Minneapolis-based HandsOn Twin Cities has been connecting the community with volunteer opportunities for more than 100 years, tapping into the generous and diverse missions of more than 500 nonprofits helping vulnerable individuals, families and communities build better lives. It’s no surprise that the organization is facing a massive challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic, as volunteer events are canceled and the lion’s share of volunteers are practicing physical distancing. We spoke with Executive Director Tracy Nielsen, who shares her worries, of course, but also reasons for optimism. And she gives us practical steps to take from the safety of our homes to help our fellow Minnesotans.


Q: With our new normal changing by the hour, what’s the biggest challenge for HandsOn Twin Cities?

A: One of the biggest challenges is that much of our world centers around volunteer events. Annually, we coordinate nearly 300 volunteer projects with groups and corporate partners and those have all come to a stop. Instead, we are doing tons of individual outreach to our nonprofit partners to figure out how we can best support them during these times. We’re in communication with our partner volunteer centers around the world to learn from each other, we’re helping companies rethink what volunteerism can look like for their employees and we’re shifting our staff to accommodate these new needs.


Q: What is the biggest worry for those who are homeless?

A: I don’t even think I can begin to answer this question. Our main contacts are with executive directors and volunteer managers at organizations on the front lines of getting people food and shelter. The stress and anxiety that they are feeling while they rapidly adapt their services to make them safe and also meet an increased need is indescribable.


Q: What’s one strategy you implemented right away?

A: The first thing we did was set up a Volunteer Response Hub for COVID-19 needs so that there was a centralized place for nonprofits to easily update these needs and for volunteers to connect to the true needs each day. Some nonprofits desperately need volunteers, while others are not accepting volunteers, so highlighting the right places to go is critical. This site also has many opportunities that people/families can do from home — supporting seniors and vulnerable people in isolation particularly — and there are tremendous in-kind needs that nonprofits have (hygiene items, emergency food, masks, toilet paper) that are easy for people to pick up and drop off safely. We’re also ramping up ways for people to support nonprofits through pro bono/skills-based support. Strategy, marketing, technology, infrastructure, financial planning — we’re working with local companies and individuals to leverage knowledge and skills to help nonprofits navigate these challenging times.


Q: With so many volunteers being retired people who now are staying in, what can they do to help?

A: Many opportunities on our site can be done from home, and they include sewing face masks, writing letters or making phone calls to people in isolation (the elderly, children with cancer, people living with HIV/AIDS), making companion pillows or bears for people in hospice.


Q: Are Zoom and other online technologies helping your efforts?

A: Technology definitely opens up new opportunities for volunteers. I mentioned the pro bono/skills-based volunteer options, and many of those can be easily adapted to a virtual platform. Nonprofits are scrambling to use technology to do their fundraisers and other events virtually and so we’re on a steep learning curve that will likely result in lots of cool new ways for people to not only volunteer virtually now but also into the future.


Q: How are you guaranteeing people’s safety?

A: Nonprofits are doing everything they can to make volunteering as safe as possible. We are encouraging volunteers who are most at-risk of coronavirus (people aged 65 and older and those with compromised health conditions) or people who live with at-risk individuals to stay home. We are asking that if you feel any signs of illness that you stay home. We are asking that if you’ve traveled in the past 14 days you stay home. Those organizations that are hosting in-person volunteers are following all CDC and public health recommendations.


Q: How can people learn more?

A: Go to handsontwincities.org. If you have questions about how to tag your needs or register your nonprofit free of charge, contact Katie Walsh at katie@handsontwincities.org.


Q: How do you keep people doing this good work in the future?

A: It’s my hope that even if someone does something small during this pandemic, the amazing feeling of that experience will push them to continue to volunteer in the years ahead. If you become a phone companion to a senior right now, hopefully you will see that every day there are seniors in isolation who have nobody to talk to. If you drop off food to a food bank, hopefully you recognize that these food banks are serving people every day, not just now. If you deliver a meal, hopefully you see how easy and impactful it can be in the life of another human. We can only hope when this is all over that caring and compassion are more contagious than the coronavirus. And that may be one of the cheesiest things I’ve ever said!