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Key takeaways:

  • In some cases, virtual and hybrid volunteering has actually improved employee participation by enabling more team members to join regardless of their location. 
  • Some volunteer initiatives will always work better in person and could provide a deeper, more meaningful experience. 
  • It’s crucial to engage and listen to your employees when planning charitable initiatives — allow your employees to see that their values are important to the enterprise.

Today most workplace environments look considerably different than they did pre-2020. More than two years after the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s become clear that flexible work was more than just an emergency response — it’s the new normal. 

According to a McKinsey & Company survey, 58% of Americans report having the opportunity to work from home at least one day per week, while 35% have that option five days a week. 

For many employees, this new flexibility has offered a number of invaluable benefits, but has it also impacted employee engagement? In 2022, Gallup reported that just 15% of global employees say they’re engaged in their workplace. 

This disconnect presents challenges for corporate social responsibility (CSR) leaders who are tasked with mobilizing employees for volunteerism, community engagement, and giving. At the start of the pandemic, some even worried that remote and hybrid workforce models could mean a permanent downgrade in volunteer participation.

Yet, this hasn’t been the case for every enterprise. Recently, Alyse Perkowitz, Manager of Community Affairs at Discover Financial Services, and Hilary Smith, Executive Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility at NBCUniversal, shared their experiences during an ESG & CSR Board panel on employee engagement and volunteerism. Let’s explore their advice on mobilizing employees in these tough times.

Adapting your volunteerism opportunities

Many CSR and social impact leaders can relate to Alyse when she shared there hasn’t been a dull moment since the start of the pandemic. As the overseer of Discover’s volunteer program and national and local partnerships, she said the team has continued to evolve their program to meet changing needs. 

Before 2020, they never hosted virtual volunteer events but like many enterprises, the pandemic forced some creativity. According to Alyse, what began out of necessity actually evolved into a golden opportunity. 

The team began by enabling a “drive-thru” model where employees could pick up kits on-site from one of the volunteer partners and take them home to complete with their families if desired. This model allowed employees to participate in volunteer activities while following the no-contact precautions in place at the time. 

Today, Alyse said they still leverage a similar model by sending employees home with items so they can participate virtually. 

Offering these new opportunities — along with in-person options — has actually allowed the team to reach more employees than before. Alyse said participation rates have only increased, and they’ve been able to engage employees beyond their main centers.

“In our volunteer week event, we had 27 states participate. We only have seven centers in the U.S., so it was kind of incredible to see the vast reach of what we were able to do with the program.”

Alyse Perkowitz, Discover Financial Services

During the ESG & CSR panel, Hilary also said that much like Discover, NBCUniversal has also seen an uptick in volunteer participation by offering virtual, in-person, and hybrid models.

“I think one of our challenges was that so much of what we were doing was New York and LA-centric. Virtual opened it up to a much more global audience, which is great,” Hilary said.

However, Hilary also pointed out a potential downside to virtual volunteering because it usually leads to a shorter length of service. Some volunteer initiatives will always work better in person and can even offer a deeper and more meaningful experience for both employees and recipients. 

For example, NBCUniversal hosts a “lunch buddies” mentoring program where mentees from a nonprofit partner can come on-site to meet with members of the executive team. 

“As we know from our own interaction with our colleagues, there’s nothing that replaces that sort of human-to-human connection, especially when you’re in a mentoring situation.” 

While, today, it can be beneficial to encourage more in-person volunteer opportunities, Hilary added that it’s clear all three options — in-person, hybrid, and remote — should be here to stay.

Adjusting your program goals and strategy

For some enterprises, virtual and hybrid volunteering has had a positive impact on employee participation — but how has it affected actual volunteer hours? 

Alyse advised leaders not to place too much emphasis on this area. She said, “Setting goals around these areas is important, but I’m not sure it completely shows the full scope of impact.”

For example, she said Discover has shifted from hosting all-day volunteer activities to events that last roughly two or three hours. As a result, volunteer hours have decreased but participation is up.

“To me, that’s what’s important, and that’s what we like to take into consideration when we’re looking at all components when gauging the impact of our program and our goals overall,” Alyse said.

Listening to what matters to employees

When it comes to keeping your workforce engaged in volunteerism, Marilyn Tyfting, Chief Corporate Officer at Telus International, said it’s beneficial to listen to what actually matters to your employees.

In her article on how to adapt CSR practices for remote work, she suggested leaders involve employees when deciding what charitable causes the enterprise will support. 

She also cautioned leaders away from taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach, especially at a large global enterprise. The unique needs and values of each community will vary depending on the location. 

As a result, Marilyn said, “We provide regional autonomy so that team members can decide on the initiatives that matter most to their community.”

Hilary also touched on the importance of listening to your employees in a column she wrote for the Hollywood Reporter on improving philanthropy in the workplace. She said that employees need to feel like personal causes matter. 

“​​They want to work for a company that recognizes what they are most passionate about, not just the causes and organizations that senior management embraces.”

Hilary Smith, NBCUniversal

According to Hilary, today’s employees want a seat at the corporate philanthropy strategy table, and it’s up to the enterprise to ensure staff is able to play a role in volunteerism and charitable giving.

To achieve this, Hilary said NBCUniversal created a Community Impact Fund that awards each of the employee resource groups and diversity councils grant money to donate to 501(c)(3) charities. 

Hilary shared that the response to this program has been overwhelming and has allowed the enterprise to expand its philanthropic footprint. Thus far, NBCUniversal has awarded 172 nonprofit grants in 19 worldwide locations — 81% of which had never received funding from the company. 

Benchmark best practices with your peers

While the changing workplace environments may have caused some hurdles for social impact leaders, corporate volunteerism has never been more important.

Hilary wrote in her column, “Corporate citizenship has long been an important area of business, but we are at a pivotal moment where people are reevaluating their path in life and their careers. Employees want to make a stronger personal impact in society and are increasingly turning toward their employers for support in this mission.”

Still, engaging employees for volunteerism at a large company is a constant journey. Advice from leaders like Hilary and Alyse can be an invaluable tool in improving your own strategy.


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