5 reflections on corporate volunteering in a COVID-19 environment

Author: Paul Chew, Manager Community Relations at ANZ

National Volunteering Week (18-24 May) is a time to pause, reflect, and celebrate the generous contribution that volunteers have on charities right across Australia.

As I reflect, it’s been difficult to hear and see how this summer’s bushfires and now COVID-19 and the social distancing measures have deeply affected the charity sector. According to Volunteering Victoria, a recent membership survey indicated that over 80% of volunteer engagement opportunities have been suspended in some sort of capacity.

“In these unprecedented times, it’s just as important to recognise the role that volunteers play for so many community organisations that rely heavily on them. Organisations have had to change the way they engage with their volunteer base, but for many, their volunteering programs have simply ceased as a result of COVID-19.”
– Scott Miller, Chief Executive Volunteering Victoria

Despite feeling quite helpless with the inability for corporate volunteers to go in person to support many of our community partners, this quickly turned into a mission to identify opportunities – all while maintaining social distancing requirements, where possible.

Based on my experiences, these are some observations I’ve made in recent weeks.

1. Maintaining the essentials. There are some services that just can’t stop – even in a crisis. These essentials are critical with supporting people in our community. I think of blood donations and the call out to remind people that this is an essential service, that requires 29,000 donations each week. Then there are organisations that support countless communities across the country with food relief. Seeing images of the Army and Defence step in to fill the shoes of volunteers, enabled continued packing and distribution of food packages to people in need.

2. Technology brings volunteers together. Organisations have recognised the potential video conferencing capabilities have to connect with volunteers. While it may not suit all volunteering opportunities, I saw the value of this recently when ANZ volunteers partnered with the Brotherhood of St Laurence and participants from their Stepping Stones program. Their micro-enterprise program supports women from refugee, migrant and asylum seeker backgrounds to develop new skills that increase their ability to participate in business and the community. What was initially planned as a face-to-face workshop, quickly pivoted into a two hour online workshop on resume writing and interview skills. This included dedicated time in ‘virtual rooms’ with each participant able to discuss their own resume and interview skills with ANZ volunteers.

3. Physical location not a limitation. Technology has lifted the physical limitation, with volunteers able to participate from any location. Using the Stepping Stones example from before, adapting the face-to-face workshop to an online format proved to be a hidden gem. Location was no longer a restriction, with volunteers participating from Victoria, South Australian and also the Philippines – something that would probably not have happened had it remained a face-to-face workshop. I know of other example where volunteers are mentoring young people with career advice via video – again demonstrating that distance is no longer a barrier anymore.

4. Leveraging specialised skills. With charities seeing a reduction in funding, some are re-thinking their options with how to access skilled professionals without the associated costs. The untapped market of leveraging a highly specialised workforce is becoming more apparent. Any pro-bono support is welcomed and could come in the form of a collective ‘brains trust’ through ideation, solving a specific business problem, or simply providing a diversity of thought.

“I have been in the Talent Acquisition space for almost 14 years. The resume and interview skills content was relevant to the Stepping Stones group and I was most blown away by their resilience even though these candidates are facing some real tough situations.”– ANZ volunteer feedback after speaking to Stepping Stones participants

5. Adaptability. Organisations have had to adapt relatively quickly in this environment. An example includes GoodCompany creating a University for remote skilled volunteering to help strengthen the capacity and capabilities of the non-profit sector. What may have once seemed a nice to have or something that was impossible to achieve in a short period of time, there’s renewed hope that things could become a real possibility.

“We had plans to increase the digital literacy of the women going through our program. The opportunity with ANZ simply accelerated this and we are extremely grateful for all the volunteers who provided valuable time and insights during the workshop.”
– Stepping Stones Program Coordinator, Emma Gale.

Wave Your Appreciation for Volunteers

To celebrate this year’s National Volunteering Week, write “thank you” or draw a smiley face and put it on your hand. Give a virtual ‘high-five’ and wave a special smile of appreciation to all those people that volunteer. Share this photo online using the hashtags #NVW2020 and #waveforvolunteers. Feel free to tag Volunteering Australia or your favourite community group.

Blog post originally published on LinkedIn May 18, 2020. Re posted with approval.