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Preparing Your Volunteer Program for COVID-19

Lisa Joyslin | Published on 3/11/2020

From the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration

As COVID-19 spreads through the US, there are many unknowns as to the level and depth of response needed from nonprofit organizations. Managing volunteers through this pandemic will be an important part of continuing essential service delivery in our communities. While we acknowledge this is uncharted territory, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) wants to offer some tips for nonprofits and volunteer engagement leaders as you prepare your organization’s volunteers for COVID-19.

1. Find out if your organization has a COOP (Continuity of Operations Plan). This is the type of situation for which that plan was made. Read it, analyze it, and see if volunteers are included in it. If so, this will give you a starting point. If not, advocate to leadership that information on volunteers be added ASAP.

2. Communicate with your volunteers. Communication is key, even if it’s “things are changing quickly and we will have more information soon.” Guidance you can share right away includes:

  • Stay home if you are sick. Individuals who arrive on site with symptoms will be sent home. Outline a clear system for getting in touch with you/the organization when cancelling a shift.
  • Please take all necessary precautions if you are immunocompromised, or live with/care for someone who is immunocompromised. We support your decisions, including and up to a decision to temporarily suspend your own volunteering during this uncertain time. Again, outline a clear system for communicating with you/the organization.
  • We are implementing a no handshake policy at our organization while COVID-19 remains a threat. Please do not shake hands with staff, volunteers or clients. We recommend waving or verbally greeting people instead.
  • Please thoroughly and frequently wash your hands, and follow other guidance provided by the CDC around disease containment.
  • Offer additional information on if and how your organization’s services will be impacted as it becomes available.

3. Prioritize volunteer and client safety. If continuing interaction between volunteers and vulnerable clients, take all recommended precautions, including gloves, masks, frequent hand-washing, etc.

4. Include volunteers in decision-making around policies affecting them. Having volunteers at the table will ensure that their concerns are heard and addressed.

5. Consider if and how volunteers can work remotely. As many workplaces consider temporary office closures, it’s important to think about how this could affect your volunteers and if there is work they can complete for your organization while the office is closed. You also need to think through what tools/information/supplies they may need to complete this work and the process for submitting it or getting questions answered.

6. Plan for a volunteer workforce shortage.

a. Survey volunteers to determine their availability to continue volunteering 1) currently, 2) if schools were to close, 3) if quarantined (only if remote volunteering is possible). For volunteers who have high availability, ask if they would be willing to increase their volunteerism temporarily to help fill gaps (given that they are healthy). Track responses and keep a database/spreadsheet of volunteers who anticipate availability in certain situations.

b. Work with organizational leaders to prioritize programming/services delivered by volunteers and determine where volunteer workforce should be focused if there is a significant decrease in availability. For example, programs providing food for those experiencing poverty will be higher priority than advocacy or education programs that could be postponed.

7. Postpone large-scale volunteer events or trainings in the next few months. Social distancing by avoiding crowds and events helps “flatten the curve” of the virus and helps keep cases within the capacity of our hospital system.

8. Understand that COVID-19 and the response effects people in multiple ways. Those who are elderly or immunocompromised are at increased threat for serious complications. People living in poverty are less equipped to prepare for a quarantine because they may not have disposable income to purchase bulk food and supplies. People in the Asian American community are experiencing racism due to the virus. People who are underinsured or have no insurance are at greater risk of severe financial implications if they get sick. Those who have limited sick time or PTO are afraid of what might happen if they take several weeks off of work. This list is nowhere near comprehensive, but should demonstrate that the people around you (including your organization’s volunteers) may be affected by COVID-19 in multiple ways, some of which may not be known to you. Encouraging people to be cautious and take care of themselves is not only kind and safe, but also promotes equity.

This list is far from comprehensive, but is meant to give you a starting point as you look at COVID-19 response and how it will affect your organization and volunteer program. MAVA is currently assessing our own upcoming events and volunteer engagement plans and will be communicating updates as decisions are made. We will continue to closely monitor the situation and will provide information and share resources to help us all better understand how to move forward.


Additional resources:

Prepare and Prevent: COVID-19 from Minnesota Department of Health

COVID-19: What nonprofits need to know from Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Pollen’s response to COVID-19 from Pollen

A few things for nonprofits and foundations to consider in light of the Coronavirus from Nonprofit AF