Planning Magazine

Pandemic-Proof Community Service

Leveraging the power of volunteering is vital to boosting local resilience.

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Volunteers paint the sidewalk — and physically distance — as part of Neighborhood Design Center’s Designs for Distancing Project. Photo by Megan Oliver.

Volunteering strengthens community capacity, helps raise funds, and generates project momentum and buy-in. It can also boost moods and morale while instilling hope in the face of challenges. But for much of the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a complicated barrier to volunteering — all while creating an even greater need for community support.

When planners volunteer, they demonstrate commitment, build community rapport, are exposed to new ideas, and help tackle the small-but-mighty actions that support their long-term goals. More importantly, by working with volunteers, planners can swiftly devise and execute creative solutions in response to complex and unfamiliar challenges.

In Baltimore, two organizations were able to safely continue their volunteer efforts throughout the pandemic. Design nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center invited volunteers to help install tactical urbanism interventions across the city as part of their "Design for Distancing" competition, while the urban service corps Civic Works dispatched 150 volunteers across the city to blaze a walking path, sort books for kids, and paint picnic tables, among other efforts.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation took a different approach by encouraging individuals interested in donating their time to volunteer on their own.

Together, these organizations and efforts offer some best practices for hosting safe, comfortable volunteer opportunities, even while physically distanced.

1. Respect the current situation

People are actively and cautiously choosing how to spend their time right now, so any volunteer event needs to acknowledge and address very legitimate concerns regarding the pandemic.

2. Communicate expectations

Set the tone by demonstrating that you're taking appropriate precautions — and do so early, clearly, and often.

3. Make it meaningful

Entice parti­cipants by emphasizing the significance of volunteer efforts and connecting current initiatives to longer-term objectives. Outcomes matter more than actions right now, so focus on mission-driven, impactful tasks. At the end, celebrate volunteers and their contributions by showcasing their collective achievements. Civic Works follows up each event by sharing the impressive numbers measuring volunteer impact.

4. Control the experience

Check temperatures as volunteers arrive and collect their information for contact tracing. Require masks and limit the size of groups by creating time slots, dispersing volunteer sites, capping the number of volunteers, and requiring registration in advance. Encourage remote check-in the day before. When Civic Works couldn't gather volunteers in person, they sent mandatory waivers via email the week beforehand, along with an inspiring volunteer orientation video to stir excitement.

5. Divide and conquer

Consider opportunities for individuals. This past summer, Fairmount Park Conservancy launched a solo volunteer program that would support their larger organizational goals of cleaning parks. They provided participants with free clean-up kits, including instructions, supplies, and safety tips.

6. Enforce safety procedures

Ensure that your policies and safety standards comply with regulations. Having a specific enforcement plan will make it easier to ensure compliance. Remember, it's okay to dismiss volunteers who won't respect the rules. 

7. Craft a virtual experience

Perhaps meeting in person isn't feasible for some or all of your participants. If so, consider offering virtual opportunities, or take a hybrid approach. Tie virtual experiences into tangible planning objectives. Keep volunteers engaged and connected to their impact, which can be more difficult to observe remotely.

8. Be adaptable

There is no one-size-suits-all solution. Any strategy should be flexible enough to adapt as needed. Your strategy should vary depending on the community where you're working.

Think of this as an opportunity to evolve. Sometimes, unexpected constraints that demand creative solutions can lead to wonderful innovations and operational improvements. Keep an open mind, try new tactics, and recreate what works well.

Megan Oliver is a design and planning consultant, an urbanist, and a happiness enthusiast currently researching strategies for creating happier spaces and places through community design. Learn more at Hello Happy Design.