Covid-19 has disrupted everyday life and left many workers in a perpetual state of uncertainty and isolation. Employees can still gain a sense of purpose and belonging by engaging in employee volunteerism programmes (EVPs), which continue to contribute to meaningful change during the pandemic.

On 29 July 2021, responsible business consultancy Trialogue held a webinar to explore what companies can do to inspire, support, and create real impact through their EVPs and how non-profit organisations (NPOs) can best position themselves to benefit from these in challenging times. The panellists were Tshidi Ntsabiso, Group Corporate Citizenship and CSI Manager at Standard Bank, Andronica Mabuya, Senior Sustainability Specialist at Discovery Holdings, and David Wilson, CEO of the National Mentorship Movement.

A poll held at the outset of the webinar showed that 62% of companies in the webinar had halted their physical EVPs during the pandemic, with 24% rolling out a mix of physical and virtual volunteering and 14% going entirely virtual. A further poll showed that 57% of non-profit organisations in the webinar had not received any volunteering support from corporates during the pandemic. Of those receiving support, 24% had received virtual support, 5% had received in-person support, and 14% received both. This speaks to the extent of the Covid-19 crisis, but also indicates that EVPs remained important to most companies, which tried to compensate for the loss of on-the-ground engagement.

With South Africa one of the top five giving countries on the continent, according to the 2020 Global Trends in Giving Report, it was perhaps unsurprising that South Africans “maintained the culture of giving and spirit of ubuntu in supporting the needy,” as Ntsabiso pointed out.

Pandemic drives innovation in EVPs
Standard Bank and Discovery were two companies that continued to prioritise their EVPs during the pandemic.

Ntsabiso said that Covid-19 provided Standard Bank with new opportunities for engaging with clients and ensuring giving continuity. In addition, with 60% of the bank’s employees tech-savvy millennials, it was not difficult to use virtual platforms like ForGood to connect with one another and with beneficiary organisations. “We are seeing steady growth in virtual volunteering, and the high adoption rate is largely thanks to our CEO, Sim Tshabalala, who has been instrumental in championing this,” she said. “There are currently 700 activities on the ForGood platform, which is exciting for our employees.” Volunteerism has been embedded within company culture, with the marketing and diversity and inclusion forum teams driving engagement. The most popular initiatives have been live reading sessions held on the ForGood platform, as well as live reading to children with non-profit organisation Nal’ibali, which trains employees to become enthusiastic storytellers. “We also organised sign language sessions for children with hearing impairment,” Ntsabiso said.

Mabuya said that volunteerism is also very much part of Discovery’s DNA, since the company has long been committed to its role as “a force for social good”. Its EVP is integrated with core business strategies, like the shared value model, and the company’s employee value proposition.

Mabuya singled out Discovery’s Orange Farm social value model – launched in 2015 in partnership with the City of Johannesburg, public and private stakeholders, and civil society – through which employees go into the heart of communities to work on development projects. She said the pandemic amplified the importance of finding innovative ways to engage employees while ensuring their safety and wellbeing. A key project that engaged Discovery Health volunteers was collaborating on the development of the Covid-19 Alert App, in partnership with the Department of Health. “This speaks to the power of virtual volunteering, with around

7 000 hours donated to ensure that this great initiative could be rolled out,” Mabuya said. “Virtual volunteering is not about ticking boxes, but about shifting things to make systemic changes that benefit society.”

Another powerful intervention was the launch of Discovery’s Mentorship with Purpose masterclass series, spearheaded by Discovery founders Adrian Gore and Barry Swartzberg. The intervention has seen around 250 beneficiaries of the company’s EVP receiving mentorship relating to leadership capacity. “Discovery set a world record for the most pledges for a mentorship campaign, with more than 1 000 mentors pledging their support,” Mabuya said, explaining that the masterclass series was a firm favourite among employee volunteers as they were driven by different business units and covered a wide range of topics. Younger employees were also energised by cooking and exercise classes.

Incentivising virtual volunteers
Some of the ways in which Standard Bank has been able to drive and maintain employee enthusiasm include competitions – like a trivia campaign run during Mandela Month, which saw 25 winners donating prizes to organisations of their choice – and matching monetary donations rand-for-rand through an app.

Discovery incentivises staff volunteers with more than 100 ‘foot soldiers’ who champion causes across the business via digital platforms. They nominate beneficiary organisations which are vetted by Discovery, in collaboration with social investment fund manager Tshikululu. Champions are incentivised with access to training and development as well as being able to attend international conferences for global volunteers.

Wilson explained that the National Mentorship Movement relies on mentors willing to give their time to those who can benefit from their skills and experience. He said that the pandemic had not arrested programmes, like mentorship support to entrepreneurs in Kliptown, Tembisa and Diepsloot.

“Everything we do, from onboarding and training, to launching programmes and managing relationships, can be done virtually, and our mentors and mentees were able to make the transition overnight,” he said. “In fact, it was an incredible accelerator to intense personal interactions, because people were longing for social contact. It became part of the support structure for both parties during a difficult time.” The National Mentorship Movement’s website was zero-rated, but video calls were not, which meant that mentees needed support with data. Some programmes set aside portions of their budget to cover this.

For Wilson, it is important to highlight the business case for volunteering, since staff motivation comes from leaders who are committed to making a change in society. “It’s a smart business move – it’s not just about making staff feel good,” he said. “It’s about how an organisation wants to be perceived in the marketplace.” He added that EVPs can help to set companies apart and attract and retain dedicated staff.

Virtual volunteering here to stay
For Ntsabiso, virtual volunteering is exciting because it offers flexibility to staff, can be closely monitored, and can track global trends. In addition, staff need only a cellphone and data to participate, which a company can easily provide. However, this is more of a challenge for beneficiaries, who often require support to acquire devices and data. For Mabuya, ensuring that digital access is enabled is not the task of one company alone. “Volunteering is not a competitive space. We all need to pull together. Let’s collaborate and learn from each other,” she said.

What is clear is that virtual volunteering is here to stay, even if a more hybrid model becomes the norm in future. Her advice to NPOs that wish to attract corporate support is to maintain contact with their beneficiaries and be willing to adjust their programmes with a needs-based outlook. “It’s not about what companies need, but about what support we can provide to organisations,” she said.

Wilson said that virtual volunteering allows a wide range of people to get involved, including those who might not have been able to do so otherwise. Virtual volunteering is ideal when field volunteerism is not possible or advisable. “Skills-based, fundraising-based and appeals-based volunteering are easier than ever before,” he said. “Let’s grow the sector and take advantage of the courage and generosity of South Africans. Let’s take control of our future.”

Considerations for companies

  • Alignment of goals between corporate and non-profit organisations contributes to meaningful and sustainable partnerships.
  • Virtual volunteering can make it easier for employees to participate in EVPs.
  • Thorough induction, debriefing and ongoing mental health support for volunteers.
  • Sharing special skills and professional services and, where possible, passing on vital skills.
  • Balance corporate objectives with support for employees’ passion projects and causes.
  • Review volunteerism policies and/or approaches to monitoring and evaluation.
  • Incentivise and recognise volunteers.
  • Ensure that non-profits that are not able to benefit from online volunteering are not completely overlooked.
  • Contribute to systemic change, rather than just emergency relief or short-term impact.

Further resources

  • Trialogue reveals most-liked employee volunteering initiatives: https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/848/212091.html
  • Volunteering while social distancing: https://www.trialogueknowledgehub.co.za/index.php/resources-disaster/1703-volunteering-while-social-distancing
  • To find out more about what Trialogue does, visit: trialogue.co.za.