Having considered the interviews with IRCS managers, we finally found seven items as opportunities including safety, availability, recruiting more volunteers, cost reduction, participation, geographical scope, and local issues. Moreover, five items were found as challenges of online volunteering in IRCS including lack of commitment, cultural issues, infrastructure, reimbursement, and volunteer management.
Virtual volunteering helped keep volunteers as well as staff safe during the outbreak, by keeping distance, as one of concerns of the Red Crescent managers was the danger threatening the lives of the volunteers during the outbreak.
“Because of COVID–19 prevalence, we were always worried that either the volunteer or we, ourselves, get sick. But virtualization guaranteed safety.” (M2)
“Given that the families of some young volunteers were concerned about their child’s health, the remote volunteer work relieved their worries.” (M4)
Another opportunity of online volunteering for IRCS was availability of volunteers. An interviewee told:
“One of our problems has always been the coordination of face-to-face meetings with volunteers. It usually took a few days. But one of the good things about cyberspace was that I sent messages via WhatsApp and the volunteer sent me his work in the same way.” (M8)
Recruiting more volunteers
Cyberspace caused that more diverse volunteers were attracted to the Red Crescent. Several interviewees mentioned such opportunity:
“There were some volunteers who could not come to the Red Crescent office due to long distance. But through the Internet, they participated and sent us their work.” (M1)
“Some refugee volunteers announced their readiness to help us. It was an unprecedented event in our province. There is an Afghan volunteer willing to do graphic design jobs for us. I think this is a great opportunity to expand the circle of volunteers of the Red Crescent.” (M3)
“Once, someone called and said that his son studying in Canada and fluent in English would like to help. We were also looking for a volunteer to translate the Red Cross guide on the virus on those days. We accepted quickly and within a week, he translated more than 20 pages and sent them to us.” (M7)
The presence of female volunteers in the office environment is not very common. But several girls volunteered to work with us on designing and disseminating anti-Corona messages. We put a female officer in charge of communicating with the female volunteers. (M1)
The use of virtual volunteers led to savings and reduced costs for the Red Crescent. Two participants emphasized that:
“We spent a lot of money annually for gather the volunteers in meetings. But during the pandemic they no longer expect to be invited to such meetings, and everything went well as before without any problem. In my opinion, as far as education is concerned, using a virtual volunteer can be very effective.” (M5)
“Recently, we had a budget deficit problem and could not pay for the transportation of volunteers and trainers. Distance volunteering has the advantage of saving a lot of money.” (M8)
The use of virtual volunteers has led to a greater participation of the audience in publishing educational materials.
The advantage of using a virtual volunteer in training was that the volunteer helped us with the design, posted it on Instagram, and told his friends to do the same. This caused a lot of people to see our content. That is, the volunteer himself participated in all stages. (M2)
Another opportunity that online volunteering provided for IRCS was the possibility to recruit more diverse volunteers in terms of city of residence:
“One of the benefits of cyberspace for our volunteer work was that we could form teams from different provinces to work on the specified topics. For example, in the case of infographic design, a volunteer from one province prepared the material, and another volunteer prepared the infographic in Persian. Then another volunteer translated and designed it in Arabic. We have never had such an experience in the Red Crescent. We had to hold a meeting and invite everyone to Tehran (the capital)“. (M6)
The use of cyberspace helps local communities to make their voices heard by Red Crescent leaders at the headquarters. This means taking into account various local considerations in designing and disseminating educational messages related to the coronavirus.
“Usually we provided educational content at the headquarters. But the experience of using volunteers from all over the country made us realize that they can better identify their local issues and find solutions. Therefore, they prepared and designed the material according to their own culture and language. Having over 20 years of experience in responding to various disasters in the Red Crescent, I declare that recent online volunteering was really a unique experience in my career.” (M6)
Lack of commitment
The non-accountability of the virtual volunteer was one of the challenges of using them. In other words, non-observance of time schedule and deadlines by the candidates was a serious problem for the Red Crescent.
“Once we had rush-jobs and the volunteer promised to do it in a day. But he failed to do the job and finally submitted the work after several days. I think there should be a mechanism for managing volunteers through cyberspace as well.” (M8)
Cultural considerations in Iran, especially restrictions on the relationship between men and women, have also affected virtual activities:
“Communication with female volunteers through cyberspace is not a social norm. That’s why we had to ask a female colleague to follow up on the matter, which certainly caused a delay.” (M1)
Infrastructure problems, especially in terms of Internet speed, have had a negative impact on the workflow (whether for the Red Crescent as a service recipient or a virtual volunteer as a service provider).
“Internet speed was a big problem for us in the office. Because the internet is very slow and you could not download medium size files. This is a problem faced by the volunteers, too”. (M3)
Reimbursement of volunteer expenses is one of the principles that must be observed in volunteer management. But in the case of using virtual volunteers, one of the challenges would be the one mentioned by one of the managers.
“The volunteer has to pay some expenses including internet fee when he intends to cooperate with us through the net (especially mobile internet). We don’t have a way to pay for such costs because volunteer internet fee is not an accepted expense in the IRCS.” (M4)
The management of virtual volunteers was a vague concept for the interviewees as the Red Crescent Society has not yet planned a mechanism for that.
“There were some people intending to volunteer for the Red Crescent. However, the recruitment of volunteers is a job carried out through another deputy. Therefore a specified mechanism for recruiting online volunteers in the Red Crescent should be developed.” (M8)
“We used to give gifts to volunteers who worked with us. But now we don’t know how to ask the Red Crescent financial deputy to buy a gift for a virtual volunteer and how to receive it, how to present it, and many other questions we haven’t yet thought about.” (M2)
“At the end of the COVID–19 screening plan, we held an appreciation party for the volunteers. But we don’t know how to appreciate virtual volunteers. Because they can not attend the Red Crescent office.” (M3)