By Zach Drucker
Over the past two years, social impact leaders have been forced to quickly adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly remote world. Like many industries, the pandemic completely disrupted how social impact professionals focused their efforts and carried out their work. From how programs operated to the way organizations engaged with volunteers and clients, and so much more, social impact work will never be the same even as the country prepares to return to “normal.”
To highlight these changes in social impact work, sf.citi created Lessons from Scaling Social Impact in a Remote World. The report focused on four social impact leaders from sf.citi’s One City Forum—a leadership committee of nonprofit executives and tech social impact leaders—and their experiences from the COVID-19 pandemic. The social impact leaders looked back on how the pandemic affected their programming and what long-term impact it will have on their work.
Learn more about the changing face of social impact work by watching sf.citi’s conversation with four social impact leaders at Lessons from Scaling Social Impact in a Remote World.
As we prepare to enter a future molded by the COVID-19 pandemic, how should social impact professionals look back on the past two years to successfully create a thriving social impact program? At sf.cit’s latest Scaling Social Impact event on February 17, we brought in the four contributors from the report to share their key takeaways from operating social impact programs during the COVID-19 pandemic and discuss which trends will carry on past the pandemic. Take a look at what we learned with Amanda Lenaghan, Head of Social Impact at Cruise, Bita Nazarian, Executive Director of 826 Valencia, Karl Robillard, Head of Social Impact at Twitter, and Victor Cordon, Senior Manager of Social Impact at Okta.
NAVIGATING THE INITIAL CHALLENGES OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, everyone had to contend with a dramatic change in lifestyle and work environment. This placed social impact professionals in an especially tough position as they not only had to adapt their programming, but the communities that they focused on needed help more than ever. Each of our speakers detailed how their organization handled the initial challenges from the pandemic and created a successful social impact program.
At Twitter, for example, they had to rethink and redo everything. Twitter Head of Social Impact Karl Robillard explained that they had already started planning their huge, company-wide global day of service in May of 2020—which is designed around being in person—and had to immediately adapt to the new remote environment. This transition had many challenges, and according to Karl, they quickly learned that while all of their employees wanted to help, the opportunity to do so was limited in a remote setting. As a result, Twitter flexed its employee giving program to meet the demand to give back and has garnered 10 times the amount of money (employee donations and Twitter matching) each year since.
Similarly, 826 Valencia, a nonprofit that focuses on writing education, had to reimagine its entire programming as it shifted away from in-person instruction. To effectively transition their programming, 826 Executive Director Bita Nazarian emphasized the importance of employing a responsive programming model that allowed the organization to have the flexibility and structure in place to redesign services. Bita described the past couple of years as a bit of whiplash, constantly reevaluating their systems and repositioning them to meet the needs of students and schools.
Cruise, on the other hand, entered March 2020 without any long-standing programs that needed to be overhauled. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique challenge and opportunity for Cruise to think about how best they could help during that crucial moment in time according to Cruise’s Head of Social Impact Amanda Lenaghan. Amanda stressed that any endeavor would not only focus on the immediate needs of the community but also on building out the capacity of Cruise’s partners. Eventually, this led Cruise to connect with two long-term partners, San Francisco-Marin Food Bank and SF New Deal, and create a program that utilized Cruise’s all-electric autonomous vehicle (AV) fleet to deliver equitable grocery and meal services at scale.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Okta had been planning a program to leverage technology to power nonprofits to meet their missions. Okta eventually launched this program, the Nonprofit Technology Initiative, in April 2020. But the program grew even more after its initial launch as Okta recognized that it could double down on the initiative’s mission and lead by example to serve communities and even more members in need.
Okta realized that they had a great opportunity to stand by the nonprofit sector, stand by [their] communities, and signal to funders and other tech companies [that Okta] can invest in programs but also invest in the infrastructure and the tech capacity of nonprofits.
—Victor Cordon, Senior Manager of Social Impact, Okta
ADAPTING PROGRAMS FOR THE HYBRID FUTURE
After retooling social impact programs to meet the specific needs of the COVID-19 pandemic, social impact leaders were forced to assess their programming again for an evolving hybrid future. No one can predict how the post-COVID world will play out, but our speakers shared a few examples of what they plan to do with the programs created during the pandemic.
Amanda Lenaghan of Cruise highlighted how Cruise will dedicate a portion of its AV fleet long term to serve individuals that need access to basic needs. As Cruise expands and commercializes, it will always leverage what they do best as a business to support its local communities.
Karl Robillard of Twitter described how the COVID-19 pandemic really allowed the Twitter for Good Team to better understand how best to leverage the product of Twitter itself. This resulted in enhancing Twitter’s Campaign for Change program. The program relied on Twitter’s Brand Strategy Teams—who are known for their advertising and extravagant launches—and started doing that for nonprofits. Then from there, the program tapped into engineering and other teams to conceptualize the whole machine of Twitter and direct that to nonprofits.
After the murder of George Floyd, we had so much energy towards racial equity and justice. And one of the groups [Twitter] started partnering with was the NAACP LDF and they were working specifically on voter suppression in advance of the 2020 election. So [Twitter was] able to work with that cross-functional team and use Twitter as a tool in the day and in the moment to kind of report and identify any evidence of voter suppression. The NAACP LDF was able to get their most prolific content on Twitter, they got the most eyeballs on their work, and they were doing something of real tangible value at the same time.
—Karl Robillard, Head of Social Impact, Twitter
Victor Cordon of Okta spotlighted Okta’s newfound reach around the world. Through Okta’s focus on remote and dynamic work, employees are enabled to do their job wherever they want. And through that dynamic work, Okta has been empowering employees to find the issues that they’re individually passionate about and create the tools and space that allow them to start making the change they want to see.
Then in the case of the nonprofit panelist, Bita Nazarian of 826 Valencia outlined a different situation where they planned to cut many of the virtual programs created during the COVID-19 pandemic in favor of in-person programs. Bita explained that classes at 826 Valencia, especially with younger kids, help the students significantly more when they are in person than in a virtual setting. Bita, however, said that 826 Valencia plans to keep a few remote classes alongside the in-person classes as the older students were adept at navigating the online environment and succeeding in a virtual setting.
CURATING ENGAGING AND IMPACTFUL VIRTUAL VOLUNTEERING OPPORTUNITIES
Virtual volunteering opportunities are here to stay. Social impact professionals, however, discovered early on that most virtual volunteering opportunities have proven difficult to recreate the same type of volunteer engagement and real-world impact as in-person volunteering. After two years of being around a slew of virtual volunteering programs, our speakers shared examples of the type of programs they’ve seen be successful.
- Missing Maps. It’s a program that Okta primarily promotes to new hires to help map areas of the world that aren’t mapped. The open, collaborative project is an easy way for employees to do something that’s online, is asynchronous, and is a great entry point into volunteerism.
- Mock interviews. Cruise partners with its workforce development partners to conduct remote mock interviews. If interviews are held in a remote setting, people should prepare that way as well.
- Be My Eyes. This app allows anyone, anywhere to help with visual cues and assist people who are visually impaired. It’s easy and you have total control as a volunteer.
- Move for Good. During Twitter’s company-wide day of service, they invited employees to move, to run, to walk, to dance, or however they wanted to do it. Employees did it together from anywhere in the world, while simultaneously fundraising for a great cause.
EXPANDING A SOCIAL IMPACT PRESENCE IN NEW COMMUNITIES
As employees move across the country and around the world, employees have become some of the company’s greatest assets. Employees can now expand the company’s reach to newfound communities that would have seemed unimaginable before the COVID-19 pandemic. To make tapping into a new community and forging new partnerships seamless, our speakers offered these three useful tips:
- Engage early. Build trust and communication upfront with new partners to spur a successful and potentially long-term partnership.
- Community first. Understand the community and leverage the knowledge of the community leaders to determine how best to help.
- Let your guardrails down and be willing to listen. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel or come up with a new solution, many organizations have the solution and need to be connected or need the resources.
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