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Making Virtual Volunteering Work

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By Aarti Madhusudhan, Shalabh Sahai

As many disasters do, COVID-19 saw a large number of citizens taking to the streets, giving time and assistance to those who need it. Simultaneously, it also saw an increase in the use of technology—communities and teams came together virtually—be it to collaborate, coordinate relief, share news, celebrate birthdays and weddings, or even reflect out loud on their lives and new realities.

In the midst of this, perhaps for the first time, we are presented with an opportunity to rethink corporate volunteering.

Nonprofits are struggling with redesigning their volunteer activities to make them virtual.”

Up until now, a large proportion of corporate volunteering has been episodic, hands-on, and activity/event-based. Examples include painting walls, cleaning a beach, or planting saplings. The outcomes of these activities were then measured on the impact achieved for the community, and sometimes, on the difference, it made to the volunteers themselves.

Bringing people together from across functions and departments to work on one volunteering assignment enhances team bonding and leads to cross-learning. Representational image.

However, with COVID-19, corporates are less likely to be forthcoming on activities that require employees to physically engage. Given this, there is an increasing concern about how they will retain employee interest in volunteering activities. At the same time, nonprofits are also struggling with redesigning their volunteer activities to make them virtual.

Despite this, over the past few months, we at iVolunteer, have seen a significant jump in the number of people approaching us for volunteering opportunities. People want to use their time and skills to support organisations that need them the most. Based on our interactions with them, here’s what we have learned:

What Corporates Can Do

In our experience, virtual volunteering, when designed well and delivered efficiently, can lead to the creation of a stronger sense of community within corporates. Here are some steps companies can take to help ensure this goal is attained:

1. Take on bigger projects and create a team of volunteers to work on them

Bringing people together from across functions and departments to work on one volunteering assignment enhances team bonding and leads to cross-learning. For example, building a nonprofit’s website would entail people with writing, design, and technical skills to collaborate and work together for an extended period of time.

Similarly, creating simple math and science worksheets for children to work on can also be easily done by a company, a team, or a department. It can even be made interesting by adding a numerical goal—a 1000 worksheets by 100 people in 10 days. These types of campaigns create great energy across the company, which is much needed at this time.

children volunteering for social cause_COVID

Bringing people together from across functions and departments to work on one volunteering assignment enhances team bonding and leads to cross-learning. Image source: iVolunteer

2. Allow one volunteer to work with multiple organisations

With the logistics of in-person volunteering becoming irrelevant, employees can now choose to volunteer with multiple organisations. Giving them this flexibility, and helping them match their skill level with what partner nonprofits need, is a great way to deepen their strengths, perspectives, as well as a passion for a cause.

3. Use volunteering as a learning tool

Even today, volunteering opportunities have helped corporate employees with their soft skills (team building, negotiating) and leadership development. Can companies begin to set this as the primary objective? Corporate teams should look at an employee’s learning goals and see how the gaps can be filled with smartly designed volunteering activities. This lens will not only enable more engaged volunteering, but it might also lead to more innovation on the kinds of volunteering opportunities available.

What Non-Profits Can Do

The first step nonprofits need to take is acknowledging that virtual volunteering is the new normal, even if it is for the near future. Once teams have accepted that, here are ways they can make room for this new reality:

1. Evaluate skill sets and prepare teams

Organisation leadership can push their teams to explore what aspects of their existing work can be done by a virtual volunteer. To do this, identify skill gaps and divide them into things the team should learn (for example, Excel proficiency) and tasks a volunteer could take on (for example, digital marketing). This exercise can be done with field workers as well—for example, we have seen organisations bring in volunteers to help their field staff make smarter use of their phones and other technology.

2. Redesign existing volunteering programmes

If your previous volunteer engagement was dependent on interaction with the community, how can that be replicated virtually? For example, think about whether volunteers can be engaged to deliver phone-based training/mentoring with community members, or whether they can develop something (like recorded audio stories) that can then be shared with members of the community.

3. Identify a volunteer ‘engager’

This is the person on the nonprofit’s team who is reaching out, managing, and engaging regularly with virtual volunteers. The success of the virtual volunteering engagement is almost 100% dependent on how responsive and committed this team member is. Therefore, someone who is comfortable with virtual communication, extroverted, and proactive, is ideal.

This article was originally published in India Development Review (IDR)

About the authors:

Aarti Madhusudan is the founder of Governance Counts, an initiative which helps nonprofits build more effective boards. This includes identifying key board-related issues and recommending good practice guidelines. She has consulted several Indian and international organisations. Aarti is passionate about volunteering, and runs Whiteboard, an iVolunteer initiative that brings senior corporate professionals together as a group to provide strategic guidance pro bono to nonprofits. She volunteers herself with DaanUtsav. Aarti is an alumna of TISS, Mumbai and NIMHANS, Bangalore.

Shalabh Sahai is the co-founder of iVolunteer, India’s first enterprise dedicated to volunteer service, and the convenor of iVolunteer Awards, that recognises, celebrates, and inspires leaders in volunteering. He is also co-founder of JobsForGood, a boutique HR consultancy for social enterprises, nonprofits, and corporate foundations. Shalabh is an alumnus of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), and serves on the CII Council for India@75 and the Global Council for Global Pro Bono Network.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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