Social distancing is keeping volunteers away, but there are still ways to provide support

The COVID-19 pandemic — trite now to be calling it a disaster of historic proportions — is different in yet another way. Typically, when disasters occur, thousands of volunteers descend to relieve the pain. Not this time.

Even before this month’s declared federal, state, and local states of emergencies, Cincinnati Cares saw dramatic declines in its record number of volunteer referrals from January and early February. The scarcity of volunteers doing what keeps nonprofits in our community humming is readily apparent. And it’s a triple whammy. Typically, in disaster-related or financial crises, nonprofits can rely on volunteers to offset donor contribution decreases as well as service-delivery and event income declines. But not now, due to social-distance warnings.

To be sure, many first-responder and other volunteers keep punching through new social norms to provide support for the causes and people, many of them strangers.

But the fact is, local nonprofits are suffering at epic proportions due to the lack of hundreds of thousands of hours of service from volunteers.

Just as the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the Horizon Community Fund, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, ArtsWave, and a large cadre of Cincinnati corporations, business, and civic associations have jumped in to provide aid to our region’s population least able to withstand the COVID-19’s wide-ranging impacts, Cincinnati Cares has pivoted to help our community respond and recover.

Our unique relationship with more than nonprofits in the Greater Cincinnati region put us in a position to begin assessing the impact on the social sector that everyone can see at https://cincinnaticares.org/. The costs are closing in on $50 million, and we’ve only begun to calculate the tip of this proverbial iceberg.

Along with the financial assessment are more than 90 stories about how nonprofits in our region are, in many cases, being devastated. After assessment, comes response. And we’ve altered the way we recruit prospective volunteers in order to focus on helping that can be done remotely, online, or in a socially distant way. Like most regions, sadly, there are too few of these types of robust and meaningful local opportunities. But there are dozens of ways for people to discover safe volunteering on cincinnaticares.org, and the options are growing every day. And just as we would expect from Cincinnatians, hundreds are responding to these availabilities.

Finally, Cincinnati Cares has been 100 % focused on the volunteer in our work over the last three years. But as we’ve been building our work with Cincinnati businesses on how they can best engage their employees in volunteering in our community, they’ve pushed us to offer online giving options for their employees to tap our relationships with local nonprofits. As a result of this work, we were fully prepared to take the final step of disaster aid to our region’s nonprofits by turning on the ability for any member of the public to contribute to any local nonprofit partner through our platform.

"Through" is the critical word. We’re not taking a cut. For 95 % of our nonprofit partners, they already have robust online donation capabilities and we serve simply as a connector. For the remaining 5 %, we will collect and distribute the funds — again at no charge.

We’ve had some great success rebuilding Greater Cincinnati’s volunteer ecosystem, and we will take the lead rebuilding it again. Like most people, I wish coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease had never entered my everyday lexicon. But once we get on the other side of it, I know the region’s volunteer system will be even stronger than ever.

Doug Bolton is CEO of Cincinnati Cares, and a former publisher of the Business Courier.

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