virtual volunteerism

Moments of crisis present an opportunity to innovate and try out those big employee volunteerism ideas you’ve talked about during your planning and strategy meetings. Now is the time to refine, test, and learn from new approaches to engage employees in service.  Some projects may not work, and that’s okay, while others may just be able to take your program to that next level.

I regularly hear from colleagues and friends in the corporate volunteerism field of the different challenges they are facing – “How can I pivot my employee volunteer program to be more virtual? Why are no employees signing up? How can I engage employees who are asking for ways to volunteer? And what about my Global Volunteer Day?” While I’d like nothing more than to be able to say there are clear answers to these questions, the reality is there aren’t.  And, for most, finding solutions will not be easy. But in my decade plus experience managing employee volunteers, I can assure you it is far from impossible. Here are some ideas to help you on your journey to activate your employee program during COVID-19.

Approach Your Employees and Nonprofit Partners Alike with Empathy

Whether you are trying to reimagine an established employee volunteer program or are just beginning one, approach both your employees and your nonprofit partners with empathy.  Be sensitive to the challenges each are facing and focus on how your program can help to address real, substantive concerns.  While we believe working closely with your nonprofit partners is always a best practice, it’s more critical now than ever to listen and understand where the most acute needs are and assess how your team’s considerable talent can help to address it. More often than not, when employees know they can make a difference, they will rise to the occasion.  As you continue to listen to your employees and nonprofit partners, the path toward more meaningful engagements and volunteerism will begin to pave itself.

Pivot Toward Virtual Volunteering

Your company’s purpose and values should always serve as your program’s north star, but in these unprecedented times, stay nimble and flexible in terms of the approach and be ready to innovate at a moment’s notice. The shift to virtual and remote volunteering opportunities can be a huge adjustment, requiring degrees of change management across the spectrum of stakeholders.  VolunteerMatch, Points of Light, MovingWorlds, and AARP Create the Good have each developed good lists of virtual volunteering project ideas.  Here are two stories of companies pivoting their programs and engaging employee volunteers that I’ve been learning from:

  • Liberty Mutual was faced with the planned launch of its annual service event, Serve with Liberty, when COVID-19 cases began to rise. They made the difficult decision to cancel the event and pivot to provide only financial grants to organizations participating in the event. However, many employees still wanted to volunteer and flooded the company’s internal communications channels. This led to the creation of the Torchbearers Calling initiative, where employees reached out and connected isolated friends, families and seniors.
  • Employees at US Bank started a “sewing circle” for colleagues who wanted to make cloth masks and donate them to organizations in need.

Activate Employee Skills to Tackle Critical Nonprofit Business Needs

Nonprofits are now facing unprecedented challenges and often do not have the resources or expertise to address business-related issues such as financial planning, business continuity, logistics, marketing and fundraising.  Employee volunteers can provide essential support, lending their expertise in a setting that doesn’t require them to leave their homes. Work closely with your current nonprofit partners to identify their needs and match them with employees willing to lend their valuable skills. In one example, a FedEx logistics and delivery truck routing expert volunteered to help a nonprofit re-route its volunteers from dropping off supplies at local food banks to delivering food directly to individual homes.

Common Impact and the Taproot Foundation have created a variety of helpful resources that can also help you identify nonprofits in need of skilled volunteers.

Use Remote Volunteering as a Tool to Connect Employees Across Teams and Locations

Employee volunteer programs not only help make a meaningful difference in the community, they play a vital role in enhancing corporate culture and bringing colleagues together to serve a greater purpose.  Embrace the evolution in video collaboration and use it to connect employees across teams, offices and countries, together to make a difference.  A global sourcing team from Alexion Pharmaceuticals did this by virtually volunteering to assist academic research projects through the Zooniverse Citizen Scientist platform. According to Alexion’s Margaret Caron, “Our group divided into online teams to catalog vintage insect collections, observe animals on wildlife cameras around the world, and even identify fish species in old fine-art paintings…this was a great way to come together…and to give back at the same time.”

Reengage Volunteers in Physical Projects, Carefully

Uncertainty around the spread of COVID-19 is still the reality for most countries and states. As of this article’s posting, nearly half of U.S. states have either paused or reversed their plans to reopen, however just as many have reopened or are reopening. As your company considers reengaging employees physically in the community, safety protocols take on a new importance for both your employees and beneficiaries. This must strongly factor into your ultimate decision and action plan. Work together with your key internal teams, including HR, legal, communications and most importantly your leadership, to align on your approach. Create an internal task force, bringing everyone to the table together. Additionally, work closely with your nonprofit partners to help put proper guidelines in place to ensure the safest experience for your employees, their staff and the clients they serve. Points of Light has developed a helpful worksheet with guidance and suggested criteria for companies considering “In-Person Volunteering During COVID-19.”

Times have changed in the corporate volunteer world. As you continue to test different strategies and volunteer projects, you will find the sweet spot where your employees are able to best engage and make a difference.  As you have successes, make sure to work with your communications team to create a plan to celebrate and share these efforts both within your company and, as appropriate, publicly across your audiences. I was inspired by a story from Starbucks about an employee whose 11 year-old daughter jumped at the chance to write a letter of gratitude (along with a few jokes) to COVID-19 frontline responders through its partnership with Operation Gratitude. These stories can motivate employees, executives and others to take action. We’re all in this together!

Brandon is a senior consultant at Cause Consulting, where he applies his communications, strategy and philanthropy expertise to help clients find their sweet spots to impact business and society. He spent 10+ years working in Hasbro’s award-winning office of Global Philanthropy & Social Impact, providing leadership across all aspects of corporate philanthropy, including the company’s Team Hasbro employee volunteer program.

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