As a follow up to the April 2021 webinar, Corporate Volunteers: How to Virtually Engage Companies and Their Teams, we invited the panelists for a special Q&A session. See below for their insights.

Rachel Decker, Moderator, Q:

In general, how have your company's volunteer efforts transitioned since the start of the pandemic? Are you noticing any trends related to what your employees want to work on or how they want to be engaged?

Carmen Argersinger, Manager of Strategic Partnerships, Delta Dental, A:

Initially, our volunteer efforts were completely on hold as we struggled to find meaningful virtual opportunities. Eventually, we found and participated in some virtual volunteer events. We found that virtual volunteering allowed us to engage, but did not lend itself well to the large group opportunities that in person volunteering allowed. We also discovered that many of these opportunities were well suited to skills based volunteering that tapped into our IT and HR professionals.

Recently, we have returned to limited in person volunteering. These opportunities have been primarily outdoors, or with small groups of employees from the same department. This trend toward smaller group volunteering has been very popular as many of our departments see it as an excellent team building opportunity. This movement toward small, team centered volunteer opportunities is something we are likely to carry forward post-pandemic. I also believe virtual volunteering will remain an appealing option for many, and highly encourage our nonprofits to continue to develop these types of volunteer opportunities.

Dawn Lyman, Foundation Manager, Barton Malow, A:

Barton Malow nearly canceled our annual week of service, Community Week, during 2020 because of the pandemic. Ultimately, the decision to have the event came down to the fact that volunteerism is so ingrained with who we are and so important to our team members. The safety of our team members was the number one priority in moving ahead with Community Week. With that in mind, we found as many virtual options as possible including online activities with American Red Cross, Library of Congress, and Zooniverse, as well as activities like writing and sending letters to seniors, frontline workers and deployed military personnel. Additionally, we worked with our charity partners to create skills-based activities that our office professionals could help them with including members of our marketing, communications, safety, facilities, learning and development, and legal departments. We did make some in-person activities available for our team members that felt comfortable with doing so, but we focused on outdoor options and provided face coverings for all our volunteers. We also adapted the health assessment survey that we use on our job sites (because construction can’t be done virtually!) and required completion of the survey for all in-person volunteers.

 

Our 2021 Community Week will take place August 2-6th with the continued intent of engaging our team members across the country. In multiple recent surveys of our team members, the overwhelming feedback has been that they truly miss being together and the sense of camaraderie that volunteering together in-person provides. Given this sentiment from our team members, we will cautiously add more in-person activities this August. But we’ll also include and explore new options for virtual and skills-based volunteering.

Tomara Nolen, Public Affairs Manager, DTE, A:

The pandemic has forced our workforce to primarily engage in virtual volunteerism.  DTE’s safety team has provided a detailed protocol for the few in-person events that we have been able to engage in.  While our employees are definitely partial to in-person events, we have found that they have enjoyed the mentoring/tutoring type of virtual events.  In addition, we have also found success in kit build projects. The United Way has been very instrumental in helping us keep our options open for our employees.

 

Rachel, Q:

What are the key pieces of advice you would give to nonprofits about how to best engage corporate volunteers?

Carmen, A:

Communicate and keep it well organized.

Let your corporate partner know exactly what you need, and listen to what they want to get out of the opportunity in order to make it a true partnership.

Then, make sure you are well organized and everyone knows what is expected of them when the volunteer event arrives so that everyone leaves feeling that they accomplished something worthwhile, and it was a win-win.

Dawn, A:

Lean on your long-standing partners.

In a time of intense uncertainty, Barton Malow focused our giving and community service on organizations that we have partnered with in the past. We knew what to expect from those organizations, could have frank conversations with them, and we understand that they have come to rely on us over the years. Given this, my advice to nonprofits would be to lean on your long-standing corporate partners to fill in gaps and new needs. Where we had to say no more often than ever to new requests, we were able to adjust and increase some support of our long-standing partners.

 

The other related piece of advice I would share is to be creative and to keep asking. From the stories I have heard, the nonprofits that have done well during the pandemic, were flexible and creative in pivoting the way they provided their core services and raised funds. The other part of that is to keep asking. Keep reaching out to your funding/volunteer partners and share how you’ve adapted and found new ways to thrive and serve. The more I understand the work and the need of a nonprofit, the more likely I am to find a way for us to engage and help. Being updated on new needs, new services, and new processes helps me to make the connections that lead to support.

 

Also, lead with safety. When I have researched new nonprofits for volunteer activities, if I didn’t see information about their COVID-specific procedures to keep volunteers, staff and clients safe, I normally stopped there. It may feel like it’s a given that you’re following state guidelines and have implemented new measures for safety, but we still want to see them front and center to reassure us that our team members will be safe.

Tomara, A:

1. Safety.  Please provide a safe environment.  We have found that even beyond our current COVID-19 worries, we need the non-profit partners to provide a safe environment for our employee volunteers.

2. Defined Projects.  Projects that provide clear direction and detail the expected outcome are the most successful.  Our volunteers like to be engaged from beginning to end, reducing the time that they stand around for directions makes for a great project.

Rachel, Q:

Have you noticed an increased interest in volunteerism from your employees who are seeking interaction and engagement with others (since many are self-quarantining as much as possible)?

Carmen, A:

Yes. Volunteering has always been ingrained in the culture of Delta Dental because it provides us with a way to connect and work together toward something bigger than ourselves. Our employees are doers, and when the pandemic began, I was flooded with emails asking “What can I do?”  That desire to help and connect with others hasn’t waned. When we announced that April is National Volunteer Month, and introduced an array of volunteer opportunities, our employees answered the call with enthusiasm and have accumulated over 600 volunteer hours in April alone.

Dawn, A:

We saw a small decrease in volunteer participation in our 2020 Community Week, but I believe we’ll be back to our normal numbers this year. With our successful and safe 2020 event, our leadership and team members feel more comfortable and confident that they can volunteer safely. And, as mentioned above, team member survey responses indicate a cautious but strong desire to engage with each other in-person.

Tomara, A:

Yes, virtual opportunities have provided them the opportunity to engage with others while remaining in the comforts of their homes.  As the weather changes, we expect to have more in-person requests for outdoor activities.  This is a normal cycle for us, but we predict that it will increase as we come out of the pandemic.

Rachel, Q:

What have you found is the best way to communicate opportunities, organization information and feedback from your employees while most aren't in one location together?

Carmen, A:

We have learned that employees all get their information differently, so we have been sure to share opportunities in a variety of ways to be sure we are reaching as many as possible. We post volunteer opportunities on our intranet, as well as on our company app. We also send internal communication emails and, depending on the event, post things on social media.

Dawn, A:

Communication is always tough, whether we are in person or not. Now more than ever, our email inboxes are crammed full. For internal communications to our team members, I employ two key strategies.

1) I try to be very intentional with my outreach and not overdo email communications. Generally, our team members like hearing from me as most of my messages are sharing positive, uplifting information and options for team member engagement and community service. But I realize I walk a thin line with that and if I inundate them with emails, they’ll stop paying attention. I partner with our internal communications team to create and continuously monitor and adjust a an annual communications calendar. And I stick to it!

2) I reach out using all of the communication options we have including our regular features on our intranet site, posts to our internal social channel (Yammer), Family of Company-wide and individual emails, and even an occasional phone call! Nothing is more effective than in-person communication but, even pre-COVID, that only applies to the office where I sit so I have always had to rely heavily on digital communication.

Tomara, A:

We have a very robust volunteer ambassador program, with over 120 ambassadors’ company wide. Our corporate team receives requests from our non-profit partners, and we push them out to our ambassador to gauge interest.

Rachel, Q:

Are you open to exploring new partnerships? If so, what's the best way for nonprofits to approach you?

Carmen, A:

YES! I am always thrilled to explore new volunteer opportunities that can engage our employees. We are continuing to seek virtual volunteer opportunities, but have begun limited in person volunteering as well. In person opportunities are best when located close to our two largest offices in Okemos or Farmington Hills. To start a conversation, please email me at CArgersinger@deltadentalmi.com

Dawn, A:

Yes, I am open to exploring new partnerships. Email is the best way to contact me. Many nonprofits send an email just requesting dollars or services for their organization, which almost always results in a no. But an email requesting some time to share the organization’s mission/work/needs will usually lead to a great and informative discussion at the very least. My email address is dawn.lyman@bartonmalow.com.

Tomara, A:

Yes, please send an email detailing the program/project and good contact information and I will have my team contact the organization.