My Experience of Online Volunteering

EDF is a co-partner in an EU-funded project called VIVID-T focusing on humanitarian action, volunteering, and disability. Read the experience of Lucy Barlow, a volunteer for this project.

It has been a thought-provoking and enriching learning experience volunteering online with CBM Ireland on the VIVID-T project. Due to COVID-19, I knew I would be working remotely for most of my time with CBM. Therefore, I was slightly apprehensive that I would be stuck behind a computer screen with minimal opportunities to interact with other staff members. Luckily, this is not the case; there are weekly team meetings within CBM Ireland and the VIVID-T team. This constant communication has been one of the most valuable aspects of my work. I believe that there is so much to learn from other colleagues whose expertise is extensive in the humanitarian and development sectors.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance and advantages of online volunteering to people and not-for-profit organisations, including increased opportunities for persons with disabilities and connecting more significant numbers of people worldwide. The VIVID-T project aims to promote the opportunities that volunteering presents for persons with disabilities who are often excluded from humanitarian aid. To facilitate this aim, one of the partner organisations, Viatores Christi, carried out exciting research. They explored perceptions, opportunities, and challenges related to inclusive online volunteering and humanitarian aid. They found that participants believe it is an incredible opportunity for all, including persons with disabilities, especially when compared to offline volunteering opportunities, as there are very few in development work. The researchers identified challenges associated with recruitment, training, volunteer management, and disability-related assistive technology. Through working remotely on VIVID-T, I have become aware of some of these challenges, such as potentially complex tasks associated with technology. It can be overwhelming learning how to navigate an organisation’s online space and figuring out how to locate, download, and upload specific files to the correct places. I am very grateful that I can communicate easily with the VIVID-T team and CBM Ireland through Microsoft Teams chat and video and via email. It provides a tremendous sense of ease, knowing that you can receive help and guidance whenever you need it. This particular aspect of my work made me aware of the importance of creating a team environment where online volunteers, feel that they can reach out to team members and mentors, where we feel included.

One element of the VIVID-T project that I have particularly appreciated is its emphasis on Disabled Persons Organisations (DPOs) being consulted for every training event online and offline to ensure that no one is left behind. It has taught me the pivotal role that DPOs play in ensuring disability inclusion in every aspect of life. I have attended exciting digital accessibility webinars, including learning how to make Word Documents, PowerPoint, social media, and much more accessible. These webinars have highlighted that inclusive online practices are straightforward to learn and effortless to apply. However, I believe that most people and organisations are not educated about digital accessibility, which presents challenges for persons with disabilities who aim to volunteer online. One of the partner organisations, the European Disability Forum (EDF), webinar on “the impact of inclusive volunteering” was intriguing. Speakers discussed the need to create accessible application processes for people with disabilities, including accessible interview processes, assessing the volunteers’ needs, and sufficient resources in terms of staff and funding. While this point did not directly address online volunteering, similar procedures would apply. I am optimistic that inclusive online volunteering could become significantly more universal if organisations in the humanitarian and development sectors put funds towards digital accessibility training and consulted DPOs throughout the entire process.

From my personal experience of online volunteering and the training events and webinars I have attended, I have gained some insights into the steps that should be taken to ensure valuable online volunteering for persons with disabilities. Organisations must ensure the workplace is inclusive and accessible with for instance assistive technology available when required. In addition, organisations must adopt online inclusive practices and tools, including accessible communication platforms such as Zoom. A crucial advantage of online volunteering is the potential to work from the comfort of your own home. This aspect removes barriers associated with trying to work in the field or accessing an office. More broadly, I have found that online volunteering is an incredible opportunity to connect with people worldwide and experience collaborative learning environments. Throughout some of the VIVID training events, I have heard invaluable insights from people working in the field and whom I may not have gotten the opportunity to meet if these events could have taken place face to face.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my online volunteering experience on the VIVID-T project. I particularly value how much I have learned about the many advantages online volunteering presents for all, including persons with disabilities, and the challenges that organisations must address to create valuable, inclusive volunteering. One of the VIVID-T aims is to promote volunteer work for persons with disabilities in humanitarian aid; however, it goes much further than that, in my opinion. I believe it emphasises the necessity for persons with disabilities to be recognised and included in every aspect of life, whether in humanitarian aid or simply trying to navigate a website or Word document.