The Great Pivot: Learning to Meet Employees Where They Are

By Haley Velletri
Vanguard Community Stewardship

In a normal year, on any given day there would be thousands of Vanguard crew members (what we call our employees) out supporting their local communities. Between curated volunteering experiences with partner agencies, a year-round service model, long-term skills-based projects, paid volunteer time off, and a Dollars for Doers programs that provides rewards for time spent volunteering, our crew members had ample opportunity to get out and get involved.

We all know 2020 has been anything but normal. When we began quarantine back in March, Vanguard’s Community Stewardship team checked in with our closest community partners. They told us they needed us now more than ever as they struggled to stay afloat through extremely uncertain and turbulent times.

While we were able to pivot right away to respond with relief grants, we had to think about volunteering on a whole new level. Could we even volunteer in person? Short answer: no. How would we volunteer from home? How could we best help agencies? We had to think through our strategy to figure out new ways to help our agencies, and also how to get our crew out in the community, where they love to be.

It’s humbling working with such a passionate volunteer base that wants to be out helping people even in the face of potential danger. So, we’ve introduced virtual volunteering to our crew and we’ve learned A LOT along the way. Here are some of our key lessons:

Accessibility matters (and not just in a virtual environment).
In addition to learning what we should be doing in a virtual environment, we also learned what we haven’t been doing in a normal environment.

As part of our annual workplace giving campaign each year, we host a big 5K cross-country in our multiple offices. It’s meant to kick-off the two-week period to raise awareness for the campaign. Last year, we offered in-person yoga events in some sites in lieu of running or walking. This year, we ran our first ever virtual 5K and it was anything goes. After the event, a crew member who uses a wheelchair praised the event for allowing participants to complete it at their own pace, providing a huge sense of accomplishment. This made us recognize that accessibility isn’t often the number one priority when we think about volunteering (though it’s always been a consideration). It’s now something imperative for us to consider moving forward.

Meet your employees where they are (at home).
With so many of our crew at home, balancing work with homeschooling and other activities, or taking care of elderly parents, we realized we needed to do our best to meet them where they are.

In September, we brought one of our nonprofit partners directly into the homes of our employees via a concert for families. Not only did we increase visibility of the agency, our partnership helped them host one of their signature summer events that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Over 100 families participated and shared that it was a welcome break in their working day and a fun opportunity to learn and play with young kids at home.

Our signature philanthropic area is early-childhood education, and we often seek different ways to introduce the topic to our crew and show them the great work of our partner agencies. This event –which we called “PlayJam” — gave our crew members the perfect opportunity to balance fun and education all in one, really driving home the program’s purpose!

We also know from check-in surveys that our crew members working from home are exhausted. So, instead of our usual full day events, our virtual events are shorter (usually about an hour to 90 minutes). They are scheduled during lunch periods or towards the end of the day. This allows our crew to end their day a little early while doing some good for the community. While we know that our partners will still need those on-site days, we can balance it out in the future with shorter, burst events.

Meet your employees’ appetite for social good.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s never been truer in the volunteer space. A virtual environment has pushed passionate people who want to get involved to find new ways to do so, and new causes to support.

One advantage to doing things virtually is being essentially borderless. When crew in our London office lifted a skills-based volunteering project with a nonprofit mentoring under-served youth virtually, we were so excited. Mentoring projects like this is increasing in popularity in this environment. People can take the time to connect one-on-one, making virtual environments into trusted, intimate spaces. One agency we’ve worked with in past years has surfaced so many mentoring opportunities for crew in 2020 that we are at the point of offering them a relationship manager, which typically only our closest and most active partners have in order to help surface events and ideas.

With general virtual volunteering opportunities like those supplied by many social good sites, our crew all over the world can help anywhere else in the world. Our expats in the UK can find opportunities online to help out U.S.-based agencies, and vice versa. We aren’t limited by geography (cross-city, cross-state, cross-country) — we can connect wherever.

We’ve also expanded our own definition of what constitutes skills-based volunteering. At the end of the day, it’s filling a niche need for an agency that requires a particular skill or set of skills. We’ve seen our crew recognize a need and take action to fill that need, whether it is employment mentoring or sourcing or sewing PPE for local hospitals.

Don’t be afraid to get a little help when you need it!
I often find this work to be deeply humbling, usually because I’m blown away by the size of it, the generosity of other people, the power that tiny agencies can have in a community, and the great effect that a few hours of time or a few dollars can have. The 2020 year humbled and reminded me that we all need a little help sometimes.

In the case of virtual volunteering, our team ended up leaning on some experts to help us out as we found our footing. Our giving and volunteering platform had listed a number of virtual opportunities by April. Crew could choose opportunities on demand, such as tracing satellite data onto digital maps used by humanitarian aid organizations or translating TED talk subtitles into other languages.

We especially leaned on WeHero, a company that, among many things, designs virtual corporate volunteering events. WeHero was able to take some of the guesswork out of navigating a virtual environment. We chose a few of their pre-made projects and were able to adapt them and plug them in to benefit our current agency partners, all while a delivering a short, engaging, action-oriented event to our crew.

With uncertainty looming over us into 2021, I know that we’ll continue to learn and adapt so that we can continue to meet our employees where, and how, they are in this and future environments.

Haley Velletri has been at Vanguard for 3 years and 11 months.