Three Things the Pandemic Revealed About Employee Volunteerism

Apr 15, 2021

It’s been exactly 13 months and one week since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. So much of the world and our daily activities stopped or, to use the latest term in ”corporate buzzword bingo,” pivoted to fit within the latest health and safety guidelines and the new realities of so many working from home.

As we celebrate the second annual Global Volunteer Month and the release of the Volunteer edition of Points of Light’s digital magazine, Civic Life Today, we ask two questions: what has the global health crisis illuminated about employee volunteerism and where should we go from here? Simply put, the pandemic has forced the rapid evolution of the field and has expanded what we do, how we do it and who we do it for.

What we do

Not since the early 2000s, which gave rise to enterprise-wide “days of service,” has there been such a remarkable change in the way companies meet the needs of communities while continuing to build their internal culture of service. Corporate social impact strategies increasingly include nontraditional volunteerism like informal acts of kindness for neighbors and strangers, employees expressing their voice by attending a march, listening and learning about deep-rooted community issues and the push for voting access. And why not? Serving others aligned with a 501(c)3 nonprofit partner isn’t the only way we build community. While having a trusted partner is important when it comes to liability issues and impact reporting, perhaps the old school way of volunteering has discounted the ways local communities have solved problems for decades.

Attention is now focused on developing new norms and standards, tracking and measuring the impact of informal volunteering and civic involvement. Inputs and outputs might remain similar to traditional volunteerism but standards and frameworks for measuring outcomes is evolving to include these new ways of engagement.

How we do it

New ways to serve and measure have certainly leaned heavily on technology to support the transition. CSR leaders quickly integrated virtual volunteering into their strategy and infrastructure. Engaging remote employees, who previously were often afterthoughts when developing large-scale, market-based, in-person service events, became the focal point. While not a new volunteer concept, many more companies have incorporated the use of technology to create connection and community, even doubling-down on skills-based volunteering to help partners turn in-person opportunities into virtual solutions. At the same time, nonprofit partners have had to make significant shifts to their volunteer operations to adapt their need for volunteers to the digital environment.

Because there will be more remote employees who either rarely or never come into the office, we’ll need to continue finding creative ways to symbolically bring them together to continue building a values-based culture. At the same time, we must realize that supply-heavy projects that also require shipping can put quite a strain on budgets, not to mention the “Zoom fatigue” that occurs when virtual service is added to an already long day of virtual meetings. Family integration will also be important for these employees as work and life continue to blend.

And will these activities – whether remote or virtual – still strengthen our bonds to each other, to the community and to the company the same way they do through in-person service? It is a moment of growth and expansion and for new proof points for social impact investment.

Who we do it for

As community needs increased during the pandemic, a host of inequities were exposed. Those most vulnerable in our society were much harder hit by the virus, being statistically more likely to get sick and lose their jobs, their homes and their businesses. The pandemic led to all-time highs in poverty, food insecurity, evictions and mental health challenges. Small businesses took a massive direct hit. Women left the workforce in droves to help with family needs while many BIPOC community members worked the hard, necessary jobs that couldn’t shut down or be done remotely. Students transitioned to distance learning and the digital divide was highlighted as more and more households needed computers and reliable internet services. No doubt this digital divide, along with an incredibly difficult environment for learning, will disrupt the future talent pipeline. The realities and impacts of systemic racism and social injustice called us all to a new moment of consciousness and a new responsibility for change leadership.

In the midst of fragile public trust, companies must continue to step up, not just by issuing public statements of support but by integrating equity into their existing business practices in authentic ways. CSR leaders will need to reinforce the mantra of “serving with, not for,” expanding employees’ world view and deepening opportunities for personal growth and change. The powerful opportunity to align equity solutions with employee civic engagement will require testing of strategies and sharing of outcomes to deliver new definitions of best practices. Employee civic engagement is a strong bridge between solving equity issues and developing collective empathy and it can help to build more just and equitable communities and community leaders.

We’ve come a long way since last year and we continue to witness powerful changes inside our companies, in our communities and within our daily lives that will define a ‘next normal.’

Katy Elder
Vice President of Corporate Insights, Points of Light

Spending 20 years in the corporate social responsibility sector, Katy mixes creativity and strategy with expertise in employee engagement and corporate citizenship to develop resources and learning opportunities that advance corporate social impact.