Volunteer Canada and its Corporate Community Engagement Council organized a three-day virtual gathering during the month of August, an event that brought together 90 delegates including the 21 member companies of the Council with nonprofit community partners. The purpose was to reflect together on the current context of living through a pandemic and to re-imagine ways Canadians can volunteer, give and otherwise contribute so that the country can re-build and move towards resilience.  It was our hope that delegates leave with ideas on new ways to work with and motivate Canadians who wish to help, and new ideas on ways non-profits and business can work together.

The Context of our Reflections

We started with context on the state of Canadian non-profits, public expectations of companies and non-profits, and the impacts of the pandemic on employee community engagement.  This information was primarily drawn from Volunteer Canada’s June survey, The Volunteer Lens of COVID-19, and included data from other surveys carried out in Canada with some additional data from the U.S..

From there we were off on journey that took us from informal volunteering and grassroots mutual aid to employee giving, skills-based volunteering to how Generation Z is already having a social impact. We ended with a reflection session and I will focus on some of the ideas and learning shared in that session, mostly as they might interest nonprofit organizations.

Maybe the Greatest Value

In my opinion, the greatest value in convening a gathering of this type is that it allows for deeper understanding to develop between nonprofits and companies. Beyond gaining an improved awareness of each other’s situation and perspective in a general way, it can lead to a new wider exposure and awareness. Most companies work with a limited number of nonprofits and have a distinct relationship with each. The same is true for nonprofits. One of the insights that emerged in the final session was that there could be great benefit in a more collective approach, especially on the local level: a group of companies and a group of nonprofits could come together and talk about ways that they can approach specific local issues or challenges.

And, as one idea often leads to another, why not bring the public sector into the conversation? And could Volunteer Canada play a role by inviting local volunteer centres to act as convenors?

The value, therefore, is not that more nonprofits are exposed to more companies and vice-versa (which is definitely of great value), but that a whole new way of operating could emerge as a result of putting people from different milieus together, providing some information that impacts them all, and then letting them reflect on it together.

Companies are Listening

Of course, there were many other insights that emerged during that last session. I heard during this session and all through the conference, strong messages about how companies (all large-scale employers at this event) are responding to the disruption and change brought about by COVID-19.

  • They are embracing all forms of employee community engagement as individuals and as groups – informal, skills-based, virtual and fundraising.
  • They want to avoid “make work” projects; they want their contribution to be valuable.
  • They are willing to be flexible and to adapt – and realize that nonprofits are doing the same.
  • They realize that nonprofits know their own context and needs best, but are mindful that at this time, due to the immediate focus on crisis management, they might need help to define or identify their priorities. Nonetheless, it is not for others, however well-intentioned, to decide for them.
  • They are aware that “done in a day” in-person projects are rarely possible in the current situation and that this is likely to be the case for an indefinite time.
  • They are aware that the most valuable engagement with a nonprofit is one that is ongoing and evolves over time.
  • They are facing logistical and budget challenges of their own – in some cases loss of staff, loss of revenue and restructuring.

In the past several months we have seen companies and nonprofits step up boldly and creatively to the challenges brought on by this pandemic. It will continue to test us and we need to encourage more multi-sector conversations of this type so that companies and nonprofits working together in separate pairs as well as in collective ways, can truly contribute to not just rebuilding what was but to creating something better than before.

For a business take on the event, read Highlights from the Corporate Community Engagement Council Gathering from a Corporate Perspective.