A first-hand account from a CVA who succeeded in sustaining the connection to volunteers sidelined by the pandemic

Covid-19 has been a game changer for all of us: it challenged my program at the Smithsonian in ways large and small. Smithsonian Associates (SA), which annually presents 700+ classes and other educational and entertaining programs, made a hard fast pivot in June 2020, when it began to present all of its lectures and art courses as livestreamed programs on Zoom. As SA’s Volunteer Coordinator, I was fortunate to keep working full-time from home, where I ramped up a new way of volunteering remotely, finding additional volunteers, and training a mixed group of new and longtime volunteers to help host these programs on Zoom.

While my primary focus was to oversee these remote volunteers, I didn’t want to lose sight of the 100+ of pre-pandemic volunteers who were not assisting remotely. Since these loyal volunteers were (and are) on hiatus for an undermined period of time, I wanted to help them feel connected to SA and the Smithsonian. The best way I thought to keep in touch was to facilitate weekly 45-minute video calls on Zoom.

The video calls have a consistent structure to them. First, I introduce a staff member who speaks for 20 minutes about their work, how it has changed since the pandemic, and what they are learning. Then I moderate a 10 minute Q&A session, answering questions that volunteers type into the chat box. The last 15 minutes of the meeting are set aside for me to interact with the volunteers and update them on operational changes or news from other parts of the Smithsonian. I make a point of varying the format, sometimes using polls or breakout rooms for smaller group discussion and brainstorming. The calls have been very successful, averaging 50-60 participants.

Smithsonian Associates staff showed their appreciation for the volunteers by creating Thank You signs displayed via zoom. Interestingly, a follow up poll gave the event relatively low marks. Jenna is re-thinking the practice for next year.

The staff speakers are an important element of the calls’ success. The speakers serve as a draw to boost attendance: the volunteers love getting the inside scoop on things from their favorite staffers. Staff participation was modeled by our Unit Director and leadership team, who participated in some of the early calls. The participation of senior leadership was important for gaining the buy-in of SA staff as speakers

As the volunteers adjusted their daily routines in the pandemic, I developed a new feature, “Pandemic Pastimes.” This addition is a slide show of photographs that the volunteers email to me. The images chronicle what the volunteers have been doing with all this time on their hands. I have collected pictures of many cats and some dogs, beautiful spring flowers and gardens, people walking outside, painting and other art projects, home improvements in action, cooking and baking, and much more.

My favorite addition was a film clip I used as the finale for the first slide show — a 70ish volunteer tap dancing! Pandemic Pastimes was so popular I created a second show, “Pandemic Pastimes 2.0.” For both shows, I used PowerPoint to create the slides and captions. Each presentation was about 8 minutes long. It was heartening to see the response to this morale booster.

As November neared, it was time for the SA staff to share their appreciation for all the volunteer support in 2020.  Back in 2017, the staff created a thank you video for the volunteers. We decided to create another thank you video, this time using Zoom. At an all-staff meeting, we set aside time for each staffer to hold up a thank you sign to the camera. The result was a three-minute video complete with music, edited with the help of our Tech Director. The finished video was played during a video call shortly before Thanksgiving. Another staffer took a screen shot of all of us holding up our signs and this was featured in the December Program Guide, accompanied by our Director’s year end message of gratitude to our program patrons and members.

Interestingly, I polled 65 volunteers at our January 2021 Zoom meeting, about how they prefer being appreciated by staff. There were 8 choices ranging from a verbal thank you from staff at the time of their shift, an annual party, a socially distanced get together, comp tickets, special offers, and such. One answer option was “video thank you messages from staff” – and that got a disappointing 12% response rate. With that in mind, I will not plan another thank you from staff video. It isn’t enough of a positive response to merit the work that goes into creating it.

2020 was an unprecedented year for volunteering everywhere. Thankfully, technology in general and Zoom in particular permitted a pathway for engaging all of our volunteers, whether actively volunteering or on hiatus. As the moderator, it took some time to become proficient on the platform, but with practice it became easier to facilitate these meetings. I also learned to keep my own comments short. It’s more important to pose questions and ask for volunteers’ questions. I recommend using the breakout room for smaller discussions, and creating some polls, even lighthearted ones, to keep people engaged.

Cheers to 2021: may it be a productive year for volunteers and volunteer managers everywhere as we adapt our programs to a pandemic that may run through much of this year, too.

Jenna Jones, CVA has over 15 years of volunteer management experience. She is the Volunteer Coordinator for Smithsonian Associates, where 350 volunteers help host courses, art programs, bus tours, and other operations. Most of her volunteers are over 50, and Jenna’s bachelor’s degree is in Gerontology. She also is a Board Member of Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, as its Volunteer Director. Feel free to contact Jenna through her LinkedIn Page with comments or questions.