What we’ve learned about engaging with volunteers in times of crisis

30 June 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

Volunteers are at the heart of foraus. Our think tank is based on a unique grassroots model with over 120 volunteers in an official role who share a common goal: to contribute actively to Swiss foreign policy through science-based policy recommendations published in discussion papers, policy briefs, blogs and high-level events.

In 2019 alone, volunteers published 54 blogs on our website, organised 89 events, and wrote nine publications, helping us to get 326 media mentions. The dozen foraus employees mainly work to make it possible for volunteers’ output to reach decision makers.

Our network of volunteers is organised in two main pillars: programmes and regional groups. The latter are spread across the country and mostly organise events on foreign policy, and our programme volunteers put most of their time into producing constructive policy recommendations in various fields of foreign policy.

Since our volunteers are spread across the country, we were already used to using online spaces and technological tools (e.g. Policy Kitchen) to avoid silos and to strengthen our sense of community. Even before the crisis we had a monthly virtual meeting to enable members to engage in supra-regional and interdisciplinary exchange.

But retreats and other physical get-togethers were also integral to creating space for exchange among our 120 volunteers in an official position. And the absence of physical meetings has impacted the network.

The freedom that our bottom-up structure gives our volunteers is a big motivating factor. They get to influence foraus’ strategic future; be part of a community and top-class network; get policy recommendations onto the desks of policymakers; and access exclusive events, coaching, reference letters and more.

But with the crisis unfolding this spring, several of these motivating factors to voluntarily work for foraus ceased to exist. Networking in particular has been hard.

We found that for many, their volunteering commitment became less of a priority – especially during the first weeks, when people needed time to adapt.

Our regional groups felt this affect the most, predominately made up of committed students who want to network and actively influence Swiss foreign policy through events and discussions. They struggled with the move to online events.

We found that some were overwhelmed by uncertainties at university. Some were demotivated and tired of online classes and calls. Others felt they lacked the skills to master the new online events.

In response, we produced several knowledge-sharing products and organised a webinar on online-moderation with two external experts, which did motivate numerous volunteers to create virtual discussion platforms too, in the end.

Our programme volunteers found the transition less hard. Perhaps because they are often older than those leading the regional groups, at the end of their master’s programme, PhD students or young professionals.

Fewer felt overly stressed about the situation. We saw many volunteers using their spare time stuck at home to write blogs, plan and execute new publication projects. Indeed, with less social activities more time could be put into producing content.

Creating a sense of community between volunteers has been challenging throughout the lockdown. We had to cancel our biannual gathering where dozens join to connect and work together for a whole weekend.

However, we organised more calls than usual, giving space to exchange and share. No matter whether this was one-to-one or community calls, the focus was put on listening to the different experiences and needs in time of crisis.

We also created additional spaces of exchange on actively creating solutions for the crisis, with the participation in a hackathon or creating a COVID-19 group on Policy Kitchen.

Our lessons learned about how to do online events or live streams will now be integrated into our daily work. Everyone is looking forward to participating in physical events again but online events can be more inclusive and are sometimes the better format.

Most importantly, however, we learned how important it is to give space to share experiences – including in fast-paced think tanks.