(Photo by Izusek/iStock by Getty Images)

One of the few consolations of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it powered a surge in global volunteerism. According to the United Nations, the Red Cross received hundreds of thousands of new volunteers around the world, and received so many requests to volunteer, they didn’t have the time or the staff to respond to all of them.

At the same time, the pandemic changed the shape of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and quickly deepened the importance of corporate volunteerism and giving, said Sasha DeMarre, solutions architect at CyberGrants, a company that builds corporate giving and philanthropy software. DeMarre works closely with the companies that use their platform and sees firsthand how CSR programs are built, maintained, and grown.

“[Covid] has made it so much more employee-driven,” she said. “Volunteerism is obviously quite popular–it’s a great way for people to give back.” I had the chance to interview DeMarre and her colleague Rob Livada, the SVP of solution architecture, about CSR programs and how they’ve changed since 2020 for a From Day One webinar titled, “Giving Your Employees a Better CSR Experience with the Right Technology.”

We started by talking about the foundations of CSR. For companies who haven’t been involved before, where to begin?

Begin With Employees

DeMarre recommended asking your staff what they see and do in their communities. “Employees are likely already donating and volunteering, doing different acts of kindness, so we need to harness that if we’re going to engage them in our corporate programs.” This lets the workforce influence the direction of the program, which increases engagement.

Livada said to start small. Don’t worry about budgets or dollar-matching yet, just be ready to power grassroots action. “It’s okay to launch just a simple volunteerism program so that your employees can just start engaging with each other,” said Livada. “Your employee base will start to tell you what is most important to them, then you can take that feedback and you can enhance and you can grow your program so that it’s growing alongside your company or your ecosystem.”

Speaking about the CSR experience, clockwise from upper right: Rob Livada and Sasha DeMarre of CyberGrants and moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza (Image by From Day One)

Don’t miss opportunities to get workers involved right out of the gate. Make CSR part of the onboarding process by giving an overview of the program, directions and ideas for how employees can get involved, and a tour of your CSR software. Some CyberGrants clients even provide paid volunteer hours and pre-loaded charitable spending accounts to employees on their first day. “If you give people two hours to volunteer their first week, then you can get them engaged. The first time you get somebody engaged is the hardest to do, then you can get them to come back more frequently,” Livada said.

Companies can engender excitement for their social involvement by encouraging employees to talk about their personal experiences. DeMarre and Livada talked about the success of social sharing platforms—like Slack and intranets—that allow participants to highlight the ways they give back and the causes they support. It’s important, said DeMarre, “to give employees a space to share those stories without a huge corporate message behind it.”

The goal of these programs, however, shouldn’t be employee recognition. In fact, offering cash incentives like gift cards or bonuses is usually counterproductive. Ultimately, the recognition employees want is awareness of their passions. “They don't necessarily want a gift card or a pat on their back,” DeMarre said. “They usually just want light to be shed on that cause or that nonprofit they were aligned behind.”

Making the Initiatives Sustainable

Longevity and adaptability of CSR must be considered too. Programs must be consistent enough to keep employees involved in annual events, like holiday gift drives or prom dress drives, but flexible enough to respond to local or global disasters, like the war in Ukraine. Livada and DeMarre said communication plans have to prepare for both eventualities. There has to be a regular promotion of ongoing activities and a plan to quickly notify staff of ways they can pitch in during moments of crisis, plus a way to record all of it.

In fact, Livada argued that speed and agility have defined CSR for the last two years. “There’s a big shift to making sure that you’re responding rapidly to anything that’s happening in the world.” He recommended standing up a “hyperlocal” strategy as well, which calls for building relationships with community organizations that need support and can put people to work quickly.

The longevity and the agility of any CSR plan depends on internal communication. Employees need to always know what’s happening, new ways they can act, who needs help, how to log their time, and how to report giving. A communication plan takes many forms: CSR software, physical flyers, QR codes, messages on TV monitors around the office, announcements at meetings, email newsletters—whatever gets the message out. And don’t forget to report on the good work your employees are doing. Every stakeholder, from entry-level to executive, needs to hear what’s going on.

The more you stay connected with your workforce about what they’re doing in their communities and how the company can support that work, the more you can tie your workers’ values to your company values in a way that propels contributions to the social good.

It’s about empowering your people to do the work that matters to them in as many ways as possible. CSR thrives with grassroots involvement, Livada said. “You stand it up, you let it run, and then you adjust it as necessary so it’s got a broad, wide path that really is meant to be engaging across all departments and all groups.”

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner who supported this webinar, CyberGrants. CyberGrants is becoming part of Bonterra, a leader in social-good technology.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance reporter based in Richmond, Va., who writes about workplace culture and policies, hiring, DEI, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others, and has been syndicated by MSN and The Motley Fool.