Service Behind the Screen

by Nikki Davis | Jun 30, 2020 | Insights and Inspirations, Trends and Transformations

COVID-19 ushers in Tele-Volunteering

Tree planting, home building, food service, elder care. These traditional volunteer activities date back to the birth of civilization. In fact, the Bible, Quran, Torah, and Buddhism refer to gifts of service, charity to mankind, giving – each in some way sharing to followers that good comes from good deeds. 

Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, was driven by a calling – one to help others in a time of need. That help, with resources available in his lifetime, extended beyond the barriers of nationality, religion, and politics. 

Much like today, acts of service in the 19th century typically involved a connection by self-less, eager, and service minded citizens desiring to help. This foundation was manifested in tangible acts of altruism albeit through actions where one could see and be seen. 

But technology has given rise to innovation in service. Over two decades ago, online doctor visits, remote university classes, and virtual religious ceremonies were foreign if not futuristic. After all, if you could not see or touch the doctor, teacher, or spiritual leader – could the experience be real let alone satisfying? 

In the early 20th century, American psychologist Abraham Maslow explored human needs with a visual representation in “A Theory of Human Motivation” (1943). Each need, categorized as basic, psychological, and self-fulfillment, like the barriers of Dunant’s day, defied age, nationality, and gender. At the base are food, water, warmth, rest, safety and security. As one ascends the hierarchy, one finds relationships, friends, prestige and accomplishment. At the top, one reaches self-actualization – or simply put, arrival at life’s destination.

This arrival may be met through career achievements, financial comfort, and/or wisdom gained with age – hence why many older citizens choose to volunteer. They’ve married (and maybe divorced), raised kids, had the career, and perhaps have a few coins in the bank. They seek to give back and they have the time. But what happens when a virus threatens self-actualization and raises a barrier by exempting volunteers from service due to age or compromised immunity – or both. 

COVID-19 raised a real and threatening barrier to the Movement’s engagement of its core volunteers – many self-actualized individuals who dedicated lifetimes to help others – by telling them to stay home. 

If Dunant had an iPhone, how would the Movement differ from today? 

Innovation is often viewed as radical tech-centric ideas that shake established barriers by introducing new ideas. Years ago, Apple’s Think Different campaign catapulted the tech behemoth’s fame with innovators embracing creativity by thinking the unthinkable. How many humanitarian organizations Think Different? It’s easy to be/think/do different with big budgets but is cost really a barrier to break barriers?

Without beta tests and trials, and with lean staffs and tight budgets, COVID-19 propelled non-profits and NGOs into a new reality of volunteering… say hello to Tele-Volunteering.

COVID-19 created an opportunity that Maslow predicted – the reality that physiological needs for relationships and belonging are undeniable and that humans will fight to survive. But how does an organization focused on alleviating human suffering demonstrate empathy when a hug or pat on the back are discouraged? 

How Tech Can Help

Innovation can take the simple and make it actionable. An American Red Cross director in Los Angeles shared an innovative tactic following a listening session with a partner. 

Much like today, Dunant thought differently as an innovator who worked with one of the greatest innovations in life… the human heart

Nikki Davis

With COVID-19 lockdowns, United States detention centres at the US-Mexico borders were filled with immigrants from Central America, Africa, Syria and a host of other countries. Seeking asylum in a new and foreign land, the simple act to communicate with home seemed impossible for those detained. As non-profits scrambled to continue partner engagement with government restrictions and limited resources, the Los Angeles team did what Red Cross teams are best known for – providing an ear and open heart. 

After listening to the partner, the Red Cross staff learned that detainees, contained for up to 23 hours and released outside for one, lacked access to connect with loved ones in their home countries. Seeing a simple solution that the touch of a screen could resolve, the regional office shipped a cell phone to the partner for detainees to use. 

Engaging Volunteers Remotely 

More than 5 billion people around the world own a mobile device with the average user spending nearly 3 hours a day on their phone. COVID-19 has shown volunteer organisations that the novelty of digital volunteer engagement is more than a passing futuristic thought. The future of tele-volunteering and digital engagement is now. 

Seeking ways to engage new volunteers and armed with a valid reason for disbanding in person connections, the Malaysian Red Cross developed a creative means to engage youth during COVID-19 shutdowns via WhatsApp and email. Pitched as a competition, youth worked in small virtual groups to explore new skills in proposal writing, certificate design, and sponsorship research to support the National Society (NS).

It was clear to the NS, if COVID-19 had not focused volunteer activities inward, managing remote groups would have remained a futuristic concept. Lowering the barrier to participate in NS activities due to geography, transportation, and/or hectic schedules thus preventing attendance at meetings and events, the reality of COVID-19 provided an option for greater volunteer engagement with less restrictions.

Project Wellness, spearheaded by the American Red Cross in Los Angeles, ushered in a new era of volunteering focused on lowering COVID-19’s deadly barrier. While not new or even the most innovative concept, Project Wellness launched to reach local volunteers through phone calls to simply ask, “How are you doing?” 

“Overnight, it was the easiest and most heartwarming activity that opened the door for volunteers of all ages, backgrounds and physical conditions to show they cared”, said Nikki Davis, project initiator. 

Eighty-five volunteers contacted nearly 5,000 volunteers over 12 weeks to “check in”. Project Wellness volunteers listened, shared laughs, offered words of encouragement, and received appreciation for taking the time to care. They also heard about hardships from volunteers who needed help and passed this information to Red Cross mental health caseworkers for follow up. The goal – to reach every volunteer with a call (or voice message). 

One youth volunteer stated that he “(was) happy to hear a new voice that wasn’t his parents” and that he “(had) been feeling lonely, but it (was) good to know Red Cross is there for me”. And for the volunteers who worked on Project Wellness? Let’s just say that giving can be the best medicine. “I think I got more out of this experience than the volunteers I was supposed to be checking-in on”, remarked a Project Wellness volunteer.

COVID-19 took the world by storm in 2020 as a disaster for which the playbook was downright rusty…but the virus did not slay the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. Without big budgets and high-tech gadgets, tele-volunteering and service behind a screen became a new reality.

If Dunant had that iPhone, I wonder what would have happened at the Battle of Solferino? He didn’t need one.

Nikki Davis

If Dunant had that iPhone, I wonder what would have happened at the Battle of Solferino? He didn’t need one. Much like today, Dunant thought differently as an innovator who worked with one of the greatest innovations in life… the human heart.



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