Nonprofit organizations are working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing the growing needs of the most affected communities, and there is an opportunity for the global private sector to step in and help through skills-based volunteering. At the same time, employees are looking for ways to engage virtually with their community since many in-person volunteer opportunities are not currently possible. Based on Pyxera Global’s 30 years of experience working with mission-driven organizations and through our partnerships with over 30 companies, we have developed best practices for companies seeking to support their employees’ continued community engagement in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
Start with who you know.
Leverage your network of nonprofit partners to identify organizations in need of virtual support. Don’t forget your employees have their own networks you can also engage.
The COVID-19 crisis demands immediate responses but requires activities be completed at a distance. There is an opportunity to leverage your nonprofit partners and your employees who are passionate about volunteerism to quickly develop a pool of organizations to support through virtual volunteer projects. Depending on the areas of need your nonprofit partners address, they might have different requirements at this moment. For example, organizations working with populations with limited access to the internet might need support with communications and outreach, while others might need help completing applications for supplemental funding. It’s also important to understand community-specific needs and how those might vary. There’s no one-size-fits-all response, and the way you engage might be different from your traditional approach.
Along with your existing nonprofit partners, leveraging your employees’ connections to their communities will harness their energy and enthusiasm for virtual volunteering. It’s helpful because, in the end, they’ll be serving as the volunteers. If you are unsure how to begin this outreach to your employees, promote your company’s Volunteer Time Off (VTO) policy internally to generate interest in virtual volunteering projects and quickly identify those employees who are connected to their communities and available for these projects.
Along with your existing nonprofit partners, leveraging your employees’ connections to their communities will harness their energy and enthusiasm for virtual volunteering.
Keep in mind that while many COVID-19 relief efforts are currently targeted toward health organizations and health entities, COVID-19 impacts the entire social sector—including organizations addressing the social determinants of health problems such as housing, job security, education, and economic well-being—so your company’s options for skills-based volunteering do not necessarily need to be limited directly to the COVID-19 health crisis to create a positive impact. Even if your typical areas of engagement are not directly aligned to public health, there is still an opportunity to have a significant impact.
Listen to the need.
Organizations understand the on-the-ground realities and needs of their communities.
In times of crisis, increased communication and listening are essential for identifying those areas for collaboration and support. Organizations understand their communities’ needs best, so during initial conversations with your nonprofit partners, your team should provide opportunities for your nonprofit partners to ensure they are recognized and heard. As Ernesto Sirolli summarizes in his TED Talk on how to help others, it is best to “shut up and listen” to those who understand the on-the-ground realities of their communities and their own operational gaps. Listen first and develop your program in direct relationship to those needs and you’ll see direct impact in a shorter time period.
Listen first and develop your program in direct relationship to those needs and you’ll see direct impact in a shorter time period.
Here are a couple approaches to understanding the needs of your social sector partners:
- Set up meetings with your nonprofit partners to understand new challenges they are experiencing in the wake of the ever-changing global pandemic. These conversations are fact-finding missions. Come with an open mind and not a ready solution. You might consider using the Human-Centered Design approach, entering into the conversation being problem-oriented as opposed to solution-oriented. Questions such as “How can we help at-risk individuals stay connected during this period?” or “How are current processes reaching/falling short of reaching your beneficiaries in the wake of COVID-19?” Wholly understanding the challenge before jumping to solutions will help you think crucially about how your company and your employees can provide resources to address the most pressing needs.
- Install and/or update internal company web pages to allow your employees to share ongoing community happenings and links to volunteer opportunities that might interest the broader employee population. VolunteerMatch, the world’s largest volunteer engagement network, has launched VolunteerMatch Connect, a free product that enables everyone to turn their website into a volunteer action hub with a simple copy and paste code snippet. It provides direct access to search for and connect to opportunities through the Help with COVID-19 Portal.
- Build the capacity of your employees to be able to “listen to the need” by providing them a handbook of tools and resources for them to develop and implement skills-based volunteering projects in their local communities and on their own time.
Channel creativity and learning as much as possible.
The issues at hand are complex, multi-faceted, and constantly changing, so responding to your nonprofit partners’ needs will require news ways of thinking. Unlike previous natural disasters, the current call to action is not isolated to one geographic location, so existing procedures for disaster response may not be replicable. Keep this in mind as you develop your employee community engagement strategies and infuse flexibility, innovation, creativity, and constant learning into your skill-based volunteering engagements wherever possible.
In fact, turning a problem on its head and leaning into creativity during crises has proven to lead to innovative solutions and new business ideas that have saved lives and created new markets. During the Ebola crisis, Jill Andrews—a wedding gown designer—responded by using her design skills to develop a new design of the Ebola workers hazmat suits that reduced thousands of workers’ exposure to the virus. During the 2008 financial crisis and consequential recession, Uber, Slack, and Airbnb were founded and experienced increased investments in the wake of significant financial losses worldwide. Virtual volunteer programs can take your employees out of their day-to-day, engage them in looking at their jobs and the world in a new way, and maybe lead to new ideas that are beneficial to your business.
Turning a problem on its head and leaning into creativity during crises has proven to lead to innovative solutions and new business ideas that have saved lives and created new markets.
Here are a couple ways to begin channeling creativity and learning in response to your nonprofit partners’ needs:
- “Lunch and Learn” sessions are a great way to spread the message of your nonprofit partners’ work and educate your team on what is happening from knowledge experts, especially if your nonprofit partner does not require direct services but instead would benefit from educating others on the issues they combat. This form of knowledge-sharing may even spark new ideas among your team for innovative collaboration. They’re also a great way to stay in touch with people while we’re all working from home.
- Establish reoccurring innovation sessions for employees to share their creative thoughts on how their company may engage their social sector stakeholders to address community needs, whether it be through new product ideas, forms of pro bono employee support, in-kind donations, or in other ways. Feedback submission forms are also a practical option for getting quick responses from many employees on what they are thinking and/or learning from their communities and how their companies may be able to partner. Allowing spaces for these conversations and thoughts to be shared are critical for generating innovative solutions.
Pyxera Global is working with our partners to answer the question “What can we do?” through Immediate Response and the COVID-19 Corporate Challenge. During times of social distancing, harnessing your employees’ energy and skills and creating opportunities for your employees to become more connected to your company, to one another, and to being part of the solution are more important than ever. Contact Gavin Cepelak (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are interested in learning more.