COVID served as a sort of stress test for many volunteer programs. Could they survive without in-person activities? Could you adapt them to the new circumstances?  

Most important – Were there changes you made that you’re adopting permanently?

At WaterGrass we convened a discussion on the topic.  (WaterGrass is an organizational database that among other things manages volunteer activities, so we have the raw data on volunteering.) Jason Frenzel from the Huron River Watershed Council Council and several other volunteer managers share their experiences and insights over the last two years.

This was a preliminary discussion – a more extended one will take place at River Rally in June – but some fascinating insights arose.  If you or your organization manages volunteers, I’d love you to post your comments.

  1. Organizations that had already begun managing volunteers through online portals or even delivering programs online saw a much smaller drop in their volunteer hours.
  2. Some groups reported changes in their participant demographics. In particular, low income populations were less represented.
  3. Some urban groups pivoted to provide other needed services to marginalized populations, beyond their standard education and recreational activities.
  4. Trails and waterways attracted more use and highlighted the importance of these organizations in their missions. Few of them capitalized on that to raise funds or Garner new volunteers.
  5. Volunteers were eager to find activities during the pandemic, and hungry for anything offered.

One organization reported that when it closed its volunteer programs it also lost the ability to stay in contact with and cultivate new volunteer leaders, on whom it depends to lead many of its large activities the impact of this will be felt in the coming years.

Volunteer programs were forced to adopt digital strategies when they couldn’t convene face-to-face activities; many of them discovered things that they would now continue to do online instead of in person.

What was your experience?  What changes did you make in your volunteer programs? Which will you keep? Please post your comment below.

And if you’re interested in the WaterGrass database as a tool for managing volunteers and donors, give me a shout!


2 thoughts on “What Did COVID Teach Your Volunteer Programs?

  1. Hey Baird, great insight on how to manage volunteers during a pandemic! Would love to see more blogs like this!

  2. Tom Guay at Severnal River Association (the oldest river protection organization in the US) sent me this comment in an email: The biggest impact Covid created on our volunteer programs was during the early days — March-May of 2020 — when Gov. Hogan banned all boating activity. This put our water quality monitoring program on hold right at a time when a massive Mahogany Tide blanketed the Severn for two months. So we missed out on tracking it properly. But once the boating restrictions were lifted in late May, we were right back in action. We had plenty of volunteers showing up for our weekly tours. We all wore masks and we had a cleaning procedure to wipe things down, but everybody felt comfortable being outdoors, on the water and contributing to citizen science.

    The other major impact was on our monthly educational speaker series. We had to transition from a live event to a virtual version. We tested Google Meet, Zoom, GoToMeeting. They all worked well and our attendees quickly got used to “zooming” in for a virtual meeting. We even boosted attendance for some of the presentations. Q&A was fine.

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