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Leveraging Volunteers Remotely during COVID-19 to Support Ongoing Economic Integration

With the economic and health crises that came with COVID-19, many service providers were forced to shift priorities with clients. This was the case at Jewish Family Service of Seattle (JFS) of Seattle, where we quickly pivoted to services more focused on emergency needs. To ensure we did not lose sight of our long-term integration work with clients, we utilized the greater community, including volunteers, to support clients with professional development, professional networking, and complex financial systems navigation. JFS was fortunate to be able to provide laptops and implement a digital literacy curriculum for clients, ensuring they had the equipment and knowledge needed to engage with remote volunteers. This post provides ideas for leveraging volunteers remotely to support ongoing economic integration for refugees and asylees.

Idea #1: Facilitate a virtual professional mentorship between your client and a volunteer

As a case manager, it is impossible to be fully knowledgeable about the wide range of careers clients may be interested in. Leveraging volunteers allows you to provide clients with industry-specific knowledge, while also building their professional networks. Clients can continue working with case managers on more immediate support and can rely on professional mentors to guide them through longer-term professional development. At JFS, mentors help clients learn how to articulate their “hard skills” and hone their “soft skills” while learning about U.S. work culture in their specific industry. During the initial Zoom meeting, a JFS staff member facilitates the introduction, ensuring the volunteer and client discuss goals, barriers, and schedule the next meeting via Zoom. As we have pivoted to remote mentorships, we have seen the benefit of a wider volunteer pool and matching clients with volunteers in other states. Upon completing the professional mentorship program, JFS clients have shared that they gained both industry-specific insight and a morale boost by meeting a professional invested in their success.

Idea #2: Engage volunteers in a remote professional networking event for clients

Attending a one-time event is typically an easy lift for a volunteer, but the experience can be very meaningful to clients. In 2019, JFS offered our first in-person Professional Networking Event. At that event, one client shared that in his four years in the U.S., it was his first opportunity to meet local professionals in his desired career field. To offer a similar experience during COVID-19, we knew we needed to pivot to an online platform. While implementing this workshop via Zoom, we had an assigned staff member available to help clients troubleshoot any technological challenges they faced, such as unmuting, turning on their camera, and using the correct speakers. The online implementation also required more structure to ensure an organized, engaging event. Through industry-specific panels, clients had the opportunity to engage with professionals in their desired career fields and gain tangible advice on improving their competitiveness in those fields. In addition to the panels, we offered general professional development workshops, allowing clients to hone their LinkedIn, interview, and professional communication skills. All workshops and panels were offered remotely and gave clients an opportunity to practice their remote “netiquette,” as well as their ability to articulate their transferable skills and experience with professionals in their desired industries. Additionally, the online format allowed us to reach a larger audience. We were able to invite clients and agencies from across the state to engage in the Professional Networking Event.

Idea #3: Utilize volunteers with a background in financial advising or financial management

Economic integration often includes navigating retirement plans, mortgages, credit scores, loans, and more. Clients frequently ask for advice or support in making challenging financial decisions, especially when navigating turbulent times like the economic crisis that accompanied COVID-19. Consider strengthening client and staff knowledge of financial systems through volunteers who bring professional financial management and advising experience. Whether the volunteer is working directly with a client or a staff member, their expertise can help clients navigate complex financial systems and make smart, well-informed financial decisions. You can also document the guidance shared by expert volunteers by creating resources about complex financial topics for clients.

 “When someone is in a new place, learning a new language, and starting a new career, saving money is probably going to take the back seat. Even putting away 50 dollars a month can make a huge difference down the road. I was grateful to get to share my knowledge and experience with people who might not otherwise have access to this sort of information.” – Matt Amick, Volunteer Financial Advisor, JFS

Client headshots taken during the in-person 2019 JFS networking event

Tips for recruiting, engaging, and creating long-lasting volunteer relationships:

  • Inform volunteers of opportunities to engage with your agency. Utilize social media to get the word out about your volunteer opportunities. Share success stories on platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook to ensure the greater community knows how they can get involved with your organization and support your mission.
  • Emphasize to volunteers the meaningful role they play with clients. Many clients feel supported knowing someone is vested in their success. Make sure the volunteer knows this!
  • Encourage volunteers to be proactive in their communication and open to questions from clients. Volunteers are there to help, but they need guidance from clients on where support is most needed. Encouraging open communication will allow volunteers and clients to work collaboratively and effectively towards their goals.
  • Break the ice. Help guide the initial conversation. While meeting people remotely for the first time can be awkward, it helps to have a planned structure for the conversation. Make sure everyone is on the same page and understands the goals.
  • Remind the volunteer and client that we are all working in partnership for the success of the client. The shared goal is to achieve long-term economic integration, and we can work together to troubleshoot any challenges that might come up.

While engaging volunteers may mean additional administrative time initially, the expertise, passion, and support they can bring is well worth the time and effort. As the work of many service providers has shifted to focus on immediate needs, now is the perfect time to utilize the insight and knowledge of the greater community to support clients towards their long-term integration.

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