Virtual Volunteering Continues to Surge Amid Crisis

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TechGirlz volunteer Anna Cook teaches a Zoom workshop on using HTML.
TechGirlz volunteer Anna Cook teaches a Zoom workshop on using HTML. (Courtesy of Tracey Welson-Rossman)

With schools closed, senior centers shuttered and nonprofits forced to cancel fundraisers due to the coronavirus, volunteers continue to give back to their communities virtually.

TechGirlz, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of women in tech fields, has moved its workshops online so middle school girls can continue to learn STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math) like coding, animation, HTML, Javascript and website building.

“During these interesting times that we live in, technology plays an even more key part in business,” said TechGirlz founder Tracey Welson-Rossman. “If we can give these girls the confidence to know that they are part of the tech world, they will continue to pursue careers in technology. They are tomorrow’s
innovators.”

Volunteer instructors, who are local information technology professionals as well as high school and college students, are now teaching their students over Zoom. TechGirlz instructional materials are also available to download for free from their website library, so parents and teachers can start their own workshop groups.

“As an instructor, there’s immediate feedback from the girls,” Welson-Rossman said. “Because you can see their faces, you’re still able to see that lightbulb moment and their reaction to the things they’re learning. There’s that feeling of creating some good in the world.”

The classes also provide students with the chance to socialize safely with their classmates.

“Girls are signing up and they see some of their friends from school who have also signed up. We love the fact that our girls got to see each other and create relationships,” Welson-Rossman said.

She also noted that the closure of schools and adults working from home has increased both demand for workshops and interest in volunteering.

“It makes sense because parents need activities for their girls to be able to partake in,” she said. “We also have companies who are letting employees volunteer during a weekday rather than the weekend.”

Professionals who are interested in virtual volunteering can use Philadelphia Foundation’s Key Skills Hub to be matched with organizations in need of assistance.

“Local organizations can access volunteers from all over the country,” said Ashley Feuer-Edwards, executive project manager of Second Century Initiative and Corporate Partnerships. “We’re working on helping to make those connections locally. It’s a great opportunity to start building relationships between individuals in the community who are interested in giving back.”

Corporate professionals with experience in fundraising, marketing, website design and other areas of expertise can enter the Key Skills Hub and view local projects selected by a location-based algorithm. Once they match with a nonprofit, they work as consultants on the organization’s projects.

According to Feuer-Edwards, there has been an increased number of volunteers and organizations using the portal in the past month. COVID-19 has created new concerns about remote work, online security and digital fundraising for nonprofits. There has been a heightened demand for help in hosting virtual events.

“So many nonprofits do huge fundraising events in the spring,” Feuer-Edwards said. “Now there’s the question of, ‘Do you make it virtual? Do you postpone it?’”

She also explained that Philadelphia Foundation has created a COVID-19 online resource bundle to help organizations tackle these new challenges, whether it’s digital fundraising or addressing the leadership challenges of remote work.

For those who prefer a more old-school approach to connecting with people in need, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Phone-a-Friend initiative is matching volunteers with isolated older adults in the community to provide socialization over the phone.

“(The seniors) really appreciate it,” said Barbara Ponczek, manager of Northeast Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. “It gives them a chance to talk about themselves and keeps them in touch with reality without having a computer screen.”

Volunteers complete online training in which they learn to keep things positive.

“We try to keep conversations away from the news and the virus,” NORC Outreach Coordinator Lauren Spike said.

But volunteers are also instructed how to fill out response forms to address any urgent needs revealed during conversations.

“People say that they are low on food, that they need a mask, that they need sanitizer,” Spike said. “Our concern is also from a mental health standpoint. We want to make sure they are feeling well in their heads and that they’re not completely overwhelmed with all this.”

As of April 8, the program has enlisted 158 volunteers and made 60 matches.

“(Jewish) Federation connected me with a really nice senior in our community. I like Michael a lot — such a nice guy and such a unique past,” said Phone-a-Friend volunteer Joel Schwarz. “Not only are we doing something that’s really helpful for seniors, when I call Michael it’s the highlight of my day as well. It’s a two-way street.”

Ponczek and Spike hope the program continues even after the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

“These amazing, incredible people are so appreciative of a simple phone call,” Spike said.

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