Breaking the Mold Enables New Mindset for Community Engagement

Carley Stephens
Community Affairs Program Manager
Gas South

For decades, corporate giving has relied on physical volunteer events, tried and true ways of doing things that defined traditional “community engagement.”  Then 2020 broke in and altered so much of the familiar.

But perhaps what breaks should be rebuilt differently.

In the following excerpt, Gas South’s Carley Stephens offers an evolution in thinking and whole new ways of working generously.

Needs “Out in the Community” Come Inside

In March when the pandemic hit, my mindset was “how do I take what we’ve always done, and make it virtual?” Many of my colleagues and community partners had a similar thought. I discovered fairly quickly however, that this was not going to be successful for Gas South.

Early on, we all recognized the needs were great and people seemed willing to volunteer.

Yet, once we realized that this new reality was going to last longer than 2 weeks, it started affecting each of us personally, and our capacity to volunteer fundamentally changed.

Employees were forced to focus their energy on themselves. Our employees now faced the challenges that Gas South typically addressed “out in the community.” People were suddenly teachers, sole income earners, caregivers to elderly relatives, individuals facing depression and isolation.

Reality Smacks Down Best Intentions

In early June, we planned our beloved annual volunteer event: packing food kits for children facing hunger during the summer months. I decided that we would pack 500 food kits, instead of our traditional 1000. Yes, that’s more realistic!

We created meticulously safe volunteer experiences sanitized and socially distanced. We communicated to all employees on all of our different platforms – Microsoft Teams, email, the company intranet and our giving platform. We. Were. Ready.

A total of 5 people participated including myself. This was a failure in so many ways. How had this gone so wrong?

First, this was not a fun volunteer event. It was painstaking. Too few volunteers and so many kits to pack. Second, the nonprofit, now completely under-resourced due to the pandemic, had to pick up the food making two trips resulting in a huge waste of time and resources for them. Third, hauling giant boxes of food down 15 floors to the loading dock in June while wearing a mask was insanity.

Question the way it’s always been done

Among other indicators, this failed volunteer event raised a red flag on employee well-being. We started conducting one on one check-ins with employees to see how they were fairing during the pandemic. We found although our business was doing well, our people were not.

We were asking them to continue performing the same (or more) amount of work while they were now dealing with things that they’d never had to deal with before. In a moment of honesty, I realized that even I didn’t have the energy to volunteer!

My priorities had changed so drastically during the pandemic, why didn’t I realize that my colleague’s priorities had changed too?

The goBeyondProfit Empathy Imperative reported that employees value empathy. My colleagues were seeking empathy in the form of relief from historic expectations –– stop asking us to do things that we just are not capable of doing right now, like volunteering.

It is so ingrained in corporations to not only invest monetarily in the community but engage employees in the community via volunteerism. Companies know that volunteerism breeds trust, loyalty and shared values that then pay dividends to their culture and ultimately, the bottom line.

We must ask ourselves in the time of COVID-19, whether this still holds true.

After intensive listening, I concluded that corporate giving and community engagement are not as closely tied as I thought they were.

  • Corporate giving is for addressing the large, overwhelming needs that our communities face.
  • Community engagement is more about supporting and inspiring our colleagues to do what they can and how they can. To embrace a more personalized approach that includes caring for each other so that we are better equipped to help others.

Empathy fuels imagination for who is “community” 

What better way to define care for community than by caring for employees?  Incorporating empathy into our employee programs and initiatives meant reimaging what we do and why.

Gas South implemented new ways to better care for our people including

  • Stipends for employees to purchase better internet connections and a monitor for their home office.
  • Manager check-ins simply to find out how people were doing.
  • Workdays and working hours redefined.
  • Self-care packages sent to all employees with wipes, masks and thermometers.

My favorite thing we did was partner with the YMCA’s Campus Connection program to offer virtual learning assistance for children K-6th. This meant that a parent could drop their child off at a local YMCA and their child would 1) be provided a computer and internet to log on to class and 2) have a Y employee available to assist with logging in, answering questions, and keeping the student on track. Gas South funded this not only for parents in the community, but also for our own employees.

Embracing a shift to personalized activation

As I continue to think about a new model of community engagement, first something that intrigues me:

There is a platform called Shared Harvest Fund which provides opportunities for individuals (employees in my case) to volunteer away their student loans. Nonprofits submit projects that they need completed. Employees earn reward points every time a project is completed. These points are converted to stipends that are paid out directly to the employee’s student loan lender of choice. A powerful example of how the model of volunteerism can change.

Secondly, here are two new initiatives that Gas South is implementing for 2021 in response to all we’ve learned from our people.  

Team Grants

Instead of using our volunteer budget to plan and fund large scale events that we dictate, we are switching it up. Team Grants funds our employee’s ideas. Employees submit an idea for a community/volunteer project and a committee of employees decides which submissions get approved and funded. Not only does this allow our employees to engage in the community in the ways they want to, it also builds skills, like leadership, communication, budgeting, and organization infusing professional development into volunteerism.

Acts of Kindness

The second initiative is called Acts of Kindness. My friend and colleague, Jennifer Bronner at Cox Enterprises, shared that during 2020 they conducted an Acts of Kindness campaign where employees were encouraged to share acts of kindness they were committing or receiving. At Gas South we formed an AoK (Acts of Kindness) committee to help each leader, starting with our CEO, “kindness bomb” their direct reports. By the summer of 2021, every employee in the company (over 500) will have been the recipient of an act of kindness by their manager. Once everyone has been “bombed”, we will then be sending five, blank postcards to each employee, encouraging them to commit their own acts of kindness by sending a note to someone.

Being a “good partner” changes

Empathy must also be extended outside of our walls, to the nonprofit organizations we partner with. The struggles and challenges that they faced over this past year are greater than any I’ve seen before. Many have had to let staff go and cut programs, in the midst of facing greater need that they’ve ever dealt with before. In response, many corporations practiced empathetic giving by loosening or eliminating red tape, restrictions or requirements in regard to funding. This has led to incredible collaborations, innovation and adaptation.

Regardless of size, location or community giving budget, 2020 ushered in the opportunity to reshape your community engagement model to better fit your employees and your community. It’s not always comfortable acknowledging that what you are currently doing may not be working, but there is value in that acknowledgment. And excitement when you stay open to see where this new decade takes us as companies.

For us, the ways that we can Be a Fuel for Good are limitless. And we’re planning to break the mold. 

Gas South’s purpose is to Be a Fuel for Good which includes giving 5% of profits back to children in need each year.  As the Community Affairs Program Manager, Carley Stephens identifies, creates and executes volunteerism opportunities, steers corporate giving and redefines community engagement.

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