The rise of Virtual Volunteering: Biggest opportunities for business today

In this episode, we discuss the opportunities in virtual volunteering for businesses and people today. We explore the growth of virtual volunteering and how it differs from traditional volunteering. Finally, we look the importance of and benefits of a robust virtual volunteering program and how it's a gateway to increase employee engagement.

This is part one of our two-part series discussing virtual volunteering.

Watch or listen to part 2: Guide to virtual volunteering: How to get businesses and employees started

Watch the episode:


Prefer to listen? 

What we discussed:

Today, I'm joined by Susan Keith Bleekman, who's the Director of Goodness Solutions with Benevity. And we're going to talk about virtual volunteering. Let's get right into it. Susan,

What is virtual volunteering?

Susan Keith Bleekman:

Well, that is a fantastic question, Karl, and one that's actually been evolving over time [00:01:00].

Traditionally, we'd always thought of virtual volunteering as something that you did at home in front of your computer, and it was just sort of this digital volunteering experience.

And that sort of traditional volunteering was defined as something that you did in-person either by yourself with your favorite cause, or maybe you were doing it with a teammate or some teammates at your office, or it could have been a big volunteer event.

But with the incredible challenging year that we had in 2020 during [00:01:30] the height of the pandemic, we saw companies scrambling to find ways to help causes, and engage what overnight had become a 100% remote workforce.

And they were really hungry to help, but they didn't know how.

In 2020, we actually found that virtual volunteering became to be defined in a whole new way.

And the really best programs expanded that definition of virtual volunteering, and [00:02:00] what it meant to do impact to include meaningful actions that were both big and small.

That could be done not just behind your computer, but in the real world safely, socially distanced. And it started to include things like small acts of kindness.

Let me just give you a couple of examples of what I mean by that. Adobe, a client of Benevity's, they ran a program where they were making [00:02:30] cards for seniors that were in isolation. Or companies had employees bring groceries to neighbors.

SAP actually had teammates help one another who had kids where they could actually volunteer to take 30 minutes of their workday and actually engage those kids to give those working parents a break.

That could be everything from a virtual music class, to exercising, to story time ... maybe even helping them [00:03:00] with their homework.

We saw people all of a sudden saying, "These are actually really meaningful actions, and they're engaging our employees and making a big difference."

Karl Yeh:

And I think my next question would have been: what is the difference between virtual volunteering and regular volunteering? But I think you answered some of that, too.

But I think for me, when I think of volunteering, I think of going and doing [00:03:30] something somewhere.

Right? I was in Calgary, and one of the biggest volunteering activities we've ever done was ... I don't know.

Several years ago when a massive flood came in and a lot of people went, and volunteered, and helped everyone affected by those floods.

But when we talk about virtual volunteering, it's not that traditional sense that people would immediately think about.

It could be something where you donate your time [00:04:00] doing, let's say, activities that you'd normally be doing, but helping other people out. Right?

Virtual volunteering not your traditional volunteering activities

Susan Keith Bleekman:

Yeah, I think that's a really good distinction.

I think what it was is if you're thinking about volunteering, but you were just describing ... takes a lot of organization and effort, right?

So, keeping this box of that traditional volunteering means we've done a whole organized event.

It might be a three hour activity with [00:04:30] 20 people, and there's a whole bunch of logistics involved in that.

And those are wonderful, and they do great things, and they really help the causes.

But with virtual volunteering and sort of a recognition of today's hybrid workforce, we need to begin to break down those opportunities to do good and move the needle in much more flexible ways.

Companies today have workforces [00:05:00] that even pre-pandemic span multiple offices.

People are in their homes.

How do you engage people and still move that needle to make an impact?

And that's where this concept of virtual volunteering really came is to enable people through what can be a digital experience, or an individual experience, to make that impact.

Karl Yeh:

And it's not no longer, I think, limited to, [00:05:30] "I'm going to volunteer between 5:00 to 7:00 PM at my local shelter."

I think it's more of like, "I can actually provide volunteer service maybe throughout the entire day similar to how I would from a remote work environment where maybe it's not defined by a set time."

It's just how much time you can provide during the course of the day.

Susan Keith Bleekman: 

I just love that you said, because you made me think of an analogy that I've never thought [00:06:00] of.

But it really is like just how work-life ... like you said, we used to talk about work-life balance, and now we talk about work-life integration.

I think this movement to virtual volunteering is really that integration of doing goodness as a regular course of business throughout your life.

And that could be in a 10 minute increment.

A 30 minute increment. An hour increment.

It could be in that digital experience that I'm doing something on my computer maybe to help [00:06:30] translate, or read to people via zoom, or it could be that I'm learning and gaining awareness about the important issues that the world's been faced with today.

Think of social justice and equity.


Susan Keith Bleekman: 

Part of my making an impact is my effort to go and learn about that.

Read a book or watch a movie, and then join my teammates in maybe talking about that.

What did we each learn from that [00:07:00] experience?

And now how do we go into the world as better people to help fuel social justice and equity?

The awareness that we might get about businesses that we can support, or legislation that can help move things forward.

But I really love how you described that, because I think you're absolutely right. It's taking it apart and having it be less rigid, and bringing in much more flexibility. [00:07:30]

For people who are running these programs at their companies, it's really working with their organizations to break down that structure to have that be more flexible.

So, helping their people do good in a way that fits today's workforce.

Karl Yeh:

That's a great segue into my next question.

Why is it important for businesses today? Why is virtual volunteering important?

Because I think we [00:08:00] touched on going into a remote environment. I think there's now even more opportunities, right?

Why virtual volunteering is important for businesses today?

Susan Keith Bleekman:

Yeah, where before when you were talking about sort of time-fixed. Right?

It's like, "How am I going to get somebody at three o'clock to help this one cause with this defined thing?" And that that can be quite difficult.

It's still going to be important to do that.

But I would say the 'why do it' really breaks into two categories [00:08:30].

First, the hybrid workforce is here to stay. We may be seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

We're coming out of the pandemic. But as we look at this year and into the future, we need to be looking at digital first experiences.

We are increasingly in a digital world, and our programs need to have a digital mindset.

I have to sort of say that's first and foremost is: let's look at the realities of how we are working, how we are volunteering, how we're engaging in the world today.

And then [00:09:00] second, it works.

Companies who embrace virtual volunteering and sort of expanded this definition of impact, we saw that they were able to drive deeper engagement when they created these meaningful digital experiences.

They were also able to make their programs more inclusive [00:09:30] .

I actually had a wonderful quote from the social impact manager at Atlassian who said,

"Virtual volunteering opened up opportunities for everyone at the company to participate, making volunteering more inclusive."

We talked again that if it was at three o'clock and I have to be in this location at this time ... but if I now expand that, I'm going to be able to reach you, Karl, and several other people in my organization because I'm giving them more ways to give back.

On that works, I would further that to it also gives program [00:10:00] managers a way to expand the reach of their program.

Because by involving these different acts, you can bring in other groups within your organization.

You can partner with your HR team that's focused on DE&I.

You can focus with those who are driving sustainability efforts.

I can talk to talent acquisition about how can we tap into all the skills that our company and our employees have, and really help causes in a different [00:10:30] way that we might not have thought about.

Use case after use case, we saw that people were able to just make an overall greater impact, and it drove up their volunteering hours and participation.

And the really exciting thing is it actually brought in new people who had never participated in the program before.

Karl Yeh:

That's awesome, because my next question would have been: when we go into virtual volunteering, does it [00:11:00] actually work?

Does virtual volunteering work?

Does it have the same amount of impact as actual physical volunteering, or actually those set time volunteering that that people know of?

And we've had about a year data since the pandemic. Yeah, if you can talk more about how has virtual volunteering been effective.

Susan Keith Bleekman:

Yeah, I will.

And to add to that, to give it a little bit of context about just how much of a movement this [00:11:30] is, I did want to share that the percentage of virtual volunteering at the beginning of 2020 in January was just about 10%.

If we looked at all of the activities that companies were doing, virtual volunteering or these small acts of kindness would have made up only 10%.

By December of last year, that had to 54%.

More than half of all the activities had this expanded definition. [00:12:00]

And at the peak of our virtual volunteering, we actually saw that it was 85%, and 39% of those included these small acts of kindness.

So, really seeing that happen a lot.

The effect, again, is that it was a way to bring people into the program.

And what we're seeing is that when people do a virtual volunteer activity or small acts of kindness in their employees program, they are far more [00:12:30] likely to go on to then donate.

And we know that volunteers actually donate at higher volumes and more frequently.

And that those people who came in and got introduced, they were engaging within 90 days.

They were coming back again to do something more.

Karl Yeh:

Susan, I remember in a previous conversation ... and you just touched on it where volunteering is the gateway to more workplace giving employee engagement.

Has virtual volunteering done the exact same thing?

Has virtual volunteering been a gateway to increase employee engagement

Susan Keith Bleekman:


And in fact, it has fueled kind [00:13:30] of the whole trajectory.

It's been able to fuel increased volunteering, which has done increased donations.

At Benevity, we have missions, which is literally a home for acts of goodness.

What we found when people moved into virtual volunteering is some of them had defined that, and they were capturing those metrics in the way they did their traditional volunteer opportunities.

And maybe they were setting [00:14:00] them up, but they weren't tagging it to a specific cause.

It was, again as you were saying, more flexible, and sort of you weren't defining a particular shift.

And then there were other companies who used missions as a way to capture this expanded definition. What we've seen is that missions has become that gateway to goodness.

People you've not been able to get into your program before, they feel like if, "I don't have the time for that specific shift, [00:14:30] or I can't give you a full hour or two hours, or maybe I don't have the money right now to make that donation, but I can probably do an act of goodness.

I can get involved with my team around these topics that we're talking about."

And so all of a sudden, I come into the program, and I do something that feels a little bite-size, and then it becomes rewarding.

And I get that, and I get that experience of doing something with my teammates, and [00:15:00] being able to have a discussion around it.

And then that encourages me to dig deeper.

We kind of talk about it as like an engagement scale.

It's like once you start to do something and you feel ... You mentioned yourself you've had these great volunteer experiences, and you know that sense of success when you give back and you do good. We absolutely find that it becomes this entry way.

And then I start to give [00:15:30] more of myself, and more of my time, and learn more on the important issues of my company, and then can go on to donate.

And maybe I start to create opportunities as well.

Karl Yeh:

I do find that with virtual volunteering, there's a lot more opportunities.

There's not, "Here's the defined things that you need to do."

There's a lot of opportunities that you can do on your own time that ... like I was mentioning earlier, you can contribute [00:16:00] in when it's easier for you, than going into those specific time blocks that I may not have time, or I'm busy in those times.

But with virtual volunteering, I have a lot more opportunity.

Susan Keith Bleekman:

In fact, we have a partnership with VolunteerMatch.

For those who aren't familiar with VolunteerMatch, they also have a database that is literally [00:16:30] hundreds of thousands of virtual volunteer opportunities.

And that's a way to tap into the individual passions of your people. And as you said, in a way that is flexible.

No matter where they live. Their work hours.

What their circumstances are. You're enabling them to give back at a time and in a way that is easy for them to do.

Well, basically you're making it easier to do the engagement.

[00:17:00] And the other thing I would share about that is sort of the why it works, or the how to do it, is that.

Now you can ... if you look at your program and you start to see: well, where are people doing this type of volunteering?

Who are the causes that they're engaging with?

What are the activities that they're doing in order to make that difference?

And with that sort of reporting and insights, that just helps you [00:17:30] uplevel your program.

Because you can take those insights to know, well, this is really what drives our employees.

This is what drives our people.

How do we connect that with our program, and continue to drive the business initiatives that we're looking to achieve?

Karl Yeh:

That's great. Susan, do you have anything to add in terms of virtual volunteering?

Susan Keith Bleekman:

Just that there are so many fantastic resources that we have to share with people who are interested in this. We actually have literally [00:18:00] a virtual volunteering resource package.

We've had some webinars.

There's some great information on that I encourage people to check out.

And start to talk with one another.

There are some fantastic things that clients are doing all over, and great successes that they're enjoying.

Question of the day

How have you been able to encourage [00:13:00] virtual volunteering in your organization?

Do you have any tips and strategies? What are some of the challenges?

Connect with Susan Keith Bleekman