10 things I've learned about working with volunteers during Covid-19

Annika Howard
Back view of a lady sat at her desk, in front a window, at home looking at a computer screen.

Starting any new job can be daunting but taking up a new position, while the county is in lockdown, adds a whole new level of complexity.

We talked to Clare Derry, Helpline Volunteer Coordinator, at our member Refuge about her work for the National Domestic Abuse Helpline (NDAH), a role she started in April 2020. She shares what she has learned.

Personal and professional experience

I’d volunteered for the NDAH for three years prior to taking up this paid role with national domestic abuse charity, Refuge, whilst doing my day job as a Volunteer Coordinator for another organisation. As a survivor of domestic abuse, I also had a personal connection with incredible work undertaken by our Helpline.

I believe deeply in the power of volunteering: I see how volunteers diversify and enrich an organisation with their personalities, skills and experience, and how their contribution can expand the reach of a charity.

I'm confident in my skills as a volunteer manager: I'm organised, have substantial experience recruiting and training volunteers and understand what motivates them. I felt ready to do this job, no matter what challenges I would face.

Lockdown restrictions

What I could not have anticipated, was starting my new role at a time without precedent: Covid-19 lockdown restrictions meant that the first day of my new job was spent at working at my dining table.

There was no building rapport with new colleagues organically, no chats in the work kitchen, no desk-side IT set up and, worst of all, no getting to know my new volunteers in person.

Like many people, I initially thought that this might be a blip; an anomaly that we would have to cope with for a short while before things returned to normal.

But after a few weeks, it became increasingly clear that we were in this for the long run.

Over the last six months, I have realised that I’ve not just had to change the way I do things to overcome the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, but also how I think about them too.

What I have learned so far...

Self- care is more important than ever

When a key part of your job is supporting those who support others, it's easy to let your own self-care slip.

Having my workspace in my home space makes maintaining work-life wellbeing harder than ever - I’m sure I am not alone in being tempted to check my emails before I'm even out of my PJs!

In addition to scheduling time for self-care, I’ve learnt I need to remain mindful of how I'm looking after myself.

I’ve found the Five Ways to Well-Being during the Coronavirus Crisis by the New Economic Foundation helpful in building a “self-care toolkit” that works for me.

Covid-19 conditions have amplified barriers to volunteering

None of my current volunteers started their volunteering thinking they’d be taking helpline calls from their homes: Perhaps they struggle to find a quiet space to do this; have caring responsibilities at home or find the technology challenging.

Many just feel daunted by the idea of “going it alone”. On days when I have felt a bit defeated about the number of shifts my volunteers are picking up, I remind myself that it’s not personal: Volunteers are dealing with the challenges of doing their role remotely during Covid-19 too.

It’s exactly for that reason, I’m celebrating volunteer contribution to our service more than ever. Despite the challenges brought by Covid-19, Refuge’s volunteers continue to step up to support us every day, helping us to provide a life-line to survivors at a time when worldwide reports of domestic abuse have never been higher.

What individual volunteers need from you may change

Current restrictions have created a totally different environment for us all, which has altered the type of support some of my volunteers need, and how often they need it.

To stay on top of this, I not only try to make myself as available as possible but also use surveys and training to temperature check needs in a more structured way.

Change the channel

While emails work for some volunteers, at a time when we’re doing so much online, it’s little wonder that they occasionally get lost in the mix.

I’m diversifying the channels I communicate with volunteers on: I run Zoom surgeries twice a week, deliver messages via video and audio recordings, and never use email when a text or call will do.

We’ve also created remote learning opportunities for existing volunteers to encourage engagement and keep up connections.

I still use email but try to reserve it for delivering sensitive correspondence. My inbox is thanking me too.

Plan where you can, but stay open to change

I love a plan. I usually have three diaries on the go and get special joy from updating my Eisenhower Matrix.

However, living in a world that changes daily means having an über-organised approach leaves less room for flexibility.

Learning how to embrace uncertainty is an on-going lesson for me. "Hope for the best, plan for the worst and try to stay flexible" is my new mantra.

I’m not alone

Meeting with other Volunteer Management professionals during this time has been invaluable to me: It’s been incredibly helpful to ideas swap with others who are also navigating their way through this crisis, and I appreciate and value interacting with people who understand the very specific challenges that coronavirus brings to my daily work.

I found my local volunteer centre and training with the Helplines Partnership a great way to connect with others who work with volunteers.

There’s never been a better time to learn

One of the positives to come out of pandemic is the acceleration of learning.

I will hold my hand up and say that I was one of those people who had never even heard of Zoom before lockdown started, never mind used it!

There’s been an explosion in the amount of the free online training content available too: FutureLearn and eventbrite are two I’ve used, but there are loads of others out there. NCVO have heaps of great resources too.

Restriction births creativity

During Volunteer's Week, instead of the party we would normally have, we sent our vols parcels of goodies, themed around the celebrated poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou.

In November, we’ll be sending new starters a “care pack” for their training week, containing snacks, notebooks and pens.

Devising new ways to recognise volunteer commitment is something I’m really enjoying right now.

Use what you’ve got

Two things the pandemic can’t take from me are my skills and experience.

They remain unchanged – I’m just having to apply them in a different context. A bit like doing any new job really. And I’m learning a lot along the way.

Celebrate the little wins

I’ve learnt that taking time to reflect on the small positives from each week is just as important as crossing big things off the “to do” list.

It’s helped me to appreciate little things and keep a sense of positive perspective at a time where none of us knows what tomorrow may bring.

Want to volunteer for Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline?

Refuge is currently recruiting for Helpline Volunteers to support the delivery of its Live Chat service. This service launched in May and has never been needed more – it gives women a way to digitally connect with us in real-time, when opportunities to connect could be far and few between. If you are interested in applying, or learning more about this role, please click here

Working with helpline volunteers

Helplines Partnership have created a short toolkit, a guide, for organisations considering working with volunteers as part of their helpline, advice or support line, telephone befriending service or webchat support. It will help you to consider the preparations you need to make and the processes to go through from volunteer recruitment to retention.

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