Re-imagining the Scope of Volunteerism in the Greater Triangle
This article is brought to you by Allyson Cobb, United Way of the Greater Triangle’s Leader of Community Engagement. March 13th, 2020 was the last day that staff at United Way of the Greater Triangle were all together in person. Naively at the time, we anticipated that quarantine would be two weeks of working from home and then returning to our beloved co-working space at The Frontier in RTP. However, as the weeks went on it became painfully clear that the words and phrases including “quarantine,” “COVID-19,” “PPE,” and “working remotely” were all concepts that were here to stay. A new cultural norm was being created right before our eyes that would impact all of our work here in the community. For volunteerism, it would require a re-imagining of what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to volunteer in our communities.
Like many companies, local businesses, and schools, nonprofit organizations within the greater Triangle had to scurry to figure out how to continue to support the many underserved communities that were experiencing, and continue to experience, disproportionate access to resources. They also needed to determine how to meet this need with limited capacity due to the lack of volunteers able to support their work. These are people that so many nonprofit organizations depend on.
With that, many organizations had to shut down to regroup and assess how they can safely serve those in the community and reincorporate volunteers back into their work. Through United Way’s own virtual site visits with funded nonprofit partners, we learned that many of our organizations had halted all volunteer opportunities. Some still have yet to resume volunteering opportunities for the community. Although organizations such as Meals on Wheels of Wake County, Urban Ministries of Durham, and Johnston Lee Harnett Community Action were still able to support volunteers with limited capacity, this left a service gap in many of our communities.
Like many things, an answer was found in the virtual world of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Duo. An insurgence of virtual panels, workshops, and wish lists emerged. Organizations that typically didn’t have the capacity to support events or programs are now able to introduce new audiences to their work via the virtual world. Here at United Way, we created an entire virtual series (Unwrapped) dedicated to lifting up the work of our awesome funded partners to external audiences that may have never had a chance to meet them.
In addition to many new and exciting engagement opportunities (i.e. Racial Equity Challenge, Justice Series, storytelling events, 7-Day Impact Challenge for National Volunteer Week, etc.), we learned that many of our partners were finding new and creative ways to engage their audiences and volunteers as well.
Although we crave the days where we can gather together in the name of the community and be of service to those in underserved and under-resourced communities, COVID-19 has provided us an opportunity to re-imagine what it means to be a volunteer, the value of volunteers, and how we can continue to move the needle of what volunteerism looks, feels, and sounds like. But how do we do that? How do we re-imagine volunteerism through our new normal?
At United Way, we have taken a strong overhaul of our own superpower as an organization and identified how to scale and grow our capacity in the community. Our niche for developing, guiding, and implementing awareness-building and interactive engagements here in the Triangle is the way we are re-imagining how we engage with the community.
In the community, we saw organizations such as A Place At the Table in Raleigh re-imagine how to continue to provide fellowship and food to the community through curbside dining. Other organizations like Durham Public Schools Foundation understood the immediate need that students and their families experiencing food insecurity would need here in Durham and figured out how to distribute food safely and with the assistance of volunteers. These are just two clear examples to us of ways that nonprofits were re-imagining their work and how to engage volunteers through it.
We know that the systems-level work is a constant fight, but as a community, we can continue to do our part by remaining engaged and involved in the grassroots work of many of our revered nonprofits. Now more than ever is the opportunity present to share our time, talents, and treasure with those doing the work to meet the need in the community.
Taking advantage of the virtual technologies around us, I would encourage each and every one of us to take the time to volunteer and learn about a community other than our own. It allows one to truly understand the commonalities that many of us share but also the struggles of our fellow [hu]man. So I ask you, what are some ways that we can continue re-imagining volunteerism here in the greater Triangle? How can we ensure that the expression of one’s individual humanity through social relation to others is still met, safely, in our new norm?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “volunteer” as “a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service” but in fact, this definition does little to describe the true work and essence of a servant to the community. I would leave you with this quote from Celestina Obiekea, a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow: “To volunteer is to give of yourself in service to a cause. It is about freely giving your time to help an organization, your community, or an individual…The idea of giving oneself for the benefit of others has its origins in early African life. These traditional cultural beliefs and practices encourage collective responsibility, solidarity, and reciprocity. These ideas are fundamental to expressing an individual’s humanity through his or her social relations with others. And they are the essence of what it means to volunteer.”
Stay connected to our work. Check out our website and newsletter for upcoming storytelling and volunteer opportunities.