Volunteering during COVID-19 and Social Distancing

By United Way of King County, on April 10, 2020 | In Volunteering

Post written by Liahann Bannerman, Director, Volunteer Engagement at United Way of King County

I received an email last week asking if we’d do an interview about our plans for April Global Volunteer Month—when nonprofits highlight and show appreciation for their volunteers.  

I’ll be honest, my first impulse—after shock that it was already April (I mean, really?)—was to say “hey, we’re in a crisis here!”   

But a few deep breaths later, I realized volunteers have a key role to play in the crisis at hand. As news—and restrictions—related to the pandemic emerge it has become clear volunteering has new challenges.  

At United Way, we immediately realized volunteering with essential services like food banks would be impacted for many volunteers over 60 and at-risk. Recruiting people to fill the initial gaps was urgent. 

We created a COVID Volunteer & In-kind Response page, where nonprofits, government, schools, etc. can post needs for volunteers. Given the severity of the challenges facing nonprofits and those they serve, we quickly expanded it to allow posts of in-kind needs.  

People’s desire to help is strong—and finding ways they can volunteer needed to shift to include volunteering that is virtual, do-it-yourself and safe when in-person. 

We experienced two of these shifts when we had to close our Free Tax Preparation sites, as staff worked hard to redeploy as many of our 1,000+ tax and census volunteers as possible:  

  • Safe/In-Person: Serving/delivering food to students now that schools are closed, with both organizations and volunteers taking the necessary precautions and following Serve Washington’s frequently updated guidelines
  • Virtual: Shifting to an online tax help tool, digital census outreach and serving as phone banking volunteers .  We’re recruiting for this one, with a goal of calling more than 60,000 people in our community to provide information about meals sites, food banks, public benefits programs, eviction prevention and more.  

We also saw other organizations stepping up:   

  • The Seattle Food Committee, by helping the food banks in their network to post their needs and following up with volunteers on their behalf.  
  • Our Education Strategies Team is doing the same for a network of early learning and youth programs whose staff are stretched. 

When you check out the site, you’ll see the ways organizations have shifted. Here are a few other examples:

Safe/In-Person Volunteer Opportunities

Immanuel Community Services, following the restrictions on gatherings from the Governor, had staff and volunteers change the entire layout of their food bank to address safety and physical distancing for their guests and volunteers.  

Food banks and other emergency food providers are still in need of in-person volunteers to prepare, serve or deliver food to our neighbors in need. These volunteers are considered essential under Governor Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.   

Virtual Volunteer Opportunities

Whether it’s Eastside Legal Assistance Program looking for translators to transcribe their COVID-related “Know Your Rights” presentations from English into other languages or Catholic Community Services seeking phone buddies to call and check in weekly with seniors to ensure they have what they need to be safe and healthy, organizations are being nimble in figuring out ways to continue serving their clients.  And we’re researching and sharing as many ideas as we can to help them. 

Do-It-Yourself Opportunities

These range from intentionally promoting local nonprofits’ social media posts to making food for essential workers or reaching out to vulnerable people in your neighborhood to see what they need. 

Recently, Providence/St. Joseph Health Care reached out to us following the success of their “million mask challenge,” which asked people to sew PPE masks for frontline health care workers.  Over 9,000 people responded in King County alone.  And our friends at Providence heard from many nonprofits outside of healthcare who also needed masks—but knew healthcare was the priority for the N95/commercial products.

Using the design and video from their site, we’re now asking our nonprofit partners to post their needs for masks—and connecting them to volunteers with instructions on making them and following safety guidelines. United Way staff are also gathering masks to distribute to shelter providers

Of course there are also many in-kind needs also outlined  from indoor activities for children in shelters, hotspots and computers for students, to blood, to gift cards for food.  All help is needed and welcome  and including gifts to United Way’s Community Relief Fund providing food and rental assistance to people impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.  

The work of the past month has demonstrated the critical place volunteers occupy in nonprofit infrastructure and, ultimately, our economy. Honoring volunteers during Global Volunteer Month is the least we can do—and if April isn’t the time to have a celebration or create an appreciation video, let’s make sure we appreciate them—and everyone keeping us healthy and safe—the rest of 2020. 


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