As the country remains at a social-distancing standstill, not only are vulnerable people in need of essential items, companionship, and care, but many more fortunate individuals are finding themselves with more time on their hands and a feeling that they should be doing more to give back to the community than simply staying inside and watching Netflix. But opportunities may be limited, given health concerns with going outside and lockdown laws restricting travel. Now, there is a way to volunteer from your couch.
Quite literally. A brand-new website, Volunteer From Your Couch, which launches today, makes it easier for volunteers with an itch to make a difference to connect with organizations that need help to serve people affected by COVID-19. The platform that powers this new “marketplace of action” is Mobilize, a volunteer recruitment platform with roots in political organizing, which has responded to the current situation by making its technology available and free for groups responding to the coronavirus.
These connections have already been taking place on Mobilize.us, but the COVID-specific responses are, as of today, moving over to volunteerfromyourcouch.com. “We really need to be able to convene as much volunteer energy as possible around these organizations that are on the frontlines,” says Alfred Johnson, CEO and cofounder of Mobilize.
That “volunteer energy” is surging; Johnson says many individuals started reaching out and asking how they could make a difference while also keeping themselves safe. The demand is just as high for the organizations, whose needs have changed, and which are having to get more creative in how best to serve their communities.
That’s certainly true for Meals on Wheels Southwest OH & Northern KY, a local Meals on Wheels organization that serves 3,000 seniors in that region. “The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything for seniors overnight,” says Jennifer Steele, the executive director, adding that they had to find an innovative system to perform outreach to the older people, to see if they’re in need of food at a time when their movements are restricted—but also simply to provide them with some human connection in a lonely time.
Steele’s volunteer base has increased dramatically since the start of COVID-19, from five to 10 regular volunteers to hundreds. After a simple sign-up process, Mobilize now supplies the technological solution that not only provides the centralized platform, but also manages training, engaging, and scheduling for the large number of participants.
Phone banking is blocked into regular scheduled events. Volunteers who sign up are then connected to an autodialing system to take the reins and facilitate the outreach; it provides opportunities for companies or groups looking for new team-building ideas. “It’s better than a Zoom happy hour, which is all that companies have right now” Steele says. In a three-week pilot program, the Meals on Wheels group engaged with 1,200 seniors, and is now ready for operations via the new site.
“I’m not kidding when I say you literally can sit on your couch and do this,” she says.
Mobilize has connected mission-driving organizations with supporters since 2017. That originally meant political organizing, in particular, get-out-the-vote initiatives via phone and text banking. Pre-pandemic, 25% of the events were virtual, Johnson says; now, that’s pretty much 100%. For the nonprofits using the service, Mobilize is waiving its usual licensing fee, at least until the end of May.
With an election on the horizon, 2020 is still a priority—Mobilize’s bigger clients include the DNC and the Joe Biden campaign—and the challenge now is translating voter registration and campaigning pushes to digital media. But, political organizations are also rallying their large supporter bases to help with the coronavirus response. Local Biden campaign centers in Tacoma and Tucson, for example, are running events to support and thank first responders. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is hosting a series of mobile food bank initiatives, where volunteers can help connect people with mobile food pantries that are delivering food in their neighborhoods. While these mutual aid events focus on people in local communities, the virtual nature means people around the country can sign up to assist.
It’s not new for Mobilize to be working with 501(c)(3)s—it’s been doing that nonpolitical work since 2018—but the pandemic is redefining what a “volunteer” can mean. For No Vet Alone, a charity that offers assistance to military vets and first responders suffering from PTSD and brain injury, volunteering could mean anyone from around the country joining new virtual happy hours or online yoga sessions, to provide vets with company and meaningful connection. “The current conditions that we’re under are really rough for them,” says Renata Sahagian, the organization’s chief experience officer, “because one of the big things that they struggle with is depression and isolation, which just wreaks havoc on them.”
These events have been substitutes for in-person retreats, and they’ve been so successful that they’re likely to continue after the pandemic. The Mobilize platform, she says, has greatly facilitated outreach, and allowed people to sign up for more events and engage more with each other. Without it, she says: “We would never be able to be in front of that many people across the country, ever.”
What’s more, the new setup is proving equally worthwhile for volunteers, many of whom are also lonely now. Checking in with other people can be just as therapeutic for them. “People need different forms of connection right now,” Johnson says. “And this site will curate the kinds of activities that are really helpful.”