This article was published on University of St. Thomas by Jamie Tjornehoj on June 1, 2021.
Nonprofits were left scrambling when the pandemic struck in March 2020. Fundraising events that heavily supported local nonprofits were canceled, budgets were cut, and volunteer programs were shut down. At the same time, the pandemic was taking a toll on the communities the nonprofits serve, increasing the need for nonprofit involvement in issues like homelessness, food insecurity and educational inequities.Despite the move toward virtual class gatherings, the Business 200 course (Business Learning Through Service) at St. Thomas continued to require students to volunteer with community nonprofits, which provided them with a unique opportunity to step up and help out in new ways.
In the spring of 2020, Liz Murphy ’23 attended a volunteer orientation session with the Ronald McDonald House and was set to begin working when the volunteer program shut down. So, she turned to a different nonprofit she knew – Highland Friendship Club and its Best Buddies program. Murphy began volunteering with Best Buddies when she was in high school, but for her Business 200 experience she incorporated a more business-oriented approach.
“Getting to have a new role within Best Buddies and help them with the business and fundraising aspect for a couple months was really cool. The work I had done before was on the friendship side of Best Buddies,” she said.
Business 200 students have been applying their business skills in the nonprofit work environment more now than ever before, providing expertise in areas such as marketing, finance, human resources and fundraising. Because of the pandemic, nonprofits found themselves in greater need of this type of support, and this is often the type of volunteer work that students can complete virtually.
Independent virtual work poses additional challenges for student volunteers, such as time management, remote communication and ambiguity.
“When operating in a time of uncertainty, nonprofits themselves aren’t always sure what a project is going to look like that a student’s engaging in,” Director of Business Learning Through Service Julie Reiter said. “It increases the opportunity for students to develop a lot of important transferable skills, which I saw happened across the board as we were all pivoting.”
Reiter said that along with utilizing their business skills in the volunteer environment more heavily, Business 200 students also became more engaged with their local communities addressing concerns such as hunger.
“More folks were dealing with food insecurity due to COVID. Students had to totally change their plan and go to their home communities,” she said. “They found that in their home communities there were food shelves and other organizations that were meeting food insecurity issues, which needed volunteer help.”
Scott Kalthoff ‘22 began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, doing tasks at the ReStore outlet such as dropping off donations and cleaning. When the ReStore closed, he switched to support The Food Group, repacking incoming food.
The Food Group redefined their policies due to COVID-19, reducing and spacing out volunteers. Kalthoff said they had to take a proactive approach to find solutions to better serve the community members.
“Once COVID started, they increased the ways they delivered food. They were receiving even more [food] than normal because businesses and restaurants couldn’t use the food,” he said.
He said that he recognized the extent of his influence after each shift at The Food Group.
“The food packing showed how big of an impact I could have on a lot of people in a time of need. At The Food Group, after every shift they would say how many pounds of food we repackaged, how many meals that would provide and how many hundreds, and even thousands, that would feed,” he said.
Other students who were at a loss after their initial nonprofit closed began collaborating with other local nonprofits by making cloth masks, creating a safer work environment for front-line workers and other members of their community. They identified where there were needs and figured out ways to meet those needs.
“Business 200 emphasizes the importance of putting our energy back into our community. That is really important for us in our St. Thomas community, but it is equally important that students recognize those issues and meet those needs in their home communities,” Reiter said.
The pandemic broadened the nonprofits students engage with as well. Reiter explained that they had to look harder for places students could volunteer that matched COVID-19 protocols or that needed virtual volunteer support.
Learning Ally is an example of this expansion sparked by the pandemic. This nonprofit engages volunteers to help create and review audiobooks for people with visual impairments and learning challenges. It provides a flexible, virtual alternative for students seeking a remote Business 200 experience.
Because COVID-19 proved students who are pursuing business volunteer projects can translate to the online setting well, Reiter said this adaptation will likely continue to be a part of Business 200’s culture going forward.
Reiter says she foresees more of a hybrid student volunteer experience where students continue their in-person work, but also have the opportunity to provide meaningful service remotely.
Mackenzie Carlson ’23 volunteered with Special Olympics Minnesota, leading cooking classes on Zoom. Special Olympics has met its athletes’ needs for continued social interaction by hosting classes, games, and athletic practices virtually. Carlson said the remoteness was comforting and that she enjoyed getting to know the staff and athletes in the virtual setting.
“Especially for me, I am a little more shy so I was able to go onto Zoom and do all the talking. It was a little scary at first, but it ended up being so easy and so much fun. If I could do it again, I definitely would,” she said with a smile.
“With the virtual volunteer situation, there is no geographic limitation. We had a student who volunteered as an online coach for a team in California, and another who created logos for a nonprofit on the other side of the country,” Reiter explained.
The London program is another example of the advantages of a virtual volunteer experience. Students who study abroad through the London Business Semester do their 40 hours of volunteering abroad. The Office of Study Abroad offered students who were disappointed that they could not travel to London an opportunity to engage remotely with nonprofits in London.
“They were able to work with three of the London-based nonprofits we usually have students volunteering with in-person. From their own homes, they were able to have an intercultural volunteer experience that posed its own unique challenges and opportunities,” Reiter said.
Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, Business 200 found ways to adapt and flourish. Student volunteers made a lasting impact not just in the Twin Cities community, but in cities across the nation, and developed critical transferable and business-related skills along the way.
“This program really enhances the career path of every single student it touches. It is so great to be a part of a program that inspires students to learn about and give back to the community,” Reiter remarked.
The vision of the Business 200 program is that students identify ways that they will meaningfully engage in their community for the long term, as business professionals.
Exemplifying this idea, Murphy explained she continues to volunteer outside of Business 200 by connecting with members of the Highland Friendship Club every Monday morning.
“I meet with five or six members of Highland Friendship Club and we have a little social group [for] a half hour every Monday and we catch up with them so that has been really fun,” she said.