Corporate volunteering in times of a pandemic
Insights into the virtual accelerator F-LANE by the Vodafone Institute and its mentor programme pilot
The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the everyday working life and left many employees in a state of uncertainty and dissatisfaction. Especially for newly remote employees, isolation may negatively affect productivity and connectivity. As one of the fastest-growing areas of voluntary activity, company-led volunteering programmes can now play an even more important role, providing purpose and a sense of belonging in times of unpredictability and remote work settings. With their global mentoring program within the Female Accelerator F-LANE running completely virtually for the first time, the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications demonstrates how the future of volunteering can look like.
Uncertainties of working in times of COVID-19
In 2020, as the world faces the disruptions and challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, corporate volunteering gained even more importance. In the EU, it is estimated that only 15 % of workers had worked from home prior to the pandemic. By September, the share of the workforce that had started to telework had risen to almost 40%. Not surprisingly, such abrupt changes in everyday working life can cause uncertainty and frustration, especially among inexperienced employees. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of newly remote workers report a decline in satisfaction working from home. But this loss of office presence and in-person interaction could be offset by the purpose and variety that civil engagement offers. Corporate volunteering has been shown to not only enhance professional skills but also promote the kind of personal development that might mitigate the monotony of the new workplace reality. At the same time, the programmes can benefit from the virtual level onto which the crisis forced a majority of employee activity: the declined importance of physical presence makes corporate volunteering much more accessible to remotely located participants and creates new potential for collaboration.
How F-LANE shows the potential of virtual corporate volunteering
A current example of virtual employee engagement at Vodafone is F-LANE, the Female Empowerment Accelerator of the Vodafone Institute, based in Berlin. As an on-site accelerator since 2016, with its 5th batch, it now got the chance to run completely virtual for the first time with its new implementation partner Yunus Social Business, the venture capital fund of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammad Yunus.
Another premiere: Every of the 9 participating start-ups, spread over 8 countries, received individual support by a dedicated Vodafone Lead Mentor, as well as additional specific training by Vodafone Topic Mentors.
Julia Ebert from the Vodafone Institute and Programme Lead of the F-LANE built up the mentoring programme. The virtual structure has shown great potential and offered new, flexible ways of volunteering: “The virtual set-up is even more inclusive, both for our entrepreneurs and mentors. A variety of mentors had access to the mentor programme, from young professionals to management level, with a large geographical range from Vodacom in South Africa to the UK. Colleagues with diverse backgrounds are bringing in their specific local networks and unique expertise – that has been a huge value for the entrepreneurs.”
The positive impact of corporate volunteering
The benefits of corporate volunteering programs outweigh the efforts by a lot: Just like other formats of CSR strategies, such as sponsoring or donations, corporate volunteering is implemented to increase the company’s social capital and reputation. Volunteer activity may even help companies to connect to stakeholders as consumers, investors or suppliers: since it often takes place in the local or regional surroundings of a company, volunteering can help build professional networks and create exposure to potential business partners or future employees.
There is also a visible effect on the volunteers themselves: participating employees have been shown to exhibit increased productivity, higher job satisfaction, and reduced absenteeism. The additional and central benefit that skill-based volunteering offers is the significant effect on the professional and personal competence of the employees. Studies show that more than 80 % of them report an increase in their work and skills knowledge and a large majority is certain that their employer will also benefit from this. These observations are not surprising: psychologists and neuroscientists agree that individuals’ ability to learn is strongest when positive feelings are activated during the learning process and they can perceive a meaning while doing it, especially in the unfamiliar environment that the nonprofit sector poses for a majority of corporate volunteers. Participants often report increased teamwork and trust following these projects, as well as a growth in socially responsible behavior and emotional competence. In times of physical isolation and remote work, experiences like this might be able to make up for the lack of social interaction that is essential for a healthy corporate culture.
During the F-LANE program, the Vodafone volunteers were likewise filled with enthusiasm about the time they spent with the international founder teams during the five-week accelerator programme. Getting in touch with a new generation of entrepreneurs and being exposed to new ideas as well as emerging challenges can be vital for big organisations and create mutual synergies, both for the entrepreneur as well as the mentor: “I learned a lot about the potential of social tech start-ups, and how being driven by impact and purpose can influence a whole team”, says Kerstin Larsson-Knetsch, Director of Consulting and Customer Solutions for Vodafone Business in Germany who was one of the Lead Mentors of F-LANE and supported the Social Startup hiveonline. For the startups, the mentor approach was one of the greatest added value in the program: “The Lead Mentor role becomes even more important in the virtual space as an overarching contact and orientation person”, adds Julia Ebert.
New ideas come with challenges
Corporate volunteering is especially popular among younger employees: 55 % of millennials report that a company’s support for social causes influences their decision on accepting a job offer and 57 % demand their employer offers more volunteering opportunities. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to tensions with a more conservative senior management that does not yet see the benefits of such programmes or prefers more established forms of corporate engagement. But the short-term or one-shot commitments that companies then often agree to make will remain ineffective if the projects actually require sustained attention and energy. On the other hand, NGOs also find themselves overwhelmed by volunteer work that is not well coordinated or doesn’t provide value but is rather an activity only for activity’s sake organised by a marketing department. To succeed, both sides need to be willing to invest time and energy to create long-term relationships and a lasting impact. If these prerequisites are ensured, corporate volunteering has the potential to not only play a major role in addressing societal challenges but add a significant value to a workforce that is exposed to an ever-changing environment.
The origin of employee volunteering lies in the pro-bono work of law firms that developed from the 1960s onwards, providing services free of charge to represent the legal interests of victims of discrimination. Today, one of the most popular volunteering formats is still based on the original idea and is known as skill-based volunteering. Selected employees who usually hold leadership positions participate in a week- to month-long cooperation projects with social institutions and share their knowledge and experience. Especially big, multinational corporations have recognized the benefits that these partnerships offer and are eager to provide a variety of volunteering opportunities to their employees, including market players such as Microsoft’s 50×500 Programme, IBM’s Corporate Service Corps or Pfizer’s Global Health Fellows.