Organic employee engagement: How Kim Van Syoc at Mars’ Banfield Foundation found unexpected success with a virtual half marathon

I saw how disappointed and frustrated many were feeling by their routines being thrown out the window and their own races being cancelled. Kim Van Syoc
Kim Van Syoc, Executive Director of the Banfield Foundation, a public charity within the Mars' family of businesses, started running half marathons a year ago. She was planning on running one in Waco, Texas on April 25, alongside a foundation board member, then COVID-19 started to spread around the country and the race was cancelled.

They decided, in the spirit of staying connected despite the distance, to still run the half marathon virtually — and the plan quickly grew into an employee (or Associate, as Mars refers to its employees) engagement initiative that raised nearly $10K for the Banfield Foundation's COVID-19 response efforts.

The organic growth of the foundation half marathon began with a simple social media post on Kim's work related Instagram account.

“We have a very active Banfield associate network on social media,” said Kim. “When I posted about finishing my first virtual marathon, a couple of associates reached out and said they'd be interested in running one, too.”

When she made that post, there was still a month to go before the April 25 half marathon, so Kim asked the interested associates if they wanted to join.

Together, the group of four colleagues decided to expand the invitation to all Banfield associates as a way to inspire people and provide hope during this unusual time.

On the day of the half marathon, we also hosted a Zoom kickoff call so we could see everyone's faces and give them a proper sendoff. Kim Van Syoc
“I'm connected with hundreds of colleagues on social media and saw how disappointed and frustrated many were feeling by their routines being thrown out the window and their own races being cancelled,” she said. “Not only do we foster a strong community of support at Banfield, we also foster a strong community of well-being — providing an opportunity to do something that engages both of those areas was a natural draw for many associates.”

So, three weeks before the half-marathon, Kim decided to invite the Banfield community of 19,000 associates across the country to join in. Within three hours, they had 27 people say yes, and it grew from there, eventually resulting in 134 participants from multiple Mars' businesses — including Mars Petcare and Wrigley — and more than 1,200 miles being logged on a single day.

As the number of associates participating grew, Kim planned out ways to help them stay engaged leading up to the half marathon.

It gave them good news when they needed a moment of inspiration -- that's far more than I could have ever hoped for. Kim Van Syoc
“Music is one of my favorite things about running. Knowing we all need a little extra motivation on race day, we put together a playlist on Spotify that was accessible to everyone,” she said.

“On the day of the half marathon, we also hosted a Zoom kickoff call so we could see everyone's faces and give them a proper sendoff. We also made a recap video with the incredible photos associates took throughout the race day. I go back and watch the video regularly — it was a highlight of my day to see so many smiling faces in one place.”

Kim said the initiative turned out to be a great opportunity for people to connect with their colleagues and get them engaged with the foundation.

“I love hearing from people about how this race gave them hope and in some cases, a new hobby,” said Kim. “It gave them good news when they needed a moment of inspiration — that's far more than I could have ever hoped for.”

After expanding the race into an internal employee engagement initiative, Kim also added a philanthropic element through the foundation.

She decided for every associate who joined, she would personally donate $50 up to $1,000 to the foundation's COVID-19 Respond and Rebuild grants. Many board members offered to match that donation and additional donations from associates starting rolling in.

The fact that this initiative can help instill good habits, build a community, and raise money and awareness for the foundation is really fantastic. Kim Van Syoc
“Before this half marathon, we allocated $500,000 to support shelters or nonprofits with veterinary medical teams who are serving pet owners who otherwise couldn't afford care for their pets,” said Kim. “Roughly 70 percent of our shelter partners noted their donations were down significantly since March, and we knew they needed assistance in order to continue to provide community support to pets and the people who love them. Every dollar raised through the virtual half marathon was added to this grant program so we can continue to help as many pets as possible.”

From the foundation perspective, Kim said having more engaged associates who understand the community they are trying to create — while giving them opportunities to be hands-on with the foundation's mission — has been really helpful.

“People know about the foundation, but until you actually are part of it somehow, it's hard to be fully engaged,” she said. “The fact that this initiative can help instill good habits, build a community, and raise money and awareness for the foundation is really fantastic.”

Now, Kim and her team are looking into incorporating another virtual half marathon into their foundation's fifth anniversary celebration in September.

It taught me that, if you make something available for a group of people who all care deeply about a similar cause, you'll find success. Kim Van Syoc
Already, she said, people have been asking when they're going to host another virtual run. But, Kim said they wanted to plan it further out this time to give people more time to train properly and avoid the summer heat. So, they decided on repeating it, adding 5k and 10k options, on September 12 for their fifth anniversary.

Kim said she was surprised by the success of the half marathon — and that it shows how interested people are in supporting and joining good causes.

When creating organic events like this one, it's important to leverage all your communication vehicles whenever possible -- it's key to reaching advocates and potential partners. Kim Van Syoc
“I would have been happy if just a handful of other people joined, but it was wonderful to have so many people join and be excited about what we were doing,” she said. “It also taught me that, if you make something available for a group of people who all care deeply about a similar cause, you'll find success.”

She added that this experience with the half marathon opens the door for the possibility of doing more initiatives like it.

“It really showed me that not everything we do needs to be overly thought out when people really just want to show up, care for and support each other,” she said.

Kim emphasized that to find success with informal, organic initiatives, it's important to find what people are passionate about and want to support right now.

If you make the options available, people will gladly participate, give money, and support the cause if they are passionate about it. Kim Van Syoc
“Put something together that feels tangible and realistic,” she said. “Get your core circle to commit and ask them to advocate to their respective circles of influence.”

Kim said, in their case, it also helped that they had an active community of associates on Instagram to keep associates informed on what was happening.

“We leveraged several personal social media channels as well as the foundation's social channels to talk about the half marathon,” said Kim. “When creating organic events like this one, it's important to leverage all your communication vehicles whenever possible — it's key to reaching advocates and potential partners.”

But, above all, Kim advised against being afraid to ask for donations or support in difficult times.

“I've heard people say, ‘I don't want to ask others to donate money right now because people are struggling,'” she said. “But, when you're in a CSR or nonprofit world, it's really up to the individual donor to decide whether or not they want to give. Let's not take the choice away from them. People want to find a way to contribute, people want to find a way to support others. If you make the options available, people will gladly participate, give money, and support the cause if they are passionate about it.”

She also said even if people don't have money to support a cause, they might have time — which is why there's a rise in virtual volunteering.

“Don't be scared to ask,” she said. “This is the exact time to ask, because people are looking to support the community. People need good news, they need help, and they need healthy outlets to meet and connect with each other.”

Kim Van Syoc has been a member of the CSR Board since 2019. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.