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  • Ben Avison

A host of digital volunteers could arise from the Covid crisis

The Covid-19 crisis has led us all to find ways to do more from home, and this could unlock a powerful resource of digital volunteers

(Photo by Jeff Slade, taken at the Refugee Week Stage at Tandem Festival 2015)

Like one fifth of UK workers, I was furloughed when the Covid-19 crisis hit the UK. Fortunately, I have been able to make myself useful during this strange time, volunteering for the British Red Cross (while following my other calling, as a singer-songwriter).

I had volunteered for the Red Cross before, helping to stage events during Refugee Week. It was great to be part of this process of raising awareness of the incredible contribution that refugees make to society.

So, when I suddenly found myself with time on my hands, I was extremely grateful of the opportunity to apply my 20 years of journalistic experience to help the BRC's Refugee Support and Restoring Family Links (RSRFL) directorate with their internal communications.

I’ve been busy sourcing, editing and writing stories of service users, staff and volunteers from all over the UK. These stories have been shared as “Stories of Hope” for the weekly newsletter, on the Redroom intranet, and in Life magazine for all volunteers.

It has been inspiring to discover first-hand how quickly a service that is usually based on drop-ins, face-to-face meetings and cash has transformed itself to keep delivering food, supplies, advice and financial support to those who need it.

Volunteers have a crucial role play in delivering this essential work. But many frontline roles have inevitably been put on hold in the interest of safety, and the staff and volunteers alike are eager to resume this work as soon as it is safe.

During lockdown, much assistance has been delivered remotely. As our Executive Director of UK Operations Norman McKinley told us at a volunteer engagement event on Zoom on 4th June, “Our work with refugees and asylum seekers is critical in reaching some of the most vulnerable. We are well placed and able to do this. The RSRFL team have been doing an amazing job from their own front rooms.”

So much has changed as a result of Covid-19. And as social distancing begins to ease and face-to-face work becomes possible again, some of these new ways of working will no doubt be here to stay, opening new possibilities.

I consider myself very fortunate to be able to volunteer from home in the current crisis. My usual job is producing a conference and magazine called Host City, which is all about major sports, business and cultural events. And as these events start to come back to life, I expect my role to be very different during the "new normal": working from home, organising digital events and media.

And it has struck me that, as people’s activities and skills become increasingly digital, volunteering might also evolve to include more desk-based skills.

Another force is at play – a looming economic crisis. Many desk-based jobs are at risk right now, and there may well be a large pool of people looking to share their skills across all the core areas of the organisation – finance, communications, administration, marketing, human resources and fundraising.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that volunteers could or should replace staff. But purposeful activity, whether it is voluntary or paid, is inherently rewarding, and in the changing economic climate we are highly likely to see an increased need for purposeful activity.

Volunteerism is a core value of the Olympic Movement. A number of contributors to Host City conference and magazine have shared their views on the benefits of volunteering. One speaker, who had been a “Games Maker” volunteer, told us how important London 2012 was for producing the most diverse workforce any Olympics had ever had, and for delivering the most diverse Games ever. But he also talked about how some roles were assigned inappropriately, according to people’s level of ability.

And I do wonder if now is the moment for organisations to consider if they are fully utilising the skills of volunteers in this new digital era, to the best of everyone’s abilities.

Kindness can indeed keep us together. I have certainly felt the benefit of giving my time to do good work over the last few weeks, and I hope my service has been helpful. I am very grateful to everyone in the Red Cross community who have supported me over the last few weeks.

I am sure there are thousands more like me who would be just as happy to donate their digital skills, enabling us all to make the most of the power of kindness.

This blog was written for Redroom and also published here with permission from the British Red Cross. My latest single, Carry You, is out now on YouTube and TikTok, raising funds for the British Red Cross

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