Virtual Volunteering During COVID-19: Is It The Same?

The first week of June will mark 2021’s National Volunteers Week, a time where organisations express their gratitude for their volunteers who help support and run charities, clubs, projects and offices.

Volunteers make up an integral piece of any team, and without them services and organisations would not be able to run. But, during the pandemic it has been made increasingly difficult to volunteer with establishments both home and abroad. The art of volunteering and giving up your time to support an organisation usually requires lending a hand in a face-to-face scenario, or gaining hands-on experiences in a new setting or community.

Even volunteering with local community groups has been incredibly difficult over the last year, but what has been even more of a challenge is volunteering abroad.

Virtually Volunteering ‘Abroad’

A summer of volunteering or working abroad is the highlight of many students’ University careers.

At Cardiff University, thanks to the CU Global Opportunities department, there are many opportunities to work, study and volunteer abroad for students. All of which will have faced immense challenges and setbacks due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

SKIP (Students for Kids International Projects)

SKIP Cardiff is one of twelve SKIP branches across the UK, all working on sustainable, non-voluntourism, data-driven global health projects around the world. Though a small charity, SKIP has a mighty impact around the world through its interventions. Here at Cardiff’s branch, the focus is on sustainable teaching on sexual health, HIV/AIDS, STIs and making reusable sanitary products with women and young people in Livingstone, Zambia.

What makes SKIP unique is its commitment to never participating in voluntourism. Through conducting and collecting extensive research and data whilst abroad SKIP branches ensure that their projects are filling a gap in the curriculum of their project community, rather than promoting voluntourism and allowing participants to volunteer as a secondary goal of a trip that may seem like more of a holiday than a project.

Last year, SKIP cancelled all of their overseas projects entirely. However, this year they have decided to bring projects back — but virtually! Virtual projects will include the teaching of lesson plans and interventions to members of staff in schools and community centres abroad so that they can disseminate to their students and beneficiaries; as well as sharing lesson plans, workbooks and resources online too.

Volunteers will be researching and creating lesson plans and resources as well as delivering sessions to collaborating organisations abroad.

Volunteering in Zambia with SKIP Cardiff – Would I Do It Online Instead?

In 2018 I went to Zambia with SKIP’s Cardiff branch teaching sexual health and relationship interventions in Livingstone. Though working from home via video conferencing will never be able to replace the experience that we had in Livingstone, I still do think that the most important thing is making sure that the content and knowledge passed on through the lessons is continuing to be shared within the communities.

SKIP run solely sustainable projects achieved by ensuring that teachers and professionals in the community understand the content enough to be able to continue teaching once SKIP volunteers have flown home, meaning that theoretically sexual health and relationships education should still be being covered in some form if no volunteers travelled to Livingstone this summer but it is always important for research and development purposes to check in and work with teaching staff annually on the materials.

The skills that you learn when entrusted to manage an international project for a non-voluntourism organisation like SKIP are invaluable, and I am optimistic that virtual projects will in some way allow volunteers to continue to develop some of these skills from home whilst also ensuring that incredibly important content is still being shared between SKIP and the collaborating organisations, meaning that I would encourage anybody to get involved with SKIP to help make this a reality!

And, I am quite concerned that smaller branches of charities such as SKIP will ultimately have to close if they cannot recruit enough volunteers every year to keep going and sharing their interventions — something which would potentially have detrimental impacts on so many communities around the world.

Think Pacific

In your typical year, students from across the UK would have the opportunity to take place in a ‘Think Pacific’ project to Fiji.

This year, the costs for virtual internships with Think Pacifc will be £495 (a combination of registration fees and project fees), with the organisation explaining how “over 50% of your program fee invests in Fiji and leads to positive outcomes that support the achievement of the Fiji National Development Plan  & UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Rhianna Hurren-Myers, one of our Feature Editors, volunteered in Fiji in 2018 with Think Pacific! In anticipation of Think Pacific’s internships now being virtual, I spoke to Rhianna about her experiences abroad and to understand what she thought about the upcoming virtual volunteering opportunities – 

  1. What skills and experiences did you gain from working with Think Pacific?

I volunteered with Think Pacific for a four-week project in a remote village called Vere Vere in the Ra province with a team of about 20 others from all over the UK. 

We all undertook 150 hours total of volunteer work, planning and executing lessons in English, Maths, reading and writing to students who were falling behind in a local primary school and kindergarten. We also taught extra-curricular lessons in Arts and Crafts, Singing, Dance and acting which are not on the national curriculum in Fiji. At the end of every school day we taught an hour of sport sessions including netball, rugby, athletics and volleyball. 

We lived with a Fijian family in a traditional house, trekking through the hills to school, washing in waterfalls, partaking in intense Kava ceremonies and getting a boat to isolated beaches to drink from fresh coconuts. It all sounds like such a dream – but it was a reality we all lived for one month.

There were so many challenges. The village had little to no electricity. This meant no wifi or internet for over three weeks, and signal to call home was limited. There was occasionally huge language barriers when teaching at the school. I did not anticipate the young children I was placed with in Class One having little to no English – when I was expected to teach them reading, writing and maths. I occasionally found it painful to watch young children being forced to assimilate into an English-speaking education, especially when they are young, because they so quickly slip under the radar if they fall behind. The cyclones had also obviously had devastating effects on the region of Ra, but this is all part of the situation that Think Pacific work so desperately hard to help.

2. Would you still consider volunteering with Think Pacific virtually or was travelling to Fiji a big incentive? 

To be honest, the opportunity to travel to Fiji, experience their culture and have hands-on experience making a real difference was what attracted me to get involved with TP. Realistically, I don’t think any online experience could compare to waking up in a remote Fijian village, trekking an hour to school and coaching children in sport and creative arts. 

Personally, I find it hard to ever justify paying hundreds of pounds to undertake an internship. I think if I was in the same situation as I was in 2018, but knowing what I know after doing a volunteer project with them, I wouldn’t do it. 

However, hindsight is great. We’re in a totally different social-political situation right now in the middle of this pandemic and it’s hard to judge if I would make the same decision now as I did then. 

3. Would you still recommend people join Think Pacific even though the projects are virtual? 

Think Pacific does amazing projects centred around international development and sustainability, so I don’t doubt that any money spent on an internship would be going towards a good cause. Having said that, I don’t know too much about the specifics of their virtual internship opportunities. 

I think I would just advise that people do a lot of research before they commit to anything, and consider what they’re hoping to gain from the experience. Fiji is an incredible country with the most incredibly warm, passionate and kind people. Thinking back to the Fijian family I lived with for three weeks, no computer screen could ever do them justice. 

What Are The Threats of Online Volunteering?

There is a concern amongst organisations that are recruiting virtual volunteers that it will be difficult to keep their volunteer pool engaged and interested in the aims and objectives of the role without the in-person incentive. Even volunteers who are extremely dedicated to the cause of the organisation may struggle with low morale or difficulty connecting with their team. 

Some may also worry that in non-voluntourism projects it will be difficult to collect extensive research and data on the ground when you are video calling in from home, which could potentially jeopardize the aims and objectives of the project.

What Are The Benefits of Online Volunteering?

Volunteering online can still be beneficial for you and for the charity/organisation that you are working with in many ways, such as – 

Personal and Professional Development

Anyone who has volunteered abroad before will be able to talk about at least one new skill that they learnt on their trip. Virtual projects can enhance organisation, perseverance and communication skills and even allow you to gain knowledge and experience of working with international organisations remotely and managing incredibly important projects from home – something we may never be trusted to nor encouraged to take the opportunity to organise again.

The Environment

Tens of thousands of teenagers and students take flights around the world every year to their project destination. With all of these projects now taking place via video conferencing we are sure to see an incredible decline in the amount of carbon emissions from overseas transportation by volunteers.

Saving Money

Even with bursaries or online fundraising links, volunteering abroad can be incredibly expensive. This is a factor regardless of if you choose a voluntourism or non-voluntourism trip as your flights, accommodation, vaccinations (if required), and food will all add up quickly — and this is before the possibility of paying project or volunteer fees if you’re travelling with a corporation or charity.

So, Is It Worth It?

As highlighted by Rhianna, the experience of a virtual project will never be exactly the same as being on the ground; the same as a volunteering position in an office remotely would not be the same if you could not attend in person team meetings with your peers and volunteer colleagues. And, it is important to ensure that you are committed to the experience of volunteering virtually with corporations or charities that are still going to charge you volunteer fees to be conducting your role from home — especially considering how difficult the pandemic has been for many young adults and students financially.

Though, volunteering online for charities and organisations that need help and dedicated volunteers in these times is an incredibly worthy and commendable opportunity to take. Not only will skills gained in these roles be able to potentially enhance your employability and professional development, but you could still also learn a lot about the importance of the cause by getting involved!

Overall, virtual volunteering can lead to students gaining a phenomenal amount of skills and opportunities in personal and professional development, career progression or work experience. Though, it will be hard for charities to replicate the ‘perks’ that some students wish to experience on their trips abroad. Volunteering in any capacity will help charities and organisations to run effectively, and you will still be playing a key role in the team — a contribution and experience that is immeasurable and will still make a huge difference, especially during the pandemic.

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Feature Image: Sigmund on UnsplashImage License.