WATERED GARDENS hasn’t yet suffered fewer donations since the coronavirus pandemic, as some nonprofits have. The shelter’s real problem is personnel: After the outbreak, it lost almost half its 200 mostly older volunteers. The office staff is working from home, and the 17 on-site staff members are straining to cover everyday tasks and recruit new volunteers.
Care coordinator Beth Zimmerman and her volunteers used to get to know new clients and help them set goals for becoming independent again. Now without her team, Zimmerman quickly screens people at the door to determine if they need immediate relief, then sends them on. Volunteers used to walk people through the mission’s market and help them decide what to buy. Now kitchen manager Casie Augustine fills orders herself, and buyers don’t even enter the market. Staff members and residents are also serving meals, another volunteer job. Whitford sends the regular volunteers a weekly video update to stay in touch. “I don’t want to lose them,” he said.
The coronavirus leaves would-be volunteers in a dilemma: Many have time and want to help, but they are nervous working at nonprofits that require in-person contact—especially with homeless people who cannot easily maintain hygiene or distance. Kevin Scally, chief relationship officer for the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator, said some nonprofits have found a solution in “virtual volunteers.” People raise awareness through social media or create online fundraisers. Volunteers can update websites and help organizations communicate with supporters. But ministries like Watered Gardens can’t shift their work online.
Other organizations have a different problem: plenty of volunteers, but fewer ways to use them.
Joe Huggins directs Home Works of America, a Christian nonprofit based in Columbia, S.C., that repairs homes for qualifying low-income residents. The organization uses 3,000 mostly student volunteers each year to repair homes for a mostly elderly clientele.
As the coronavirus hit, Huggins said, Home Works initially continued making repairs but soon stopped using volunteers and only sent staff to handle emergencies. One of the group’s last repairs was on an HVAC unit for an elderly woman in Columbia. Four weeks earlier, adult leaders and around 10 student volunteers had repaired her leaky roof and painted the home. When her HVAC unit broke, she called back, and the same Home Works site leader brought a local contractor to fix it (the same leader later checked on the woman and brought her groceries).
Home Works stopped making repairs four weeks ago. Home repair is considered an essential service, but Huggins said bringing groups into contact with elderly clients was a risk he didn’t want to take. Still, people keep asking to volunteer with the ministry.