Last Updated on March 5, 2023
Wondering how to help during the novel coronavirus pandemic that has affected the entire world in unprecedented ways? There are actually numerous local and at home (online) volunteer opportunities for those who want to help while COVID-19 continues to cause widespread pain to people, communities, and livelihoods.
Entire industries are crippled. Small businesses all over the world have folded already—many will never return. And through it all, untold millions have lost their jobs. Children who relied on school lunch programs go hungry, and food deserts grow.
No matter how much time you have, or your skills, there are opportunities to help others through volunteering or donating.
Here are the best ways we can all help, and the top organizations providing relief to those suffering during the pandemic.
How to Support the Travel & Tourism Industry
It’s impossible to know when travel will resume. It surely will, one day. That’s a certainty. But the timeline to get there is still completely unknown, with border restrictions changing daily, relief funds sportatically disbursed in most regions, and an untold number of small businesses that will shutter for good on the other side of this.
For travelers keen to help the destinations they’ve found so impactful on their travels, it’s a mixed bag of how to help. There’s actually no easy way to tell once international volunteers how to help those same destinations remotely. For many, local volunteering (covered next) is the best option—and there are some great organizations in need of your help. If you also want to help travel and tourism businesses specifically, here are some ideas:
- Reach out to your network. Email organizations you’ve volunteered with in the past and see what they need. This is something travelers should do anyway, but during a time of crisis, having a volunteer who already knows the mission and work is invaluable. Of particular use will be anyone with fundraising and marketing backgrounds. But think beyond that too. For example, if you’re a lawyer who once helped in a foreign country, your services may be in even more demand.
- Support local tourism. Many people should be limiting travel—stay home still applies to the vast majority of people. But as lockdowns ease, many businesses right in your hometown actually rely on tourism money too, and your support can help them survive the economic shock. Order from local mom-and-pop restaurants in your city through contactless apps (if the restaurant is open), and consider buying a gift card for the restaurant to use at a later time. Check out your local museums and attend their virtual events. Once it’s safe, plan local trips to explore places to close to home—this was already a responsible way to travel and now it’s necessary, too.
- Support small businesses. Small businesses have been devastated by the economic fallout of stay-at-home orders. All over the world, these businesses make cities far more interesting and dynamic. As lockdowns began, many celebrity chefs began offering cooking classes, but so too did small tourism companies in some of the world’s most interesting destinations. You could remotely cook pasta with a grandma in Italy, learn how to cook empanadas with a local from Argentina, or even learn the secrets to an authentic Pastel de Nata from a bakery in Lisbon. There are no shortage of options. Traveling Spoon is actually dedicated to virtual traveling food experiences, and The League of Kitchens moved all of its women-led cooking classes online. Airbnb Experiences also has a number of options all over the world, but supporting smaller organizations ensures a larger portion of your fee reaches your instructor.
- Just like you can attend virtual cooking classes, tour companies are offering virtual tours of interesting cities and destinations—some ask for small payment to support the business. This virtual tour of Edinburgh is affordable and looks fascinating. If you have the funds, this is a creative way to support the livelihoods of tourism businesses trying to stay relevant and create cultural connections no matter the level of social distancing required.
- Donate to help struggling tourism organizations abroad. Planterra’s COVID-19 fund has been providing emergency grants to more than 12 projects around the world to date. These grants go to programs that have been in Planeterra’s ecotourism programs, and are helping these small organizations support their guides and the families that rely on tourism dollars for their livelihoods. The money has been quickly deployed to those in need and you know that your donation is directly helping those in travel most impacted by the pandemic.
How to Volunteer for Coronavirus at Home
Use Your Language Skills
If you fluently speak a second language, you can use your language skills remotely to help those unable to communicate effectively. There are several types of organizations—some local, some national. Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Translate or interprepret. Global Voices is an easy option for those natively speaking a broad range of languages—you’ll help translate essential news stories into your native language. Join the Global Voices Lingua program here. You can also search the Stand With Immigrants site for your local immigration organizations (many of which are local offices or church groups), and reach out directly. Some of this may be in person work, while other might be done remotely and just via group calls, or helping translate essential documents and information for immigrants still learning English. Translators Without Borders is another option and offers completely remote translation volunteer work.
- Help refugees navigate their essential tasks. You’ll likely need a background check to work with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), but there are other volunteer roles where specialized services are all that’s needed. For example, some locations are looking for tax professionals to help refugees file their taxes, among many other types of volunteer work.
Help Combat Social Isolation with a Call
Quarantining has left huge numbers of people combating social isolation and loneliness—both things that can negatively impact mental health and happiness. Find ways to engage the elderly in your community.
There is a lot of interest in this form of volunteering, and only a couple of organizations seem to provide more national-level support during COVID-19. For ambitious volunteers, there is likely room to start this service in your community because the handful of local organizations doing it in their community have seen tremendous responses to the point that they have closed their programs. Here are ones we know of:
- Mon Ami is local to San Francisco and was committed to combating social isolation and loneliness with elderly populations before the pandemic. In person programs are limited to SF, but since COVID-19, Mon Ami’s Phone Bank provides the single most straightforward way to connect with those seeking a friend. Volunteers are asked to commit to three months—fill out the phone bank form and you’ll be matched with someone who’d love online connection.
- Covia’s Social Call program will require a background check before you’re connected with isolated seniors in need of compassionate conversation and care.
- AgeUK announced a “Telephone Befriender” service for the elderly in the UK specifically.
We suspect there are more local one organizations in your state or community. Or you may choose to work with a local organization and spearhead the connections.
Search the Online Directories
Idealist.org has been collecting COVID-19 volunteer opportunities, and also has an extensive selection of remote opportunities that will allow you to volunteer online during the coronavirus pandemic. GV also has a handful of remote volunteer opportunities supporting organizations that were already doing good work all over the world.
One of my favorites that most of us have the time to support? The BeMyEyes app to help low-vision and blind users instantly connect to sighted volunteers.
How to Volunteer for Coronavirus Locally
While most of us can best serve our community by social distancing and staying home when possible, if you have the ability to provide boots-on-the-ground support during the novel coronavirus pandemic, your local community likely has a number of roles accepting volunteers to help distribute aid, food, supplies, and more.
Here are the ways to volunteer, and the key national and local organizations you can find local volunteer roles during COVID-19.
Volunteer at Your Local Food Bank
Feeding America is a nationwide network of food banks and the organizations has been fighting to end hunger in the U.S. or more than 35 years—meaning it already has the strong connections to ensure aid is quickly organized to those who need it most.
How to volunteer: The easiest way to volunteer at your local food bank is to use the organizations “Find a Local Food Bank” by zipcode feature. Once you’ve found food banks near you, there is a very clear call to action on the “volunteer” button, which will give you all of the details about how to volunteer locally.
Types of volunteer roles: food and produce sorting, packing backpacks, clerical work, gardening, and more
Why volunteer now: Even as quarantines are lifted across the country, food insecurity remains higher than ever before with schools, camps, and daycares still shuttered or at limited capacity. For those with the ability to help in person, this is an excellent way to give back.
Distribute Necessities to Families in Need
Baby2Baby is the parent organization of a national network of organizations distributing basic essentials to children living in poverty in over 40 cities across the United States. The organization provides children living in poverty with diapers, clothing, and all the basic necessities. Though you can certainly donate to support the organization’s efforts, you can also volunteer during the coronavirus to help distribute supplies.
How to volunteer: The easiest way for many to find an organization in their community is through the map feature on the Baby2Baby’s national network page. With 40 cities covered, it’s a solid start and you can click through to your local organizatino and reach out directly—in my case, there was one right in St. Petersburg, Florida that included volunteer information on their local website.
Types of volunteer roles: screening items for quality, sorting items appropriately, bundling items to go out for donation, office work, and more
Why volunteer now: Many of the nation’s poorest families have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus quarantines. For families that were already struggling, some are now facing lost jobs either because of layoffs, or because they were unable to secure the childcare needed to keep their job. These organizations in the Baby2Baby network supply families with essentials like diapers, wipes, period products and formula during this crisis (and in the long aftermath of recovery).
Be Boots on the Ground for the Red Cross
The American Red Cross has the necessary infrastructure in place already to quickly mobilize volunteers in the communities hit the hardest during the pandemic.
How to volunteer: Check this page on the Red Cross website for the most urgently needed types of volunteers. To find a role in your local community, search this page by your zip code and you’ll find a number of options, or search by roles using this page. And if that wasn’t enough, you can also find your local Red Cross directly using this page, where it shares updates and needs very specific to your region of the States.
Types of volunteer roles: blood donor and facility screeners, mental health professionals, clerical work, community outreach, and more
Why volunteer now: The Red Cross has volunteer positions in every community across the country and often sticks around long after an issue has faded from the media and public conscious. Supporting the Red Cross’ efforts is an excellent way to ensure that you’re helping the neediest areas, and that you’re still helping as long as there is need.
One-Time Ways to Help During Coronavirus
Perhaps you’re busy schooling your children from home, or perhaps you’re an essential worker during the pandemic. No matter the reason, if you’re unable to volunteer regularly, there are still a number of impactful ways that you can help.
The Red Cross has stated that it has an ongoing critical need for blood and platelet donations amidst coronavirus uncertainties. Blood mobiles that usually visited work and university campuses to keep needed blood in constant supply are now desperate for donations. Donate blood or platelets via appointment at RedCrossBlood.org.
Help Feed America
Feeding America has launched a COVID-19 Response Fund, and every donation is distributed through the organization’s existing extensive network of food banks across the nation, as well as through joint efforts with state and local governments. Donations support people facing hunger and the food banks who help them, and funds will be used to support the School Lunch Program and ensure food is getting to vulnerable students. Donate now.
If you’re a New Yorker, there are numerous worthy organizations tackling food security in NYC and throughout the state, including: City Harvest, Rethink Food NYC, The Food Bank for NYC, NY Common Pantry, Bowery Mission (which supports the homeless in NY). All of these organizations accept direct donations.
Donate to Unemployed Workers
The entire world has been impacted by the pandemic, but workers in some industries were especially vulnerable as the world shut down. Hospitality, travel and tourism, and service workers are among those especially struggling. If you’re keen to donate, a few trustworthy organizations helping these types of workers include:
- James Beard Foundation Food & Beverage Industry Relief Fund
- One Fair Wage Emergency Fund
- Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund
Note: This list does not include any medical or healthcare volunteering information—GV is not qualified to reliably vet medical organizations or situations where volunteers are appropriate given the nature of this pandemic. Healthcare workers are already essential workers—those with appropriate medical training are already on the frontlines and deserve our deep gratitude.
Please leave a comment if you know of other easy ways to help those at risk during this period social distancing (and beyond).
Shannon O’Donnell is an award-winning travel writer, speaker, and author of the acclaimed “Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.” She’s been traveling the world for over 20 years, and is passionate about helping others use travel as a force for good.
She was the 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year for her work in responsible travel and tourism, and has appeared everywhere from NPR to the BBC to CNN as an expert in travel and international volunteering.