Alexander Sokolowski, Sri Lanka e-volunteer.
Photo credit: Quyen Dam
Alexander Sokolowski, Sri Lanka e-volunteer. Photo credit: Quyen Dam

How we are continuing to support international partners remotely

Many of our international partners have been particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Sri Lanka and Vietnam where WUSC had planned to mobilize more than 200 volunteers this year to support partners in their efforts toward the creation of more resilient and inclusive economies.

With office closures and various other prevention measures put in place, such as travel restrictions and curfews, much of our program implementation has slowed over the last few months. We have had to quickly adapt our approach to ensure our support could continue during this challenging time. We have been collaborating with our partners to find new and innovative ways to continue to support them during this time.

Three new strategies we have developed to support our partners remotely during the pandemic include: launching new e-volunteer opportunities, delivering learning and engagement webinars, and providing innovation funding.

Adapting international volunteer mandates to e-volunteer opportunities

Our new e-volunteering opportunities respond to the immediate needs of our partners. We are currently recruiting, assessing, training and placing e-volunteers to work remotely on impactful part-time to full-time assignments with partners in Africa and Asia.

Currently, 30 e-volunteers are contributing their time and skills from their kitchen tables at home in Canada to advance gender equality and economic empowerment around the world.

“Being a WUSC e-volunteer means that I can continue supporting grassroots development from anywhere in the world, even at home…I think that e-volunteering is a great way to keep connections alive with partner organisations on the ground.”

Nadeesh Jayasinghe, Sri Lanka e-volunteer

E-volunteers collaborate, advise, mentor and complete tasks virtually for WUSC’s partner organizations. They contribute between 5 to 35 hours per week according to their availability and connect with their partner organization focal points online via platforms such as Zoom, Whatsapp, and email.

Some e-volunteers have joined WUSC as part of a longer-term plan to transition to an in-person international assignment once it is safe to do so. Other e-volunteers aren’t able to commit to an international volunteering assignment but still want to contribute their skills and time.

We have found that through these e-volunteering opportunities, we have been able to engage a broader demographic of Canadians with diverse skills who may not have otherwise been able to commit to an international assignment, while also allowing for a more flexible volunteering schedule.

E-volunteering supports our local partners in Africa and Asia in adapting and responding to COVID-19

In the current context, e-volunteering continues to serve as additional support for partners, particularly in cases where there may be gaps in adapting to new ways of working.

For instance, prior to the pandemic, the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association focused on building the capacity of women entrepreneurship member organizations to increase trade and access capital. Due to COVID-19, most of their member organizations are now struggling to market their products due to limited experience with digital marketing platforms. There is only one staff member at the Association with the digital marketing skills required to respond to the overwhelming demand. The Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association requested a WUSC e-volunteer to provide additional support during this time to increase the organization’s capacity in digital marketing to be better able to support their members.

In Malawi, ArtGlo works to raise awareness about important social issues through innovative use of the arts. They mobilized quickly at the start of the pandemic to research the myths and misconceptions about COVID-19 in hopes to address them head on through new programming. They requested e-volunteer support from WUSC to build their capacity in quickly securing funds to implement their new and creative solutions.

Annie Langford tells us about her experience so far e-volunteering with ArtGlo:

“With its innovative use of the arts and understanding of rural communities, ArtGlo is uniquely positioned to make an impact on COVID-19 in the communities it serves…It’s been fascinating both to hear about this work and be involved in it, as I’ve been able to assist in applying for grants which will help combat COVID-19 in Malawi. This way, I’ve been able to stay up to date about important activities and feel like I’m making a difference on the ground without endangering myself and others.”

Annie Langford, Malawi e-volunteer

Overcoming the unique challenges of e-volunteering

Of course, e-volunteering is not without its own challenges. We are committed to learning from our e-volunteers on the challenges they face and the approaches they use to overcome these challenges to still be able to provide optimal support to partner organizations. E-volunteers across all our program countries are connected on WUSC’s online platform to share experiences and best practices with one another.

Lucas, a volunteer with WUSC in Malawi discovered that intercultural communications remains just as important in an online setting:

“In terms of similarities, both the online and international assignments require adaptation and flexibility from the volunteer. Since you are working with people from different nationalities with different working cultures, you need to understand and adapt to their context, even through online communications.” 

Lucas Mesquita, Malawi e-volunteer

Meanwhile, Annie with ArtGlo in Malawi was initially disappointed about missing out on the in-person cultural integration and interactions. However, she soon realized that there were new ways of working:

I was initially disappointed that I would be unable to integrate culturally in Malawi and get to know people on a face-to-face basis. But since starting work I’ve found that many ArtGlo staff are in a similar position – we miss the social environment of the office, and have been able to re-create this in a way online. Our staff meetings still start with a “rose and thorn” and end with shout-outs that make me feel heard and included. It also means staff know my name and the work I’m doing, so they feel comfortable reaching out to me and vise versa. And I’ve also realized that working from home has its perks – I like taking breaks to meditate, make tea and pet my cats!”

Annie Langford, Malawi e-volunteer

Despite the challenges, our volunteers remain optimistic. Angela, an e-volunteer with RefuShe in Kenya shares her outlook:

“I believe with patience, persistence and creativity we can build strong relationships and communicate effectively through means of voice and video. With smiles, a little bit of humour and a positive attitude is how I will approach this challenge.”

Angela Guidolin, Kenya e-volunteer

Expanding the reach of e-volunteer contributions through partner learning and engagement webinars

By joining WUSC, our partners gain access to a unique global network of experts and organizations all committed to advancing gender equality and the economic empowerment of young people. Although each context is unique, we have found that sharing ideas and lessons learned across organizations can be a catalyst for innovative thinking and the development of new solutions.

As community-based training, activities, and events continue to be scaled down or put on hold, our partners have told us that they have more time to devote to knowledge-sharing and other professional development activities. To complement our e-volunteering support, WUSC launched a series of webinars for partner organizations of topics guided by our partners’ needs and opportunities.

Webinars are run by e-volunteers, staff, and partners to contribute to building capacity from a distance. They also contribute to the nurturing of a community of organizations with shared missions and values within countries and across borders.

We recently launched our webinar series with a special presentation on best practices for working with e-volunteers, including intercultural effectiveness and tips for working in a virtual environment. Potential future topics include gender-based analysis, systems thinking for social innovation, change management in times of COVID-19, financing social initiatives, strategic communications for social change, social enterprise business models, climate resiliency, and volunteer engagement and management.

Testing and scaling innovative ideas toward a new normal

We know that times of crisis can also be times of immense creativity and innovation. New ideas and approaches are needed to respond to the challenges brought on by COVID-19. But we can also seize this creative thinking to develop solutions for a new normal in the long-term, one that is more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable.

However, with so many economic uncertainties resulting from the pandemic, it can be a challenge to secure funding for testing new ideas and piloting new initiatives. That’s why we launched a Partner Innovation Fund to respond to the emerging needs of our partner organizations in their efforts to support inclusive social innovation and social entrepreneurship. The Fund will improve the capacity of partners to develop, test, and scale innovative and inclusive initiatives and services for the equitable economic empowerment of young people.

With the application period just having closed, we have received 24 applications with resources to fund up to six initiatives. These successful applicants will be chosen by October 2020 to be funded over the next 24 months. Stay tuned for more information on these exciting new initiatives!

Although many of our traditional programming approaches have been scaled back or put on hold as a result of the pandemic, our mission to improve education, economic, and empowerment opportunities for all young people cannot wait. Read some of the other ways we are adapting to support our partners and reach our shared vision of a better world for youth here in our blog series on COVID-19 adaptations.

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The IGNI+E (Innovative Global Networks for Inclusion + Equality) initiative, funded by Global Affairs Canada, supports over 70 partner organizations to advance gender equality and the economic empowerment of 1.2 million youth around the world. IGNI+E harnesses the knowledge, capacity and expertise of skilled Canadians through volunteer assignments and public engagement activities to assist partners in improving their performance, advocating for gender equality, and implementing more sustainable, innovative and inclusive initiatives and services for poor and marginalised youth, particularly young women. Join us! Click here to see all our current e-volunteer opportunities.

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