Going Virtual Because of COVID-19? You’re Thinking About Your Corporate Volunteering Programs All Wrong

Mark Horoszowski

Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org.

As the rapid spread of the coronavirus has offices, cities, and even countries limiting in-person interactions, volunteering programs are grinding to a halt. Across the world, many individual, cohort, education, and corporate programs are hitting the pause button, delaying initiatives, and wondering what they should be doing instead…

In this last week alone, I have had over a dozen conversations with corporate social impact professionals grappling with this issue, showing just how stressful this situation is for them. Most are also under increasing pressure to hit arbitrary volunteering targets, like the number of hours volunteered by employees or % of employees engaging in volunteering.

These conversations typically start with the corporate representative saying something like this: “Even with people working remotely, we still need to hit these volunteering numbers. Let’s get our employees to start virtually mentoring some kids or nonprofits.” (not an exaggeration).

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This near-sighted approach to virtual volunteering has three fundamental issues:

  1. Addressing a real need: Nonprofit organizations and the stakeholders they serve are struggling during this time. They likely do not need mentors, but rather, they need to improve their systems, control their costs, and figure out how to raise funds in uncertain times. Focusing on keeping big partners happy instead of meeting their actual needs (and most importantly the needs of their communities) will waste time and resources.
  2. Volunteering motivation mismatch: Pressuring employees to engage in activities that are not intrinsically motivating to them can actually create negative outcomes. Some research even shows that this worsens outcomes for all parties and creates “deviant” employees.
  3. Halts innovation: It prevents the adoption of innovative thinking. Thinking about what is fastest and easiest prevents us from thinking about what is truly impactful and transformational for all parties.

Here are 7 steps you can take to improve corporate volunteering programs while we grapple with COVID-19

Step #1: Immunize the corporate antibodies

Get ahead of naysayers within your company. Find an executive sponsor, and tell them that with the spread of coronavirus, we need to agree that volunteering and social impact targets might change. Let them know that you will use this time to innovate and create more scalable initiatives, but that you need senior-level support so that you are not forced to achieve some arbitrary target that may no longer be relevant. Starting here will ensure that your idea has a champion from the start and that you have permission to move quickly, try new things, and keep improving.

Step #2: Understand what nonprofits really need

Ask your nonprofit and social enterprise partners what they need. Listen carefully and ask probing questions to identify their real needs at this moment in time. Take a human-centered approach to this problem. Look at  Microsoft as an example: nonprofits need collaboration software as employees move to virtual work, so Microsoft is giving away free licenses to its Teams software. Don’t send a long survey or ask for big proposals. In fact, the best thing you can do is start by observing nonprofits to see what they are trying to do. Then simply ask them: What do they need? What do their team members need? What do their beneficiary populations need?

Step #3: Empower your employees

More likely than not, your employees already care deeply about causes, local and/or global. In the U.S.,  over 50% of Americans collectively donate $400 billion to charity per year according to the National Philanthropic Trust. In addition, over 73 million American adults volunteer. According to the U.S.A. Corporation for National & Community Service, people aged 35-54 are most likely to volunteer, and parents volunteer at rates nearly 48% higher than non-parents. This means your workers are likely already donating and/or volunteering. You can (and should) identify how you can help your employees give in a way that is most meaningful to them at this time. They likely don’t need a new program or initiative — they just need to know they have your support (read our guide in Fast Company about how to take an employee-centered approach to giving). Set up a “dollars for doers” campaign so that if people volunteer, they can also funnel money to their nonprofits. Other versions of this include team grants, so that if an employee engages an entire team, they can qualify for even bigger grants.

Step #4: Use your assets to multiply impact

Nonprofits are reacting to better support their stakeholders. Employees and engaged volunteers are already taking initiative. Use your resources to help scale their impact. Think of yourself as a venture capitalist and ask yourself this question: Where can I inject resources to help scale the impact of those already doing the hard work at the grassroots level?

For more help brainstorming, simply ask your nonprofit partners, community members, and employees questions like:

  1. What are you trying to do?
  2. What resources do you need?
  3. How could our company provide the most value?
  4. What are other unmet needs in this community we could support?

Here are some good corporate citizenship examples of what companies are doing to better react to coronavirus:

  1. Business and technical consulting companies can help nonprofits overcome technological hurdles by implementing virtual collaboration technology at low/no cost, and by providing staff to run training sessions so nonprofit staff can adopt it more effectively. A good example of this is Avanade, which is running “Transform with Avanade” and Tech for Social Good workshops.
  2. Retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies can use their robust supply and distribution chains to help nonprofits get resources to beneficiaries and neighborhoods in need. Some companies, like Starbucks, are limiting their own business to slow the spread, but providing better employee benefits.
  3. Media and social networking companies can look at their technology platforms to restrict the flow of misinformation and help ensure official directives are more effective (like how Google is scraping and removing all videos and content with non-science backed claims).
  4. Infrastructure technology companies, like Cisco and F5/nginx, are deploying capital as well as critical infrastructure technologies to support nonprofits and community groups.
  5. Software companies can see which nonprofits, governments, municipalities, and other organizations need their technology, and can discount it or give it away (like how Tableau created and is maintaining a COVID-19 resource hub and Salesforce is making financial, product, and training resources available to help social impact organizations do more).
  6. Infrastructure companies can assure their customers that they will not lose essential services for unpaid bills during state/national emergencies (like AT&T, which is not charging people for data overages and giving massive discounts to economically disadvantaged groups)
  7. Restaurants can convert their offerings into affordable and healthy take-home options (like ThinkFoodGroup in DC), or can pay their employees to take sick days so that hourly workers don’t have to feel pressured to come work if they are sick (like Darden Restaurant Group as featured in the New York Times).
  8. All companies can invest in their communities to help provide bridge funding for small businesses who will suffer from a lack of business. For example, Amazon created a $25 Million relief fund for drivers who might see a loss in earnings and partnered with other big tech companies to create a $2.5 Million relief fund.

Step #5: Connect to other corporate communication efforts internally and externally

When Starbucks announced to the public that they were limiting store hours, they also added messaging about how they are taking care of their hourly employees who might be affected by reduced economic activity. When Microsoft shared a travel ban, it also highlighted it was giving away technology. As Amazon highlighted that it was closing its offices to protect employees, it also announced a fund to help small businesses that are built around Amazon’s headquarters. Corporate social impact leaders should tie their services to internal and external communications teams, and offer to be a voice in the room to help think of ways to attach corporate citizenship to its initiatives so that the company can authentically care for its stakeholders amidst the current pandemic.

Step #6: Be a platform (not a pusher)

So often, corporate social responsibility and social impact leaders are asking other departments for money, time, and other resources. During this time, you can provide immense value to your company by helping it build its brand reputation, which is especially important during a time when trust in companies is declining. To be a “platform”, the goal is for other business units to come to you with ideas. How can marketing improve? By building on your social impact strategy and sharing stories to improve brand reputation. Supply chain? Partnering with nonprofits and social enterprises to de-risk supply and bring more innovative products to the market. Distribution? Using community-based networks to identify more efficient ways to drive services and products.

Step #7: Experiment, share, and keep innovating

The world does not know how to react to COVID-19, and no company is going to create the best possible response. Whatever program you tweak or launch, you should execute it quickly and create feedback mechanisms to ensure you can keep evolving your programming to meet real-world needs. This human-centered design approach will help you build or maintain a program that creates a real impact right away for all your stakeholders. As you have successes and failures, share these internally and externally so that we can all keep learning and improving, taking care of all our stakeholders while COVID-19 wreaks havoc on our global systems.

Use this as an opportunity to change the conversation

While we know the seven steps above are enough to keep you very busy, you can also use this as a time to engage your employees, executives, and other key stakeholders in more meaningful conversations. Too often, corporate programs are limited by trying to measure vanity metrics, like hours volunteered or money donated. During this time of change, can you start developing and testing ideas to help your company measure important things, like how it’s improving lives and contributing to the health and resilience of our planet.

In Summary

COVID-19 will have a real impact on your business, corporate citizenship, social impact, and sustainability programs. Using these 7 steps, you can help make a real difference, and benefit your company in the process:

  • Step #1: Immunize the corporate antibodies
  • Step #2: Understand what nonprofits really need
  • Step #3: Empower your employees
  • Step #4: Use your assets to multiply impact
  • Step #5: Connect to other corporate communication efforts internally and externally
  • Step #6: Be a platform (not a pusher)
  • Step #7: Experiment, share, and keep innovating

If you need help evolving your own programs, we’re happy to schedule a free discussion or support a social impact consulting project to help you think through how to best scale your social initiatives during these bizarre times. Connect with us on our website or at csr@movingworlds.org.