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Volunteering While Social Distancing

Mandisa Kalako Williams disaster relief viewpoint BIS 2020The Covid-19 pandemic has created the worst social crisis in living memory. With non-profit organisations (NPOs) stretched to breaking point as they tried to meet an overwhelming need, many encouraged volunteers to contribute time, skills, and other forms of support. Physical distancing notwithstanding, these volunteers found ways to connect with communities, as Mandisa Kalako-Williams, former president of the South African Red Cross Society (SARCS), explains.


What kind of volunteering does the SARCS facilitate?

SARCS volunteerism has a history of both the traditional provision of free services (during World Wars I and II), and the community-based volunteers receive a daily allowance or stipend for meals and transport, ranging from R100 to R200. Our volunteers were involved in humanitarian services during the spate of violence pre-1992, helping the injured and supporting grieving families. During the early years of HIV/ Aids, they functioned as communitybased healthcare supporters, helping families to cope with the fear, care and nursing of those infected with the virus. A typical SARCS volunteer will have been trained in First Aid, homebased care, HIV counselling, and basic disaster risk management – being able to assess needs, distribute relief, and help with recovery. During the pandemic, our volunteers were the first responders or go-to people in their communities and they focused on community-based health education, screening for the virus, and distributing food.

Was there a decline in interest to volunteer during lockdown?

At the onset of Covid-19, our existing volunteers were trained in dealing with the new virus, apprised of the risks, and supported with the necessary protective equipment. Naturally, there was – and still is – much fear and apprehension. However, the numbers have not dwindled – instead, more people have come forward, wanting to be trained and to help others. We currently have close to 1 000 active volunteers, with around 200 of them young volunteers recruited specifically for Covid-19 initiatives (volunteers over 60 were not trained for this type of disaster relief ).

What measures were put in place to keep volunteers safe during the height of the pandemic?

The safety of our volunteers is paramount and non-negotiable. Some of them were insured in the event of accidents but not for getting Covid-19, so we dealt with a very real fear that some of them would become infected. Risk communication was very important – we constantly repeated self-safety messages like “protect yourself and your family first”. We provided volunteers with gloves, masks and hand sanitiser. We also introduced shorter shifts, so volunteers worked only four hours at a time, which limited the risk of lengthier exposure to the virus. Finally, we made regular visits to the field to encourage volunteers, provide reassurance, and acknowledge the efforts made.

How did you address the mental health and wellbeing of your volunteers?

Many volunteers were understandably anxious, concerned about the possibility of being infected, and of spreading the virus to their families. In addition, in busy spaces like malls, people were not always willing to take advice on social distancing or on how the virus is spread, and were hostile and non-compliant. At one stage, we had to withdraw from the malls due to the harassment. The SARCS established a mechanism for psychological support services provided by a qualified social worker – phone-in-confidentiality guaranteed – to help volunteers to unburden and share their concerns.

What were some of the challenges to volunteerism during lockdown, and how were these mitigated?

In terms of resources, we needed to ensure that staff and volunteers were protected and safe. Due to high demand, personal protective equipment became scarce and expensive, and we struggled to obtain this for some time. Because public transport was restricted to certain operating hours, volunteers could not always move around as required, even when they had passes or permits as essential workers. In some difficult-to- reach communities, it was almost impossible to go into houses to screen people, for cultural and other reasons.

The limitation on gatherings was a challenge as we could not get together to brief volunteers before they went into the field, nor debrief them at the end of shifts. We supplied them with internet capability, data, connectivity, and used WhatsApp to keep them connected and involved as groups. We also held regular and transparent discussions about where the SARCS was going with its relief operations.

What advice would you have for companies wanting to support employee volunteering in these times of social distancing?

Companies need to gain more insight into the mandate and principles of the organisations they support through volunteering. More company employees should be exposed to real volunteering, allowing them to walk in the footsteps of community volunteers. Company donations should have a specific amount earmarked for volunteer subsistence allowances as our volunteers are usually drafted from the very needy communities we try to assist. Lastly, assistance should be practical. The NPO sector is in dire need of the skills of accountants, internal and public auditors, human resource management, and marketing and public relations. These skills reside in almost all companies and can add a tremendousamount of value to their chosen NPOs.

 - Mandisa Kalako Williams, Former South African Red Cross Society (SARCS) president (volunteer in governance) and secretary general (management at CEO level).

 Source: Trialogue Business in Society Handbook 2020