- COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the ability of not-for-profits (NFPs) to access volunteers and funding at a time when demand for their services is greater than ever.
- In response, NFPs are undergoing rapid digital transformation of their people engagement and service delivery models.
- Innovative organisations are capitalising on the time, skills and networks of professional volunteers who are searching for connection in a time of social isolation.
National Volunteering Week, running from 18 to 25 May 2020, is an annual celebration of the generosity of Australian volunteers. In acknowledgement of these Australians, we take a look at the rapid digital transformation and innovation occurring in the NFP sector that has led to a new phenomenon — virtual volunteering.
The not-for-profit (NFP) sector is a critical component of Australia’s economy — it employs upwards of 1.3 million people and contributes AU$14.6 billion to the national economy every year.1 NFP entities rely on the generosity, time, skills and networks of more than 6 million volunteers to deliver on their missions and support their vital work in communities.
Unsurprisingly, the sector is not immune to the significant and evolving implications of COVID-19. The ability of NFPs to access workers and volunteers has been severely impacted by social distancing, job loss, reduced working hours and increased caring responsibilities. At the same time, these organisations are facing an expected downturn in financial giving due to the pandemic while reacting to an unprecedented demand for their services by society’s most vulnerable.2
But a nexus is forming between the NFPs seeking volunteers, businesses that are exploring new ways to engage staff working remotely, and individuals searching for a connection to community in a time of newfound social isolation. “Today there is greater relatability about what social isolation looks and feels like. Many of us are, for the first time, going through what the most vulnerable people in our community regularly experience — social isolation, uncertainty and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness,” PwC Australia’s Social Impact Leader, Rosalie Wilkie, says.
“Many professionals are searching for virtual ways to support social causes and not-for-profits they are passionate about, and the people and communities most in need.”
NFPs are innovating
Prior to March 2020, NFPs relied almost exclusively on face-to-face volunteering. As COVID-19 reshapes many aspects of our society, it’s also fast tracking digital transformation in the NFP sector. Many will need to alter their business, funding and partnership models, pivoting towards new opportunities for survival beyond the pandemic. Capitalising on the benefits of virtual volunteering is one such opportunity.
Victor Lee, CEO of Communiteer, a NFP that delivers digital and real-time pairing of NFPs and volunteers, agrees. “The demand from NFPs for skilled volunteers and corporates who want their people engaged, motivated and given a higher purpose is the 2020 opportunity for all of us,” he says. “We are inundated with requests from NFPs to help them transition their volunteer workforce to digital platforms.”
The demand for skilled volunteering is on the rise, especially in areas related to business continuity. Commonly requested skills are in marketing and fundraising, workforce planning and restructuring, finance and innovative financing mechanisms, as well as legal and compliance support.
As NFPs consider technology-enabled service delivery as a means to best reach the people and communities they serve, innovation has been spurred on by the urgent need to bring forward digitisation timelines.
ABCN is a NFP that enables business mentors to support students from low socioeconomic schools to build aspirations, confidence, communication and collaboration skills. According to Allegra Spender, ABCN Chief Executive: “In 2019, over 95 percent of our programs were face-to-face. Like so many other NFPs, we are undertaking a huge digital transformation to bring our programs online. It is a huge change for our people, schools and mentors. It has also fast-tracked our digital roll-out so that in the future, we will be able to reach students in communities that we never could before.”
Virtual volunteering for
The move towards virtual volunteering has been a successful, albeit steep, learning curve for many NFPs, businesses and volunteers, and the benefits are already starting to be realised. NFPs are gaining access to a new cohort of volunteers across a diverse pool of skills and geographies. Businesses are finding new ways to bring their company’s purpose to life for their employees. Employee volunteers are finding motivation and connection through giving back.
“Moving away from a predominantly face-to-face volunteering approach with our community partners to an online skilled volunteering model has been a more positive transition than expected,” Sue Martin, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices managing director and executive sponsor for Community Impact, says. “Skilled volunteering lends itself to this format and in fact helps to engage more employees from across Australia and New Zealand as we aren’t limited by location or travel requirements. Our people are telling me that they enjoy giving back in this way and our community partners are grateful for the access to our time, skills and ongoing support in this new world.”
But what about the individual’s perspective on how virtual volunteering works for them? Shreya Howladar, a PwC Australia employee and volunteer, has the final word: “I have known the joys of volunteering for a long time, but until now I never knew just how joyous volunteering would be in my pyjamas and from my lounge room.”
Tips for businesses looking to offer
a virtual volunteering program
For businesses who are considering introducing a virtual volunteering program to their employees:
- Check in with selected not-for-profit entities that are aligned with your business’ priority social issues (including those entities your organisation may have an established partnership with) and find out from them if accessing the time, skills and networks of your people virtually would be of benefit. If yes, commit to making the process as easy as possible when it comes to tapping into your people. The last thing a NFP needs is another item on the to do list.
- Consider a platform or tool that your business can use to pair your staff with a NFP’s needs based on their skills, interests and availability. There are many tools available in the marketplace, many of which have been developed and led by NFPs themselves.
- Set a strategy for what your organisation wants to achieve through a virtual volunteering program — from engaging staff, giving back to the community, demonstrating responsible business to aligning with customer expectations.
- Set an impact target and measure your contribution. Define what success looks like for your organisation and the NFPs you’re supporting and work towards it.
- Be flexible. Everyone — NFPs, for-profit businesses, employees and volunteers — is doing their best in a time of great uncertainty and upheaval, so don’t expect smooth sailing.
Given the critical role that the NFP sector and volunteers play across the country, we are likely to see more innovation, not less, in the way organisations and people work together to solve society’s biggest challenges. As with most things, digital transformation will be at the centre as we navigate through and beyond the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Editor’s note: In acknowledgement of National Volunteer Week (18-24 May 2020) the author and Digital Pulse would like to sincerely thank all of the volunteers who generously give their time, love and support to the community organisations supporting the most vulnerable members of our society, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.