On Thursday April 30, 2020, my colleague Gavin Cepelak and I had a conversation with over 100 of our closest ‘friends’ around issues and trends corporations are facing in sustaining their social impact initiatives, and how to do so through virtual pro bono. Also joining us on the webinar was Yezenia Ramos, Senior Manager of Employee Engagement at Johnson & Johnson, who spoke about some of the ways the company is reimagining its social impact programs and ensuring employees remain engaged and involved with volunteer efforts virtually. Yezenia appropriately reminded us that “just because we are at home, the needs [in our communities] don’t stop,” and therefore it is critical that corporations ‘not go dark’ with their volunteer efforts during this challenging time.
It is critical that corporations ‘not go dark’ with their volunteer efforts during this challenging time.
Throughout the conversation we received several questions around building and/or sustaining the momentum of corporate social impact programs, maintaining employee engagement, and transitioning from in-person to virtual pro bono programs as we all adjust to our new realities. We’re happy to share some of the questions and our recommendations here and encourage you to reach out to us directly with your specific questions.
How can we keep our employees motivated to volunteer & [remain] engaged when we might not have a clear idea and process of how to adjust or redo their in-person skills-based assignment?
Keeping your employee volunteers engaged can be tough when there is a lack of certainty around when travel restrictions will be lifted to restart in-person assignments. We recommend that you communicate regularly with your employees about your decisions on programming so that they can adjust their expectations and understand the factors that contribute to your decisions to resume programming. Read Pyxera Global’s Guidebook to Communicating with Global Pro Bono Stakeholders about COVID-19 Implications for additional ideas on how to approach communications with your employees and revisiting your volunteer program plan.
Additionally, when reaching out to your employees, we encourage you to provide them with ideas and tools about how they can continue to support organizations they are passionate about in their home communities while your program is being reimagined. For example, you can provide your employees with a toolkit that empowers them to identify ways they can lend their skills to organizations that are important to them. We are happy to work with you in exploring ways to keep your employees motivated while they are working remotely! For more tips to engage your employees and communities, read this article.
We have found that the volunteering employees are more engaged when they really understand the social issues and social impact in which they are engaged by being on the ground. However, with virtual programs, we are concerned that the employees might not be as engaged when they are not in touch with the social impact/social issues in-person. How do you get the volunteering employees to be really engaged?
At Pyxera Global, we believe that volunteer assignments have a higher success rate when volunteers are engaged and understand the end goal and how their volunteer work will impact communities. In all of our programs, volunteers participate in a series of virtual training sessions called pre-work where they learn about the social issues their organizations are addressing and how their projects are aligned to those issues. Introducing volunteers to the social context in which they are assisting helps the volunteers better understand how their support matters to the nonprofit organization and will help communities.
You might consider integrating a Voice of the Customer experience into pre-work or the project itself so that your employees can have more direct contact (even if it’s a pre-recorded video) with the end beneficiary of the organization they are supporting virtually.
Do you think the individual volunteers have a good understanding of the nonprofit sector? Coming from a nonprofit, one of the biggest challenges I see is that both us and the corporate speak different languages [come from different perspectives] and we find it tough to understand each other. When working with large management consulting organizations, it has been challenging for us to communicate what we expect.
Pro bono does require people from different sectors and perspectives together, which can come with a host of challenges if both sides aren’t aware or prepared to navigate those differences with an open mind. At Pyxera Global we’ve found that preparing both the volunteers and the host organizations for the engagement and sharing best practices for communicating with one another minimizes those challenges and sets both sides up with tools to navigate different perspectives.
For the volunteers, specifically, our pre-work is designed to ensure they have a grounding in the types of terminology, organizational models, and even regulations that nonprofits face in their local markets. Pre-work also includes topics focused on conflict resolution, citizen diplomacy, consulting virtually, and social topics impacting that community.
How can you help corporate employees understand the value of the impact of their virtual work if they can’t see the impact themselves?
There are several formal and informal ways volunteers can see and understand the impact of their virtual assistance. At the end of Pyxera Global’s programs, a virtual closing event is hosted where volunteers present deliverables to leaders of their host organizations and receive feedback in real time about how their work will impact the organization and communities they support. Host organizations also complete surveys about the impact of the virtual assistance, which is often shared via internal and external communication channels. Many volunteers also stay connected to their host organization after their assignment on an informal basis and over time learn about the impact of their assistance as organizations implement their recommendations.
How does Pyxera Global anticipate supporting community-based organizations with human capital and direct service delivery? As they get back into place-based work the need to sustain existing programs with human capital is vital—community-based organizations are losing local volunteers/interns/fellows due to circumstances.
This is a valid point and a great question! We work with our community-based nonprofit partners to understand what type of human capital support (skills, experience, expertise, etc.) is needed to ensure the continuity – and sustainability – of their programs and services. Simultaneously, we work with our corporate partners to discover how the skills of their employees can meet these needs. For instance, perhaps an organization needs support in imagining new ways to recruit volunteers or engage with interns. A team of skilled volunteers could help them to develop a new and creative approach to reaching new audiences who might be interested in volunteering, or to develop innovative ways to strengthen their internship pipeline through relationships with universities. Our goal is to ensure the needs of the community-based organization are met in a sustainable way, not through a short-term or temporary solution.
Our biggest obstacle is understanding the nonprofit need—we don’t want to pressure nonprofits into doing pro bono at this time if they are not ready. How do you recommend we go about this?
Generally speaking, timing is very important when implementing pro bono projects. It is important to ensure that the nonprofit has the capacity to receive the pro bono support and the ability to implement the project deliverables/solutions. In the wake of COVID-19, balancing the immediacy of the needs and finding ways for employees to get involved can be even trickier. All nonprofits are at different stages of dealing with the implications of COVID-19, and while you might have employees that can help them, they need to determine when the timing is best. Many nonprofits are overwhelmed by balancing the outreach of people offering support and simply trying to maintain their daily operations while serving their communities. Making an offer for support and asking the nonprofit directly about the appropriate timing of the support will help you. We have found that when asked, nonprofit organizations are upfront about what they need and when they are in a position to receive it. Offering the potential of support without the obligation to accept provides organizations with the opportunity to start thinking of ways (big or small) that volunteers could help their work.
Virtual Pro Bono
To what extent (how detailed and in depth) is the scope of work designed before the actual volunteering period starts? Is there a possibility or have there been past projects where the scope of work changed during the volunteering period?
Prior to the start of the project, the Pyxera Global project manager works closely with our nonprofit partner to draft scopes of work to set and manage expectations to prevent scope creep and unrealistic asks. We use a human-centered design approach, entering into the conversation being problem-oriented as opposed to solutions-oriented. We find that when we ask questions such as ‘what barriers are you facing’, our team can get to the root of the problem to better inform the scope of activities and anticipated outcomes – leaving little room for new asks during the project.
Once the volunteers begin working on the project and understand what they can accomplish in the allotted project period, they may work with their non-profit partner to make minor alterations-usually during the first week of the project. For virtual pro bono projects we suggest developing scopes of work that include more granular deliverables than you might have for an in-person project because there are more limited opportunities to course correct. This ensures that volunteers have a clear direction on tasks and that nothing is lost or assumed during the virtual project period.
What types projects are you seeing as manageable projects that can be done in a half or one day?
For short-term engagements such as a virtual clinic or projects that include a couple hours a week over the course of several weeks, we find that strategy projects with detailed deliverables are usually the most feasible. We recently conducted a survey of over 100 nonprofit organizations, results have shown that organizations’ current needs are centered around financial planning, business planning, communications strategy, ICT and human resources – these are all projects that can be scaled to accommodate a short project period of even just a few hours. For example, a one-day virtual clinic might engage volunteers who are skilled in human resources to assess the benefits policies of a non-profit and provide feedback on its employee performance metrics in light of the new work-from-home reality.
Are all these programs US-based or also international? Specifically, are any of these working in African countries?
Pyxera Global has virtual programs based in the US and globally. Specifically, in Africa we have an office in Ghana and Nigeria, and we have implemented pro bono programs, both virtual and in person, in a variety of counties across the continent.
With virtual programs you lose the “heat experience” or the on the ground cultural experience. What components can you include in the program design to support with cross-cultural understanding or engagement?
While a virtual program lacks some of the immersive aspects of an in-person assignment, it remains a new experience that challenges your employees way of thinking and leading. Volunteers will sill be asked to think about new problems and how to apply their skills to solve them, to interact with new people from diverse backgrounds, and to quickly learn about a new sector with diverse challenges. In our global virtual programs, volunteers still engage with people from different cultural and professional backgrounds as they are on teams with colleagues from different global offices, supporting organizations in a location other than their home office. We provide volunteers with a number of tools to facilitate cross-cultural understanding even in a virtual setting. For example, we partner with the firm Culture Wizard and ask volunteers to reflect upon their own cultural values and compare them across other cultures, even working virtual they are able to gain an awareness about how perceptions vary from culture to culture.
What system do you use to have organizations enter virtual volunteer opportunities?
For nonprofit organizations seeking volunteer support, there are various platforms such as VolunteerMatch, through which they can directly enter their need and individuals can choose to sign up to work with them. At Pyxera Global, our approach is more hands-on. We consider the organizations we work with as partners and engage them in an in-depth virtual scoping process through which we capture their needs and develop the project scope. We then hand-match volunteers to support the project. While this takes a bit more time, we believe that the end result is more successful. It also ensures that organizations that may not have access to the web-based platforms are also in a position to receive pro bono support.
How does pricing work for the different models?
Pricing can vary based on the need of the company and how they want to structure their program. It is dependent on the length of the engagement, number of employees engaged, number of host organizations, and the types of projects that will need to be scoped. Visit our virtual pro bono website for more information about virtual models and contact Renay Loper, Pyxera Global’s Vice President of Program Innovation (firstname.lastname@example.org), for a discussion on how to design a program that works within your budget and corporate needs.
Questions have been edited for clarity and length.