Adapting to Change: positive outcomes and pivoting to face the challenge of Covid-19

by Holly Penalver, Founder and CEO of Indigo Volunteers

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Indigo Volunteers began as a charity placing volunteers responsibly and fee-free across the globe. In 2015, the European refugee crisis generated an unprecedented demand for immediate independent emergency aid on European soil and so supporting actors in this field became our focus. Through strong partnerships we have created a network of grassroots organisations in which we place volunteers, share resources and facilitate training.

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Primarily, our work is to recruit the right volunteers for our partner charities and to place them where they are most needed. In response to Covid-19, however, most of our partners had no choice but to either significantly reduce their work, change their service model or shut down completely. In-country lockdowns, border closings and the health risks to already vulnerable populations as well as local communities and volunteers in the field meant that volunteer placements came to an immediate halt, but our work to support our partners didn’t.

"The world has been our office since we started, so coordinating day-to-day operations remotely from behind our laptops is our norm."

What do we do as a charity whose main purpose is to recruit volunteers and connect them with grassroots charities across Europe when a global pandemic strikes? We adapt, and we do so quickly! We found two things about the way we’ve been previously working to be great strengths during this crisis. First, our work thus far - placing volunteers and supporting partners through e.g. consultations and training - has allowed us to cultivate a network of close collaboration; being able to build on years of partnership history has made adapting to this pandemic a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. Second, the world has been our office since we started, so coordinating day-to-day operations remotely from behind our laptops is our norm. The fact that we were left with only one staff member still on Samos didn’t get in the way of mobilising the team for an emergency response.

We set to work right away assessing, along with our partners, what they might need during this crisis: Training and psycho-social support were clear gaps that we were well-suited to support with. In April we coordinated 24 online training sessions and webinars on relevant Covid-19 and humanitarian topics. Furthermore, we’ve been trying to ensure the wellbeing of our partners by facilitating remote support sessions with qualified counsellors. It’s been a challenge coordinating these new services on such short notice, but it has been well worth it.

The nature of our work and resources at hand means that we often don’t have the time or capacity to advocate for the work of our network with a wider audience to the extent that we would like. One of the opportunities in reshuffling our work has been that our founder and CEO, Holly, began a series of weekly Instagram Live sessions, “Let’s Talk Grassroots”. It’s been great to bring grassroots organisations to people’s homes and give them the chance to ask questions and participate in the important discussion about the refugee and migrant crisis and how all of us can get involved one way or another.

"We already work in an unstable environment, and this has added to the uncertainty."

Another positive outcome of these last few months has been the development of Indigo’s internal risk management culture as well as of relevant protocols and policies to share with our partners. This is something we had been working on before the pandemic, but on-the-ground needs always had to be prioritised. We’ve come a long way in the process and are excited about sharing the results with our partners in the coming weeks. Creating and maintaining a safe environment for volunteers and the communities we serve is really important to our work, and we’re so pleased to see that our recent efforts inspired a large grant to become available for other organisations to work on their risk strategies as well.

It’s a challenging and scary time for all grassroots organisations, whose priority is to support refugees and migrants on their journey to find a safe home, and whose operations have had to be either significantly altered or stopped altogether. We already work in an unstable environment, and this has added to the uncertainty. Our team hasn’t been exempt from that, but this period has reminded us that close collaboration - both internal and external - is key to carrying out our work. Our team culture of optimism, creativity and dedication has helped with this along the way; and while we've felt it thus far, it is once again confirmed beyond doubt that we are part of an amazing network of grassroots actors.

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