camila December 5, 2021

The needs of the vulnerable in Singapore are growing amid a pandemic that never seems to end. 

But how, in this time of social distancing, can corporate volunteerism programmes continue giving?

Like many other aspects of our lives, they have shifted online. Companies and their employees are seizing opportunities from virtual and skills-based volunteering to support charities grappling with shrinking volunteer numbers and waning donations.

“With the profound social and economic consequences of the pandemic further deepening existing inequalities identified within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” said IMPACT2030 co-founder Sue Stephenson in a September report, “the need for the private sector to respond with human capital and financial resources has never been greater.”

IMPACT2030 is a business-led coalition that partners the United Nations to advance its SDGs through employee volunteering. 

Virtual volunteering extends reach

The pandemic has made doing good harder. At UOB for instance, employees contributed 60,000 volunteer hours in 2019. This fell sharply to 19,000 volunteer hours in 2020 as social distancing and safe management measures meant that many regular face-to-face activities ground to a halt.

But it has also changed the way volunteer work is being done. “We found innovative ways to stay connected with our beneficiaries virtually. We have now moved most of our volunteering activities to a virtual format,” says Ms Lilian Chong, head of brand and CSR, group strategic communications and brand, UOB.

These include online art workshops and weekly reading sessions for disadvantaged students.

As part of the UOB Heartbeat Eco-Excursions programme, the bank also ran virtual excursions on environmental protection.

Its flagship UOB Heartbeat Run/Walk event, which raises funds for a range of causes supported by the bank’s overarching UOB Heartbeat CSR Programme, was also held virtually last year across all the 18 markets in which it operates.

Programmes to better equip employee volunteers also shifted online. UOB held webinars on topics ranging from how to interact with persons with disabilities and basic sign language, to dealing with cyberbullying among children.

As it has across other economic sectors, the pandemic has greatly accelerated the pace at which the social sector is going digital.

“Tech adoption has always been something that the sector needed, but did not have the time or resources to do,” says Ms Parnita Rane, principal consultant, corporate partnerships at Empact. The Singapore-based social enterprise aims to build the capacity of social organisations in Asia.

The push to innovate to cushion themselves and their beneficiaries from the impact of Covid-19 has also empowered some to fulfil their social missions on a far greater scale.

Ms Rane cites examples such as SDI Academy, which created a mobile app to reach more in its community, and Pope Jai’s e-commerce website PJ Produce.

Putting skills to work

Along with the shift online came a rise in interest in skills-based volunteering, says Ms Rane.

“With social distancing and remote working arrangements, corporate volunteering went online and skills-based volunteering became one of the preferred ways of contributing to the social sector.”

This has led to fresh opportunities for greater and more targeted impact.

For example, a pre-Covid training session on cash flow management and projection organised by Empact would have been conducted in-person, with attendance capped at 10 benefiting organisations.

When such training sessions moved online, however, companies with multiple locations could mobilise regional volunteers to serve social organisations from as far as Mongolia, Nepal and the US. One webinar can now benefit over 70 social organisations, Ms Rane says.

Empact has also facilitated more one-on-one pro-bono workshops over Zoom, which match skilled volunteers from multinational companies and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to charities or social enterprises in need of specific advice.

Areas where volunteers’ skills were in demand included sales and marketing, supply chain management, cash flow management, brand communications, human resources and technology.

These align with the findings of surveys conducted by the National Council of Social Services in 2020: That social service agencies’ greatest challenges lie in the areas of digitalisation, fundraising, managing manpower and volunteers, and leading their staff through the pandemic.

The public sector has also been promoting skills-based volunteerism this year, with the Singapore Cares Office inking partnerships with professional bodies from the legal, accountancy and medical sectors, and most recently in October, with the Singapore Nurses Association and the Chartered Secretaries Institute of Singapore.

“Skills-based volunteerism has very tangible and intangible benefits,” said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong in October, “not just to those who receive the benefits of volunteerism, but also to those who give.

“This approach helps one expand beyond their usual corporate centric goals to encompass a larger purpose in society.”

Impactful corporate volunteerism could also be as straightforward as providing the very goods and services it sells for free to charities in need of those resources.

The two SME winners of this year’s President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards are such examples.

Speco Singapore, a cleaning technology company, has been providing disinfection services for free to charities unable to afford disinfection of premises amid the ongoing pandemic.

Food distributor FoodXervices, which set up the non-profit Food Bank Singapore (FBSG) in 2012 to tackle food insecurity and wastage, has been providing pro bono support to FBSG. Its staff and delivery vehicles also deliver free meals to FBSG’s beneficiaries.

Why invest in corporate volunteerism?

Corporates large and small are beginning to realise the impact they can make — and the benefits they stand to reap — from investing in volunteerism.

Ms Lilian Chong, UOB’s head of brand and CSR, group strategic communications and brand, says: “Keeping the good going is deeply embedded in our organisational culture. If corporate social responsibility (CSR), is the soul of the organisation, then volunteerism is our heart.”

She says the bank has put in place various means for employees to give back to the community, including three days of paid volunteer leave each year.

Employees are free to create their own volunteering programmes as long as they follow the bank’s CSR guidelines and match the bank’s focus areas of art, children, education and environmental protection.

“Community stewardship is most sustainable when done from the ground-up through individual action, rather than being solely driven by corporates,” says Ms Chong.

“Volunteers often inspire others to act; Overcoming the inertia to take action is what we need to forge a sustainable future for the current and next generation,” she adds.

Corporates also gain. A survey of working Americans conducted in 2017 by US-based professional services firm Deloitte, for instance, found that a culture of volunteerism at the workplace boosts morale, workplace atmosphere and brand perception.

In Singapore, the Government announced in February an extension of the Business and IPC Partnership Scheme to December 2023. The scheme, launched in 2016 to spur corporate volunteerism, was due to end this year.

It gives businesses a 250 per cent tax deduction on wages and related expenses when their employees volunteer at registered charities.

This is the last of a 15-part series in collaboration with