The Cavalier Daily
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Madison House faces post-pandemic application issues

The organization says applicant numbers greatly exceed available positions, and some students say that application inefficiencies are a barrier to entry

<p>A combination of limited availability and a disorganized application process has left many interested students unable to find volunteer opportunities.&nbsp;</p>

A combination of limited availability and a disorganized application process has left many interested students unable to find volunteer opportunities. 

Madison House — a center for connecting students to volunteer positions around Charlottesville  — is experiencing an increase in student volunteer applicants, though many interested students say the application process is disorganized and confusing.   

Madison House has helped connect students to volunteer organizations around Charlottesville since 1969. It hosts over 20 ongoing programs, allowing students to serve the community in roles such as peer counselors, tutors, construction workers and caretakers. With a network of over 40,000 alumni and 2,000 current student volunteers, the organization operates on what Dr. Rose Cole, senior director of community engagement at Madison House, calls a form of “structural student self-governance,” as much of the volunteer programming is coordinated by student leaders.

While the organization places an emphasis on student leadership, some students have expressed difficulty in applying to volunteer through Madison House. Second-year Education student Sydney Alphin said she was frustrated with the online process as she found it difficult to navigate and ultimately unfruitful in her search for volunteer opportunities. 

“You have hundreds, if not thousands of young people ready to give back to their communities and get involved in important meaningful work outside of the U.Va. bubble that we all often get entirely too wrapped up in,” Alphin said. “But many are discouraged, or possibly even frustrated, with the disorganization and lack of correspondence.”

Madison House currently has around 280 student leaders in a variety of positions who are chosen by their peers in a competitive selection process to recruit, manage, train and place student volunteers in each program. These student leaders are tasked with designing infographics for applicants interested in volunteer opportunities on the Madison House website. These infographics describe the volunteer process and provide further information on how to apply to each program.  

The application process, which requires students to visit a secondary website to follow the steps provided in the infographics, can be confusing and difficult to navigate for students, according to Cole. She said that the inability to apply directly on the Madison House website can make the application difficult for students to navigate. Cole said that instead, in-person recruiting events for Madison House are a better way for students to apply.

“The barrier to touchless entry is high at Madison,” Cole said. “But if you can get to the touch point with the scheduled info sessions or with reaching out, I think that's been where it's easier to navigate.”

Alphin followed the instructions on the Madison House website and applied to The Haven — a day shelter in Downtown Charlottesville — but did not receive a response from either Madison House or The Haven. She reached out directly to The Haven and was only then able to find a volunteer position with the shelter.

Not all applicants have issues finding placements, however. Nikita Majumdar, Madison House volunteer and first-year College student, went to the information session for Health and Medical Services volunteering at the beginning of the Fall 2023 semester and was able to apply and receive a volunteer position within a week. However, Majumdar acknowledged that some of her peers did not have as much luck with the application process.   

“I've heard from a lot of people that some of the more competitive pathways like pre-health or human services are really hard to get involved with,” Majumdar said. “So sometimes I wish they were more accessible for more volunteers.”

While accessibility is a large concern, it is far from the only factor preventing students from finding volunteering opportunities. According to John Piller, Madison House outreach and partnership manager, student frustration may also be attributable to the fact that not all of the volunteer organizations that partner with Madison House are in need of student volunteers. Piller said that The Haven is one of these organizations. 

“[The Haven is] a community partner that really, really works well with us and we try very hard to work with them,” Piller said. “But there's a big difference between welcoming volunteers and needing volunteers.”

Cole said that part of the reason that not all students interested in volunteering are able to find a position is that many volunteer organizations are still experiencing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, making them unable to take as many volunteers.

“There's never been more of a turnover and disruption around nonprofit spaces nationally, and I think Charlottesville reflects that,” Cole said. “[Students] are ready to go out and do good … but it's never been sort of harder on an interpersonal and organizational level to make all the pieces line up.”

According to Cole, there has been a steady increase in student applications to community volunteer organizations since 2021. Fewer people volunteered during the pandemic, but many charities and organizations also saw significant financial troubles limiting the scale of their operations and thus their need for volunteers. Cole said that, as organizations continue to recover from the effects of the pandemic at a slower rate than applicant numbers are growing, they are unable to guarantee positions for all interested students.  

“Pre-pandemic, there were about 2,500+ [Madison House] volunteers per year on average. In 2020-2021, this number dropped to a little over 1,000,” Cole said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We have placed more than 1,300 volunteers each year in the last two academic years. This year we already have placed about 1,500 volunteers. So we are growing, as both we and our partners build capacity again.”

According to Cole, while Madison House aims to place students in volunteer positions throughout the year, the best time to apply is at the beginning of the spring and fall semesters. The next information session to learn more about the organization is April 5, from noon to 1 p.m. both in the Madison House conference room and on Zoom.


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