How to Engage Employees Through Volunteering, Even While Physically Distanced

In the best of times, volunteering is a popular way for companies to engage their people in purpose. Giving back not only provides employees with a sense of personal and social impact, but volunteer activities also help companies foster a culture that connects people to one another through their inherent desire to do good. Plus, there are plenty of business benefits, including opportunities for people to build new skills around leadership, develop cross-functional talents that may not be part of their everyday roles, and increased empathy and belonging. But in this time of physical distancing, volunteering is one of the countless activities that has been turned upside down for the foreseeable future.

Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization in March, Benevity has seen corporate volunteerism decline in our own client base. In examining data from over 500 companies between March 1st and April 30th, we found that volunteer hours logged by employees dropped by 12 percent in March and 20 percent in April, reflecting the impact of physical distancing on traditional in-person activities, and most certainly the challenges that nonprofits and companies are facing in adapting their programs to find more innovative ways for people to volunteer. At the same time, nonprofits and vulnerable communities need help more urgently than ever. According to a new report from GuideStar, 50 percent of nonprofits are operating on less than one month of financial reserves.

The bottom line: companies that want to engage their people in purpose-driven initiatives need to change their strategies. Here are some practical tips for engaging employees in volunteering and keeping programs running, even at a physical distance:

Listen first, then act

It’s only natural that people are eager to help during times of crisis. But before jumping into action, it’s important for companies to pause long enough to clearly understand what works best for their people and their nonprofit partners. This requires that they listen first. What, specifically, do nonprofits need right now? What will they need in the next three months? The next year? The answers to these questions are going to be different depending on the organization. For some nonprofits, virtual volunteering is not new, and they will be happy to have new volunteers right away. Others are perhaps still struggling to get remote systems and processes in place. And some might simply be too overwhelmed at the moment to even communicate with corporate partners until they have some time to figure out next steps. In a recent virtual volunteering webinar that included program leaders from Accenture Canada, Dolby Laboratories, and VolunteerMatch, all of the participants agreed on the importance of listening and seeking input from both employees and nonprofit partners. Everyone is at different stages of adapting to this new reality, and patience and flexibility are the order of the day.

Offer “virtual volunteering” and reward participation

Many of us tend to think of volunteering as an in-person activity—serving a meal at a local shelter or reading to kids at a library, for example—but this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of ways people can share their skills or donate their time virtually, whether it’s through something like online tutoring/mentoring or by helping nonprofits with tasks that can be done in a remote setting, like web design or translation services. Some companies already offer virtual activities as part of their volunteering program, making it fairly easy for people to pivot, especially employees that are already used to working remotely in the first place. But for those this might be new to, the best advice is to start small and simple—test a few activities that don’t require a big learning curve (Missing Maps is a great example), and build from there. Benevity’s recent Labs report found the number of open spots for virtual volunteers is climbing steadily, with 44,000 available opportunities open as of March 26th. As more and more companies and nonprofits get up to speed with virtual operations, there will be more opportunities for volunteering to rebound. Rewarding volunteers for their time through programs like “dollars for doers” helps recognize people for their volunteering efforts and also incentivizes them to give back to their charity of choice. Benevity’s data shows that among employees who volunteer, 72% also donate through their company’s workplace giving program. Employees most engaged in workplace giving and volunteering see a 57% increase in retention.

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Be mindful that everyone is under stress

Companies need to be cognizant of the fact that their employees, just like their nonprofit partners, are at varying stages of dealing with the stress caused by this event. A growing number of people are experiencing mental health challenges. And while no one has been spared the risks of COVID-19 and its related effects, everyone is being impacted differently, exposing the diversity, equity, health, and systemic gaps that are deeply ingrained in society. So while some people might want to jump right in and help, others might need or want more time to adapt. Companies need to structure their volunteering programs so that they aren’t presenting an added burden, but rather offering a welcome outlet for inspiration, purpose, engagement, and connection. In fact, experiencing a connection to a larger sense of purpose can help to improve mental health. As we’re ordered to physically distance to prevent being part of the problem, giving in whatever fashion a person is able is an opportunity to be part of a solution.

Broaden your definition of giving back

Finally, with so many in need right now, companies might want to consider broadening their efforts beyond the traditional nonprofit landscape. Everyone knows someone who currently needs help, whether it’s a family member who works in healthcare and is impacted by the shortage of protective equipment or an elderly neighbor who might need assistance with errands and groceries. Employers can show support for their people by providing resources for them to organize their own volunteer activities on behalf of neighbors, families and local communities; by empowering them to contribute their unique expertise and knowledge wherever and whenever it is needed; and by allowing them to track volunteer time and earn rewards for these types of activities in the same way that they would for traditional volunteering. For example, a number of Benevity clients, including Dolby Labs and Accenture Canada, have been using our Missions platform to set up “peer-to-peer” opportunities so that employees can share relevant skills (sewing masks or tutoring, for instance) with their coworkers. We are also seeing a growing interest in Employee Relief Funds, which make it easy for employees to donate to a fund to assist their coworkers who are impacted by the crisis. And more companies are taking advantage of their employees as “on-the-ground” ambassadors, helping them engage their teammates in activities, giving, and volunteering opportunities. By allowing their people to take the lead, companies leverage the scale and relevance in content creation that is otherwise difficult to achieve for under-resourced teams.

While our current reality may not allow for large gatherings and in-person events, this doesn’t mean companies have to put their volunteer programs on hold. In fact, it’s more important than ever to find ways to help employees stay connected and engaged with each other, their employer, and their communities. Through thoughtful and strategic adjustments, companies can continue to empower and inspire their people with volunteering programs that are driven by meaning and purpose.

Vivian Farris is VP People at Benevity, the leading global provider of corporate social responsibility and employee engagement software for some of the world’s most iconic brands. Visit Benevity’s COVID-19 Resource Hub for more tools and information about how companies can maximize the impact of their giving and volunteering programs during COVID crisis.

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