The past eighteen months have seen the volunteering community world over change its modus operandi. We rewrote the rudiments of community service and created new SOPs for volunteering. We adapted to the online format and saw some inspiring work that took place for Covid response and relief. As things got safer, we dabbled with the hybrid form before taking slowly restoring face-to-face volunteering (for essential volunteering). However, virtual volunteering is still the mainstay of community engagement, with some tactile measures to enhance impact.

While we have spoken in the past about online volunteers, how about looking at the other end of the baton, the online NGOs. In the present volunteering landscape, the NGO experience is completely virtual for almost 95% of the volunteers. There is still a silent fear of the virus, especially among new volunteers. Moreover, as professionals of the developmental sector, we are aware of how vulnerable our partner NGOs are and try and keep them safe from more external exposure. Hence, the NGO experience is remote, both physically and metaphorically.

Revisiting erstwhile face-to-face volunteering, the first thing I miss is the way it artlessly prepared you for the session. It engendered a natural sensitization to the NGO where you were going to volunteer, without a word. It started when you planned how long it would take to reach the NGO (sometimes close to an hour) and the travel prepared you for their distant existence. Once there, as you walked carefully down a narrow, uneven gully and entered an almost forgotten, humble shelter or school, reality hit you fair and square. As you continued to the venue, the peeling walls revealed untold stories and the shrinking rooms belied the needs of the residents. As the elders looked at you with tired eyes or the children greeted you with shy smiles, you mentally promised them that you would help them for as long as you could. You showed compassion easily. In short, before you started your volunteering session, you knew how much you were needed. That was your starting point. By the time you completed your session, you had experienced your moment of truth, knowing if you had delivered well or needed to make some improvisations. That was the regular, sweet and sweaty NGO engagement.

Contrast that to today’s online format where you sit in an ambient room , cool and unruffled in front of your digital screen. You wait for the NGO beneficiaries to settle in front of their screen as you wait to start volunteering. Your facilitator provides the content (in most cases), you briefly greet the beneficiaries and start engaging. It’s a bit chaotic to begin with, but eventually smoothens into an uninterrupted (in most cases) session. The beneficiaries are decorous and responsive, and you feel happy by the end of the session. You see the joy in the smiles of the people on the other side of the screen and you feel fulfilled. With every session, you steep into it a bit more. With the new tools of volunteering, you achieve the desired outcome and it is indeed fulfilling.

However, what you miss is what a returning volunteer would call, the real NGO experience. While what we are doing online is important, continues to help our NGO partners and their beneficiaries, it is equally important to start creating safe in-person volunteering opportunities soon, with safety protocol in place.
• We all need to be vaccinated, sessions should be in covered yet open spaces, everyone should be well-masked, volunteers must keep distance from the beneficiaries and so on.
• The hybrid format is the first step forward, with a core volunteer at the NGO and others online. The session is streamed and is coordinated like a physical session.
• There are also some tools that can make virtual volunteering more real – with greater connect, personal touchpoints and deeper impact in an online session. For instance, you can send students worksheets, art papers, craft material before-hand, use breakout rooms, address the beneficiaries by name, intersperse the session with fun or action and develop a personal rapport, minimizing the digital divide. It takes more than one engagement and in sustained volunteering, the connect does evolve.

So, here’s to new innovations in volunteering and to making it an essential part of our lives, in the post-covid world. May committed compassion continue to forge new online and offline paths for volunteers and seekers of doing good.

There have been many small variations to the online mode over the past months. Every NGO has a different need and our competence at the online and offline format allows us to interweave both. We have also learnt that a consistent programme can make the presence of online volunteers more palpable and the experience more real, for both the volunteers and the volunteered.