From August 17 to 19, 2020, Volunteer Canada held its bi-annual Corporate Community Engagement Council (CCEC) Gathering, bringing together over 90 attendees, including Council member companies, their nonprofit partners, and speakers from Canada, the United States, Ireland and Peru.

The summit’s theme of Re-Building and Resilience – Re-Imagining Volunteering and Community Engagement was timely and aimed to help what many corporate community engagement professionals are struggling with―the state of community engagement six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and where we go from here. This was the first CCEC Gathering to be held 100% virtually and the result was increased attendance and a greater diversity of speakers from around the world since no travel was involved. CCEC members were also able to invite key nonprofit partners and the mix of attendees offered valuable insights for both sides. 

Embracing change and being comfortable with chaos

After a year of unprecedented change, those attending the summit discovered that we need to embrace chaos, be comfortable with it, and be prepared to pivot quickly. The good news is that many corporations have been doing this since the pandemic started, making adjustments to their programs and innovating along the way. The last six months have also provided companies with the opportunity to use COVID-19 as a change management tool and to innovate programs that in another climate would have been more difficult to change. Looking forward, it appears the next year will present us with the same challenges and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the health and safety protocols we’ve become accustomed to. However, as has been evidenced so far, if corporations are open to change, opportunities for innovation will follow. 

Redefining volunteering 

Among the biggest changes evidenced this year in the field of corporate community engagement is how volunteering is defined. Informal volunteering and caremongering programs have covered the media, showing us that people want to give back and help their community. Many organizations have been tied to the traditional definition that volunteering has to be organized and connected to a specific charity or formal cause. However, the move to redefine volunteering to include ‘acts of kindness’ or ‘acts of giving’ and informal volunteering is being seen globally. Some Canadian corporations, including TELUS, have been using this definition for years, and many did so as a response to the pandemic. This move paralleled the transition from mostly employer-led volunteering to employee-driven volunteering. Valuable employee engagement opportunities and volunteer hours may be missed if corporations are inflexible as to how they define volunteering. 

Virtual volunteering is here to stay 

According to Volunteer Canada’s latest study1 on the effects of the pandemic on employee community engagement programs in Canada and Ireland, which was previewed at the Gathering, virtual volunteering initiatives now account for over 50% of all volunteering for corporations. Of the 53% of nonprofits who have and/or plan to adapt volunteering roles, about half of these roles will become virtual. Both anticipate this to continue into the foreseeable future. Additionally, corporations identify health and safety as a major volunteer concern over the next 6 to 12 months, and the easiest way to combat this is through virtual volunteering.  

As they face this challenging environment with revenue losses and job cuts, findings from the Volunteering Lens of COVID-19 study indicate that the top skills that nonprofits need support with right now are:

  • business and continuity planning 
  • marketing support
  • fund and grant writing 
  • operations innovation 
  • technology 

Fortunately, these areas are where corporations excel, and can come to the plate in the form of skills-based consulting and pro-bono volunteering. 

Considerations for future corporate engagement and volunteer planning 

In considering future engagement strategies, corporations must keep in mind that the public has elevated expectations for corporate involvement in societal problems, but also remember that we’re re-engaging employees to volunteer in an unstable economic climate.2

Data presented from the Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update shows that both employees and customers have high expectations of corporations to community build, engage, and be responsive to community issues. The study also states that, “business is being called upon to demonstrate both its ability and integrity—the key building blocks of trust“. 

In regard to employee engagement, the Edelman Spring Update also shows that employees are looking to companies for leadership through action. Team members wish to be engaged, listened to and contribute to societal issues. Corporations have a leadership opportunity to encourage team member feedback, and then celebrate and capitalize on their goodwill to participate.

Three additional things to consider when planning corporate community engagement programs: 

  • Be cautious of online fatigue. As employees are working from home and struggling to separate work from their personal life, online time volunteering may prove too much. When promoting virtual volunteering, corporations need to incorporate a mix of activities that can be done offline, but remotely (like mask making, or growing vegetables for a food bank), to offer them a break from their computer. 
  • Be mindful of employee morale. Virtual volunteering often lacks the positive acknowledgement and warm feelings that in-person volunteering offers. Finding new ways to ensure that employees feel special, receive recognition, and get to see the difference they are making is paramount. 
  • Keep Generation Z in mind when creating your employee engagement plan. There was a session dedicated to customers and employees born between 1995 and 2008, and how they are unique. Community engagement departments need to consider this group in planning or risk missing out on nurturing future volunteer leaders. 

After 3 days, I left the summit with new insights and new contacts. While the future may be uncertain, I am hopeful that the corporate community engagement and volunteerism field are passionate and committed to meet any challenges that COVID-19 presents. 

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Janna Meneghello is a Senior Project Manager, Corporate Citizenship at TELUS and a member of the Corporate Community Engagement Council. She supports TELUS’ team member and retiree volunteering, and community engagement initiatives. She is passionate about Donate the Change, a program that enables customers to round up their monthly bills to donate to the TELUS Friendly Future Foundation.

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Footnotes:

1,2,  Volunteer Canada (2020) Effects of the pandemic on employee community engagement programs in Canada, Ireland and the U.S. Survey. Not yet published.

Watch for our next blog to learn Highlights from the Corporate Community Engagement Council Gathering from a Nonprofit Perspective.