The landscape of corporate volunteerism looks vastly different today than it did just 12 months ago. The social connections made while cleaning parks and playgrounds, working with students in classrooms, or serving at food pantries have stalled due to the pandemic. The opportunity for a corporate volunteer and a nonprofit leader to build a relationship while sitting across a table and working together is largely gone. Nevertheless, people have continued – albeit in new and virtual settings – to serve their communities.
We have even seen some silver linings. Virtual volunteering isn’t new, but it’s reached new levels in the last year, and with travel and time commitments barriers removed, employees are serving together across disparate geographies. Another win: more companies have focused their employee volunteer programs on supporting organizations with BIPOC leadership and addressing issues of racial disparity.
The last year tested the “metal” of volunteerism and found it both strong and flexible, able to generate impact regardless of the challenges. Now, as vaccine distribution continues, corporate volunteer program leaders are busy creating a “new normal,” learning from the last year and keeping things flexible for all that is still unknown. Understanding what comes next means asking what worked, analyzing those learnings against previous years, and building a new roadmap. Here are four questions to guide that process:
- In the last year, how did you identify the priority issues on which to focus your philanthropy (money, product, or time)?
- What were the barriers – beyond the obvious pause to in-person projects – to employee volunteering? Do any of them remain this year?
- What role did your volunteer programs play in ensuring a strong company culture?
- How did volunteer opportunities support your company in addressing issues of racial equity and keeping a focus on BIPOC leadership?
In Common Impact’s conversations across the sector, we’re hearing some common themes about what comes next for corporate volunteerism.
Four Key Themes for Corporate Volunteer Programs in 2021
Embracing hybrid formats
The in-person culture of the workplace has changed, likely for the long-term, but companies still need to build teams and create connection amongst colleagues. Seventy two percent of employees want work-from-home options to continue, and every week more companies announce plans to allow just that. Even before the pandemic, many corporate volunteer program leaders struggled to engage field offices and remote employees. Now, with more of the workforce falling in to that latter category going forward, virtual volunteering seems here to stay.
Still, a return to at least partial in-person volunteering is on the horizon, possibly in the second half of 2021. A hybrid format is likely to be the short-term solution and possibly even a long-term strategy. At some companies, a hybrid program will be a mix of opportunities, some in-person and some virtual. For others, a single initiative may itself be hybrid, such as the case of a multi-week volunteer program kicking off in a virtual setting and then concluding a few weeks later with an in-person event.
Taking meaningful action for race equity
Black, Latinx and Native American communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Especially in the context of a racial reckoning, that reality has amplified the pressure for companies to align their employee volunteer programs with the causes that matter most to employees, consumers, and communities. 90%(!) of Gen Z employees believe that companies must act to support social and environmental issues and 83% of Millennials want their brands to align with their values. Taking action is not optional.
All companies – even those with a long-standing focus on a cause area like education, workforce development, domestic violence prevention or anything else – must step up and incorporate a racial equity lens to that work. Get started by seeking out aligned BIPOC-led or racial justice organizations or incorporating anti-racism learning to employee volunteer opportunities.
Leaning in to skilled volunteering
Skills-based volunteering is the all-purpose player in the changing landscape of corporate volunteerism. The models adapt to a virtual context since volunteers and nonprofit staff don’t have to share a physical space in order to get big results. Skilled volunteering also maps well to a hybrid format since a team of volunteers working on – for example – a six-week project can hold most of their meetings virtually and then come together for a final in-person presentation to their nonprofit partners.
Pro bono service is also a powerful way to supplement funding or traditional, in-person volunteering that aligns with racial equity values. Too many BIPOC-led organizations are underserved, and the infusion of employee skills and expertise that comes from a skills-based project is key to building their capacity and sustainability.
Looking back to forge ahead
If we want to get corporate volunteerism right post-pandemic, the lessons of the last twelve months must play a role in our planning. Corporate volunteer programs can move from survival mode into to resiliency and eventually, rejuvenation. The trick is harnessing the changes for social good and building a new definition of community that can withstand whatever global challenges will come next.