SPECIAL ISSUE: LEISURE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19. A RAPID RESPONSE
GUEST EDITORS: BRETT LASHUA, COREY W. JOHNSON & DIANA C. PARRY
COVID-19 and its Impact on Volunteering: Moving Towards
Erik L. Lachance
School of Human Kinetics, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
These unprecedented times due to the COVID-19 pandemic have
impacted the everyday lives of individuals. A particular activity
impacted by this pandemic is leisure. Within leisure, an important
activity to enhance social outcomes (e.g., civic participation) and
the survival of organizations and events is volunteering. However,
and given social distancing measures and the combination of
postponements or cancelations of organizational or event opera-
tions, the traditional form of in-person volunteering is threatened.
The purpose of this essay is to discuss opportunities and chal-
lenges for organizations and events to apply virtual volunteering
as a strategy during the pandemic and beyond. Both opportuni-
ties (i.e., creating accessibility) and challenges (i.e., management
process) are discussed according to pertinent literature. From this,
an understanding of virtual volunteering’s value to create leisure
opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond is pre-
sented to advance its implementation in organization and events
by leisure practitioners.
Received 23 April 2020
Accepted 8 May 2020
Given these unprecedented times, countries in North America, Europe, and Asia have
imposed measures for social distancing to limit COVID-19’s spread. These social dis-
tancing measures have created negative impacts on leisure activities including: recre-
ation, sport, parks, travel, and tourism. Beyond these leisure activities, one particular
activity inherently linked with other leisure-based activities that has also been negatively
impacted by COVID-19 is traditional volunteering.
Understood as a freely chosen leisure activity, volunteering is an integral activity for
civic participation and the operations of organizations and events (Hoye et al., 2020).
Given the societal conditions of COVID-19, the traditional form of volunteering is
threatened as this typically occurs with individuals fulfilling their activities in-person.
This threat is the result of two factors: government legislations and social distancing,
and postponement or cancelation of organizational and event operations.
CONTACT Erik L. Lachance, email@example.com,@E_Lachance4 School of Human Kinetics, Faculty of
Health Sciences, Univeristy of Ottawa, 125 University Private, K1N 6N5, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
ß2020 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
The impact of this public policy and these leisure opportunities are entangled and
linked together. On one hand, events of various levels have been postponed (e.g., 2020
Tokyo Summer Olympics) or canceled (e.g., Toronto Pride Parade) before government
action was taken to constrict leisure opportunities. On the other hand, non-essential
businesses (e.g., sport and recreation organizations) have been mandated to suspend all
in-person operations and services (Government of Ontario, n.d.). This forces organiza-
tions to transition operations (e.g., meetings) to virtual spaces (e.g., Zoom), restructure
through layoffs, or temporarily suspend operations.
The postponement and cancelation of organizational and event operations has
restricted individuals from practicing their freely chosen leisure activity in-person. For
example, more than 80 000 individuals will be unable to volunteer this year at the 2020
Tokyo Summer Olympics (Callos, 2020). This negative impact on volunteering is rele-
vant for organizations and events given the unpredictability of COVID-19 and the
breadth of social distancing measures. However, and while individuals may not be able
to fulfill their volunteering activities in-person, this threat creates an opportunity for
virtual volunteering (VV).
Since the inception of the world wide web, VV has emerged as a variation to trad-
itional in-person volunteering (Liu et al., 2016). Unlike traditional in-person volunteer-
ing, VV (synonymous with online volunteering) is a leisure activity where individuals
complete all tasks off-site through virtual spaces (Volunteer Canada, 2020). While some
volunteers combine both traditional in-person volunteering and VV to complete their
tasks, the type of VV discussed in this essay is pure online volunteering. Pure online
volunteering is selected for this essay to bound the following discussion on volunteering
that occurs uniquely in virtual spaces and away from others, yet in formal association
with an organization or event (Liu et al., 2016).
To date, VV is practiced more by males than females, and is participated by a variety of
groups (e.g., youth, older adults), education levels, and employment status (Liu et al., 2016).
Despite this, research has shown that VV is more popular among youth in their 20s and
30s, people who are educated (e.g., post-secondary), but also unemployed (Murray &
Harrison, 2005). This is compared to traditional in-person volunteering where the majority
of the volunteer workforce is comprised of individuals over 35 years old that are educated
and employed (McGregor-Lowndes et al., 2017). VV have also been discussed as having
less work experience and skills as opposed to traditional in-person volunteers (Liu et al.,
2016), and this can be explained by its practice being more popular among youth.
The relevance of VV is ever-present within this intersection of the COVID-19 pan-
demic, and the prominence of technology in our contemporary times (Liu et al., 2016).
For instance: “[s]ocial distancing is the recommended course for containing virus spread.
This may mean looking for volunteer opportunities that can be done virtually or remotely
from your home”(Volunteer Canada, 2020, p. 1). Given societal circumstances caused by
COVID-19, it is important to discuss VV –its opportunities and challenges –as this
form of volunteering is the only viable option for this leisure activity.
Thus, the purpose of this essay is to critically discuss opportunities and challenges for
organizations and events (hereafter referred to as leisure practitioners; LP), to harness VV dur-
ing the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond. The essay is structured as followed. Opportunities
VV provides LP will be presented, followed by challenges, and a brief conclusion.
2 E. L. LACHANCE
For LP, VV provides the ability to (re)create accessible leisure opportunities for individ-
uals. These opportunities will be discussed according to current and new volunteers.
Social distancing makes it impossible for current volunteers to complete their activities
in-person. However, VV enables current volunteers to transition their activities online,
and still be engaged in their leisure activity during COVID-19. For instance, Board
members who regularly meet in-person are now forced to complete their volunteering
through virtual spaces. However, and while fulfilling current duties, these Board mem-
bers could also seek to complete other, and often over-looked, tasks, such as strategic
planning, performance evaluations, and maintaining external relationships with stake-
holders. This same situation applies to current volunteers (e.g., presidents, executive
directors, coaches) as roles and responsibilities can be completed through virtual spaces
during COVID-19. Thus, VV makes the leisure activity of current volunteers accessible
through technology despite current circumstances.
The current situation with COVID-19 may also provide the opportunity for LP to
transition certain roles to virtual spaces after the pandemic. While considering the
prominence of technology in contemporary times, COVID-19 could lead to a greater
implementation and sustainment of VV. As opposed to simply using VV for short-term
roles or projects, LP could look to transition specific roles online and leverage technol-
ogy on a long-term strategic basis.
The flexibility of VV is also a worthy point of discussion for current volunteers. For
instance, current volunteers who may only be marginally involved in organizational or
event operations, and state time and additional commitments (e.g., family, work) as fac-
tors limiting their accessibility, have the liberty of volunteering autonomously and from
the comfort of their own homes during COVID-19. The accessibility of VV allows these
individuals to be meaningfully involved and enjoy leisure opportunities despite current
As individuals practice social distancing, LP have an opportunity to provide an access-
ible leisure opportunity for new volunteers through VV. As geographical boundaries are
broken with virtual spaces, VV allows LP to broaden the involvement of individuals
from different regions and/or countries (Volunteer Canada, 2019). Without VV, LP
may be unable to capitalize on a vast population of individuals that were not would not
be able to volunteer through traditional in-person means due to geographical restric-
tions. Thus, the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing
measures allows LP to extend the boundary of their organization or event through VV
opportunities and be engaged with a wide variety of individuals. Considering that these
individuals would not otherwise be involved in volunteering, LP can engage them in
VV during COVID-19 and beyond.
LEISURE SCIENCES 3
Beyond these aforementioned aspects, LP could also take the opportunity presented
by COVID-19 to provide an accessible leisure activity and engage with three groups of
individuals: individuals with disabilities, youth, and older adults. First, VV does not
ignore a neglected, yet valuable group of individuals within the volunteer population in
an effort to offer leisure opportunities. As the majority of volunteer opportunities are
specific for individuals without disabilities, VV enables for individuals with disabilities
to partake in a leisure activity. Thus, this leisure activity does not discriminate against
individuals with disabilities, but instead provides them with an accessible opportunity
Second, youth represent the largest portion of VV. While this may come as no sur-
prise given their technological upbringings and surroundings, this pandemic can also
provide an accessible leisure activity to youth. As students are unable to seek employ-
ment due to COVID-19, VV can allow them to be involved, gain work experience, and
develop skills and knowledge for future endeavors. For instance, the Canadian govern-
ment has advocated for youth to get involved in volunteering during COVID-19 as the
“need is there [among practitioners], but it will also reduce the number of young people
who are sitting around”(Aiello, 2020). This group’s involvement in VV could easily be
completed through virtual spaces given their interest and comfort with technology in an
effort to provide assistance to leisure practitioners.
Finally, and despite being motivated to partake in VV (Mukherjee, 2011), older adults
are not a prominent group in this type of volunteering. Beyond issues, such as surfing
browsers, login onto platforms, communicating via email and video software, and small
font text, older adults can be considered as very experienced and knowledgeable indi-
viduals in their respective fields (Liu et al., 2016; Mukherjee, 2011). Such experience
and knowledge is valuable for LP as certain voids could be filled by engaging older
adults in VV opportunities. However, there are also benefits for older adults to partake
in VV during COVID-19. For instance, as older adults seek leisure opportunities, VV
could lead to outcomes such as involvement, meaningfully engagement, and enhanced
life satisfaction (Nimrod, 2007). Thus, LP should market VV opportunities to older
adults as an accessible opportunity to apply relevant skills and past experiences and/or
search for new experiences and development of skills.
Despite opportunities, VV challenges LP in their management process. More precisely,
the management process is challenged in terms of recruitment, engagement, and reten-
tion of VV. Each of these challenges will be discussed below.
For recruitment, LP have yet to take advantage of VV as few have created roles specific
for this volunteer type (Liu et al., 2016). Further, LP have reported using other strategies
(e.g., in-person interviews) as opposed to technology to recruit volunteers. The lack of
willingness of LP to use technology (Murray & Harrison, 2005) for recruitment is ironic
given the fundamental nature of VV and an abundance of websites that promote posi-
tions for this volunteer type (e.g., Volunteer Canada’s Pan Canadian Matching
4 E. L. LACHANCE
Platform). This can also be explained by the limited use of technology by LP in com-
parison to other industries where technology is more prevalent (e.g., education, software
During COVID-19, LP should (a) conduct an internal analysis of their organization
or event, and (b) partner with volunteer-related agencies to assist with the recruitment
of VV. The internal analysis (e.g., strengths, weaknesses) would enable LP to determine
potential needs (e.g., social media, strategic planning, governance) based on their cur-
rent available resources. For instance, and as strategic planning is often lacking in com-
munity sport organizations (e.g., Misener & Doherty, 2009), LP could create VV
positions to fill such voids (e.g., Board committee member, business development
advisor/consultant). For social media, a relevant group to pursue would be youth given
their interests and knowledge of various platforms (e.g., Twitter). LP could provide
information about positions or advertise on social media platforms to recruit youth for
VV. These recruitment strategies would enable LP to maintain operations virtually, and
continue to work toward the achievement of goals and objectives despite COVID-19.
However, determining needs to create VV positions is not enough for LP. To
enhance the recruitment of individuals during COVID-19, LP should communicate and
partner with volunteer-related agencies at the national- (e.g., Volunteer Canada), pro-
vincial- (e.g., Volunteer Alberta), and local-levels (e.g., Volunteer Ottawa). These agen-
cies, which are often overlooked and underutilized, could assist LP with advertising
their available positions, and provide additional knowledge and resources to promote
best practices. These agencies can also assist LP with the search for specific groups of
individuals to be involved in VV (e.g., individuals with disabilities, youth, older adults),
and offer strategies to engage undervalued individuals in the volunteer population.
For engagement, LP have also had challenges communicating with VV, such as individ-
uals taking prolonged periods of time to provide responses on task progress or follow-
up emails, while others even leave their role without notice (Liu et al., 2016). While this
can also be possible in traditional volunteering, VV adds an additional barrier (i.e.,
technological medium) for LP to communicate with its volunteers on a regular basis
and to properly engage with them through virtual spaces as opposed to in-person.
However, and despite these communication issues, VV have also discussed the need for
increased communication and task-load than currently provided by LP (Liu et al.,
2016). This juxtaposition creates a challenge for LP to effectively engage their VV.
To combat engagement challenges among VV during the pandemic, LP should be
more involved and communicative with its volunteers. First, LP should incorporate
weekly meetings with its VV where updates could be given regarding current and
ongoing tasks. Such updates could be completed through video platforms (e.g., Zoom),
and would enable for communication issues to be less prevalent than before.
Second, communication is important to determine the level of engagement and
experience of VV. For instance, if individuals feel as though their tasks are not appro-
priate or not meaningful, LP should make modifications (e.g., change of position, add-
itional tasks) to promote greater engagement. The assigned role is critical in
maintaining a positive volunteer experience as improper role-fit and performance can
LEISURE SCIENCES 5
have negative outcomes (Lachance & Parent, 2020). Providing meaningful engagement
and opportunities for VV begins with properly assessing the individual’s needs, motives,
skills, and past experiences to determine an appropriate role. Thus, LP are encouraged
to discover individuals’characteristics through virtual interviews during the recruitment
process for VV.
Finally, VV retention is problematic for leisure practitioners (Murray & Harrison,
2005). In comparison to traditional volunteers, VV are believed to be more difficult to
retain as their tasks are primarily project-based and short-term in nature (Murray &
Harrison, 2005). As such, LP are challenged to create meaningful opportunities for VV
to be involved in more long-term roles and tasks in an effort to encourage retention
(Liu et al., 2016). However, volunteer retention is problematic and not a simple under-
taking (Hoye et al., 2020).
The circumstances of COVID-19’s unpredictability enables LP to combat a major
challenge in VV; establishing long-term roles. As current VV opportunities are short-
term, leisure practitioners have the unique opportunity to engage individuals for longer
periods of time. For instance, a previous volunteer involved in communications could
be tasked with a VV opportunity related to the development of policies or operations
for social media platforms, a social media strategy, and/or marketing. Additional exam-
ples of long-term roles could include policy development (e.g., recruitment and orienta-
tion of VV, by-laws, codes of conduct), project management (e.g., financial analyses,
marketing and communications), or assisting with editing, proofreading, and translation
of operational documents and policies (Volunteer Canada, 2019).
Given the unpredictability of COVID-19, retention of VV is critical for LP to sustain
organizational and event operations. If VV are able to be retained, LP will reap the ben-
efits of having knowledgeable and experienced individuals, and spend less time search-
ing for new individuals to fill vacant positions. The operations of organizations and
events will look drastically different than before COVID-19, and LP may be forced to
continue some additional operations off-site due to safety measures. This highlights the
need for VV to be retained and engaged in long-term roles to continually assist with
operations and transitions due to COVID-19, and its eventual aftermath.
The relevancy of VV for LP during the COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront and argu-
ably more relevant than ever. LP must transition some operations virtually, while individ-
uals are forced to be away from one another. Yet these individuals still strive for leisure
activities. This essay discussed the major opportunities and challenges for LP to imple-
ment VV during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how these opportunities and challenges
might be navigated beyond this pandemic. VV offers individuals the opportunity to pur-
sue their desired leisure activity (i.e., volunteering), and enables LP to navigate transitions
and maintain operations, all while respecting imposed social distancing measures.
Given the current digital age, technology is not something we can escape, but instead,
a tool LP should seek to leverage through its most indispensable resource; volunteers.
6 E. L. LACHANCE
VV represents the future of volunteering as a leisure activity, which is ripe for both
inquiry and implementation during COVID-19 and beyond. Currently, research on VV
in organizations and events is limited. It is thus imperative for us as leisure scholars to
advance our understanding of VV in these contexts, aid LP to effectively implement
VV, and investigate its relationship with broader topics such as the volunteer experi-
ence. This would advance knowledge of the volunteer experience in virtually spaces as
current research and understanding of this phenomenon is limited to traditional in-per-
son volunteering experiences (e.g., Lachance & Parent, 2020).
Erik L. Lachance http://orcid.org/0000-0003-4935-5833
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