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Assisting the development of virtual volunteering
Companies should play a role to ensure current virtual volunteering programmes are improved if they are going to be used beyond the pandemic.
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Adapting corporate social responsibility to COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact societies, it’s vital that organisations maintain their commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR). If done properly, this not only benefits communities and charities, but also the organisations themselves.

Employees are also watching with interest to see how their employers respond to COVID-19. This includes their level of commitment to CSR, which aligns with the values of many in the modern workforce.

However, like many business areas, CSR must adapt to the global pandemic. Our global CSR advisor, Andrew Izzet Lee, suggests a few ways that organisations and their employees can meaningfully invest in CSR in the current climate.

Be patient with local charities

Businesses often rely on local charities to provide volunteering opportunities to their employees. This is appreciated by the charities, who feel these employees provide insight to local residents on their programmes (such as employment workshops and professional mentoring sessions).

As the pandemic continues, these programmes need to be modified with genuine thought and planning. Whether it’s developing socially distanced or virtual alternatives, it can take time to ensure content and logistics meet societal needs. Businesses shouldn’t expect to instantly be provided with programmes simply to fulfil their employee volunteering targets.

If local charities are pressured to quickly develop programmes just to satisfy their corporate partners, there are risks on both sides. Firstly, the target recipients of these programmes may gain nothing for their time. Secondly, volunteers may develop a negative impression of the charity and their employer, perhaps wondering if a poorly developed programme was only delivered to ‘tick a box’.

In addition, we should consider the financial hit taken by smaller charities as a result of the pandemic. They often don’t have the visibility of much larger national and international charities, so can’t fall back on regular donations and fundraisers. Their precious time must be spent helping their target communities rather than providing a service to corporate partners.

Provide business expertise directly to local charities

When volunteering for local charities, there are ways to get involved beyond directly engaging with their target communities. Businesses can encourage their employees to volunteer their skills directly in a consultancy fashion. This can be effective and, in many cases, provided in a remote or virtual way.

This might be of particular interest to those who have sacrificed their regular charity donations due to the pandemic’s impact on their personal finances. By giving a few hours of their expertise, they can save the charity from having to pay for a service, perhaps providing a greater overall financial benefit.

As an example, what if a social media employee volunteered to design a communications strategy for a local charity? This service would boost the charity’s visibility – and saves them the hefty cost of commissioning this work via an agency. In return, the employee could build their learning and development in a way different to formal training.

Assist the development of virtual volunteering

Prior to COVID-19, there was already talk about virtual volunteering. Now, it’s a standard alternative to face-to-face engagement.

Virtual volunteering makes sense and has the potential to deliver additional benefits. For example, it can introduce residents in small towns to professionals from industries based in big cities. It can also be more feasible for volunteers with busy schedules.

While virtual volunteering sounds great in principle – and has had some success – it’s still a new phenomenon that we should help evolve. In many cases, these virtual volunteering programmes are being piloted, meaning our feedback could improve their delivery for the future.

Whether the feedback is about the technology, logistics or interaction, we should play a role to ensure current virtual volunteering programmes are improved where necessary if they are going to be used beyond the pandemic.

Think beyond technology to engage our communities

It’s important to remember that, while virtual volunteering is inclusive of some people, it can exclude others. Perhaps one of the most underreported societal inequalities is the lack of digital inclusion.

There’s been some progress to upskill individuals unfamiliar with technology but digital inclusion is a broader issue. As well as the lack of understanding, the lack of access is a challenge for some people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

When schools closed during COVID-19 lockdown periods, teachers had to remember that some students weren’t able to access technology for distant learning. Organisations and employees can help tackle this issue by acknowledging that ‘remote’ and ‘virtual’ can be different.

A good example developed by Mott MacDonald is our STEM @ Home challenges. These challenges instruct children to build models, such as bridges and buildings, with basic household items. This has made our school outreach less dependent on technology, therefore making access to education fairer and more inclusive.

Further information regarding Mott MacDonald’s CSR approach can be found here.

Andrew Izzet Lee, Group corporate social responsibility advisor

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