How Virtual Volunteering Keeps Businesses Engaged With Nonprofits During the Pandemic
When My Block, My Hood, My City (M3) faced the challenges of lockdown early in the pandemic, the Chicago nonprofit had to pivot from its regular in-person activities. M3 is known for bringing together hundreds of volunteers to make tangible differences in marginalized communities. Social distancing is not exactly conducive to that work. Like many organizations, M3 remained responsive to community needs and began exploring virtual options. The programs that resulted not only kept the organization connected to its work, but also helped corporate volunteers continue to engage in meaningful service.
As M3 weighed options, Chief Operating Officer Cynthia Alfaro shared an idea with CEO and founder Jahmal Cole. “We can call people, because everybody’s stuck at home, and I know people want to do something,” she recalled to TriplePundit. The group started making wellness calls to seniors, noting any needs M3 could fulfill. The multinational consumer goods company Mars was one of the first corporations to reach out about supporting M3’s effort. What followed was a unique partnership that helped to keep people connected and communities served during a time of uncertainty and isolation.
Wellness calls become a simple but effective outreach tool for this Chicago nonprofit
Wellness calls were a standard way M3 kept in touch with senior neighbors during a time of high need. Before the pandemic, M3 focused on shoveling their sidewalks in the winter or ensuring they had water or a fan in the summer. Volunteers also took simple actions — beautifying parks, cleaning up neighborhoods and introducing young people to new experiences. Phone calls fit M3’s style of taking simple steps to reach a high goal. Alfaro said nobody wanted to fund M3 at first because they thought its approach was too simple. “People expect … that they are going to reform the whole system. People are looking for these complex solutions, and really sometimes it’s right in front of your face,” she said.
M3 already had a starting point for the wellness call program through its vast networks in the south and west sides of the city, Alfaro said. Even so, it put out a call on social media and in newsletters for more contacts and received thousands of phone numbers.
As volunteers checked in with seniors, they were alerted to food and wellness needs, as well as hurdles to accessing resources. After one recent wellness call, M3 was able to deliver urgent groceries within hours of hanging up. The woman on the other end of the call expressed tears of gratitude.
For corporate partners, volunteering pays off
During a year of increased awareness of social inequities, M3 was flooded with volunteers looking to lend a hand, though those volunteer numbers rise and fall, Alfaro noted. Corporate partnerships, on the other hand, provide a sense of stability. “It is good to have a solid partnership that is with us throughout the season,” she said.
Wellness calls weren’t a fit for every corporate partner, but many appreciated being able to continue their service work virtually. “On the corporate side, I think it was very fulfilling to be able to still connect with people and connect to people who feel isolated, who are in high-need populations,” she told us.
A steadfast relationship benefits nonprofit and company alike. Corporate volunteering has been found to improve employee engagement, job satisfaction, retention and more. To make an actual difference in company culture, though, the volunteering needs to be meaningful, Beth Bengtson, CEO and founder of Working for Women, which connects businesses to nonprofits working on women's empowerment, wrote for the Harvard Business Review. Speaking of fundraising and one-time events, she writes, “These ‘one-and-done’ experiences are not always in alignment with the company’s purpose and goals, and don’t deliver lasting impact for the companies, their employees, or the nonprofits.”
A solid corporate partnership brings stability and growth
Mars was one of the first companies to reach out about supporting M3 beyond writing a check, Alfaro said. “In this world, traditionally, it’s a one-sided conversation,” she told us, speaking to the tendency of companies to reach out with money, but avoid engaging with a nonprofit.
Beginning its relationship with M3 in 2020, the approach of the Mars Wrigley Foundation, with their global headquarters in Chicago, was to open a continuing conversation about the nonprofit’s needs. In addition to virtual volunteering through wellness calls, Mars Wrigley helped M3 set up holiday lights on Martin Luther King Drive in the South Side of Chicago last year. “Again, something really simple as putting up holiday lights … can really make a big impact,” Alfaro said.
“My goal is to build meaningful partnerships that leverage all of our assets. Through the Mars Wrigley Foundation we provide funding that enables community-based organizations like M3 to drive positive change and build stronger communities,” said Anne Vela-Wagner, executive director of the Mars Wrigley Foundation.
“Through the talent and caring of our incredible Associates we have conducted wellness calls for seniors, held virtual career exploration sessions with teens, and through our skills-based Mars Ambassador Program, we will have an Associate working full-time, over the course of a month, with M3’s team to strengthen their stakeholder engagement strategy,” she continued. "We’re also planning a ‘pack the van’ event in the fall to fill the first-ever M3 van with supplies in high-demand for those they serve,” A recent grant from the Foundation provided the funding for the van which allows M3 to increase its capacity and expand its impact. “True partnerships are multi-faceted and collaborative,” Wagner said. "I’m constantly exploring what’s needed and how we can maximize our impact.” .
Corporate expertise uplifts an industry
This year Mars was also able to give beyond the check with Nashville Humane Association (NHA), a 10-year partner.
Limiting human interaction proved to be a major challenge for animal shelters like NHA last year. “Our core programs rely on in-person interactions,” Laura Baker, executive director of NHA, told TriplePundit. “How do you adopt an animal when the human cannot safely meet it? How do you get animals into foster care without coming into contact with the foster? How do we protect the humans involved while also saving as many animal lives as possible?”
One of the tangible developments from Mars Petcare’s collaboration with NHA was assisting the nonprofit with Dogs on Zoom, a virtual pet adoption campaign from Mars brand Pedigree. “The animal welfare community is not known to be super tech heavy, but 2020 forced us to be! Mars [Petcare] helped provide and train us on how to function in a digital world,” Baker said.
Dogs on Zoom helped NHA overcome the hurdle of introducing animals to the public, and Baker emphasized the importance of future pet parents finally meeting animals from the safety and comfort of their homes. NHA received 2,000 adoption inquiries, and all its featured dogs had multiple adoption applications by the end of the program.
Perhaps the best that virtual corporate volunteering did for nonprofits in 2020 was create a sense of consistency and help expand programs and reach. For their part, Chavarria says NHA found some permanent changes and growth last year. “2020 forced us to look at things differently, and I am happy to say that we are continuing some of those changes even in 2021,” she said. “That is definitely one huge silver lining to the pandemic.”
This article series is sponsored by Mars and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.