandemic, the shift was dramatic. Most of our non-profit partners paused their volunteer programs or shut their doors altogether, with exception to our partners addressing food insecurity. It was the focus on safely getting volunteer projects up and running for meal distributions that helped shape how we could re-engage the community to support all of our partners and to tackle metro Atlanta’s most pressing needs. Some of the pivots we made include requiring COVID safety guidelines for all projects and limiting the number of volunteers who can serve at a project, while encouraging more frequency in the number of projects. We’ve also encouraged more of our partners to think creatively for how they can use volunteers at their organization, going beyond the typical labor or function aspect and lean into more skills-based volunteers. Leveraging platforms like Zoom, we can eliminate the barriers of confined walls and access to physical locations, creating more ways for people to do something good. Non-profits like, Civic Dinners and Mind Bubble have been great partners and platforms for our community to volunteer virtually.

GC: Have there been new ways of volunteering remotely that have emerged in the past year?

TA: At the height of the pandemic, what we experienced here in Atlanta was not a lack of interest or demand to volunteer, in fact more people than ever wanted to find safe ways to help others in need; it was purely a lack of safe opportunities. We strategically set out to partner with “digital” non-profits and those offering virtual opportunities. Apps like Be My Eyes, Tarjimly and Purposity have also provided unique ways for people to safely volunteer. Virtually, we offer letter-writing parties for healthcare workers, seniors and teachers; we have partners that provide virtual tutoring and homework support for students. “Drives” from home have also been really popular, allowing people to collect donations and make items needed for specific partners and their clients. The light of the pandemic has been forcing us to think differently about how we can help, and it’s led to all kinds of fun, innovative and impactful projects and development.

Another thing to note is our focus on making Atlanta the most civically engaged and equitable community in the world. This goes beyond volunteering. Attending a Civic Dinner or watching a film from Morehouse’s Human Rights Film Festival aren’t traditional volunteer opportunities, but we believe promoting these kinds of events leads to a more engaged and hopefully equitable community. The normalizing of “virtual” events really opened the door for these and other kinds of conversations and experiences to the greater community, removing the traditional/physical barriers to entry.

GC: How has the volume of volunteers changed?

TC: Some organizations have had a higher need for TA volunteers, like food banks, while others, like theaters, have stopped completely.

As mentioned, the volume per project or opportunity has significantly decreased, but the frequency of projects and unique ways we’re helping our non-profit partners engage volunteers have both increased. Our mission is to mobilize the Atlanta community to tackle our city’s most pressing needs, so focus areas tend to shift based on the needs we see. Currently a majority of partners are focused on fighting food insecurity. We have a great partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and we support a ton of their partner food pantries with volunteers and general capacity building services. Environmental organizations like Truly Living Well, Piedmont Park Conservancy and the Wylde Center are back to providing safe, outdoor volunteer opportunities after being paused earlier in the pandemic.

GC: Has HandsOn worked with any local city governments on volunteer efforts or opportunities?

TC: AgLanta, a program of the city of Atlanta Department of City Planning, regularly posts projects on our calendar, and earlier in the pandemic I worked with the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District to help provide and distribute masks to people experiencing homelessness in the downtown areas. Through a partnership with Sock Fancy, we’ve helped to distribute over 100,000 free masks to communities in need across metro Atlanta.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.

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