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As companies begin to rethink citizenship programs in light of COVID-19, it will be imperative to take a fresh look at a landscape which has been drastically altered, both by the health crisis itself and by its economic and community-level repercussions, and consider lessons learned.

In recent weeks, we have all looked with hope to the “silver linings” of this very difficult time – a growing sense of shared purpose, a sharper understanding of society’s frailty and systemic inequality, and an urgency to act together to recover. Corporate citizenship professionals must help their companies internalize what we have learned, and seize the opportunities that this shared, global experience has created, to push for the large-scale changes needed to ensure a more resilient future. Below, we outline key lessons for citizenship professionals to consider as they reflect on their programs.

For more on how to assess and adjust your citizenship strategy in the wake of COVID-19, see the practical framework and guiding questions we outline here.

Needs change. Your purpose does not. The corporate citizenship best-practice playbook starts with identifying social impact opportunities aligned to your business. While this has led to unique corporate engagement strategies spanning the spectrum of social needs, it has also led many companies away from addressing basic human needs if, due to their business assets, they have more value to add elsewhere.

In this time where unprecedented numbers of people around the world are struggling to secure a job, a home, or food on the table, it’s safe to say the social needs component of the equation has changed. As we begin the long path towards recovery, we expect that many companies will refocus or expand their efforts to address these fundamental human needs; without them our long-term goals – education, community, fulfillment – remain unattainable for far too many. And while the urgency of addressing these challenges may supersede other pursuits temporarily, companies should not lose focus on long-term goals. To the contrary, this time calls on us all to return to our companies’ core purpose, to reevaluate the needs of our stakeholders, and to think boldly and creatively about our opportunities to bridge the gap from where we are, to where we want to go.

We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to address systemic inequality. This crisis has laid bare the deep disparities in our society and the unjust outcomes they produce – on lives and livelihoods. Capitalizing on the heightened focus on this deep-rooted problem, two specific ways companies can address systemic inequality are:

… by proactively targeting the most marginalized and vulnerable populations. Around the world, kids without computers or access to the internet at home were left behind when schools closed and shifted to online learning. In the U.S., minority-owned businesses, hardest hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19, faced systemic barriers to accessing the small business loans offered in the first-come, first-served rollout of the Paycheck Protection Program.

As these examples illustrate, community (and environmental) programs, however well-meaning, may actually exacerbate inequality if they don’t proactively address it. Moving forward, a silver lining to this dark cloud may be that we not only acknowledge and resolve systemic inequalities that may exist within our own programming, but that we design and implement more programs directly aimed at lifting up marginalized populations and breaking down systemic barriers. To do this, we will need to ensure inclusive representation within our own teams and decision-making processes – diverse perspectives must inform program design.

… by supporting wholistic solutions, starting with health. Nowhere are disparate outcomes more evident than in the infection and mortality rates of the virus itself. With startling severity, African Americans in the U.S. are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, a result of longstanding discrimination in resources, health and access to care which have left black Americans both more exposed and more vulnerable to the virus. From a health outcomes standpoint, this whole-system perspective is referred to as Social Determinants of Healththe factors which explain why zip code is a better predictor of one’s health than genetic code. COVID-19 has presented an accelerated microcosm of this perspective, but it can be applied to any set of outcomes we hope to address. Consider education, for example; children cannot learn if their schools are unsafe, their homes are unstable, or their bellies are empty.

Moving forward, we believe more companies will work to develop and support wholistic programs which take into account these complex and overlapping systems – from education, to healthcare, to the physical environment – and address the resulting outcomes for individuals and communities.

 Pushing the bounds of collaboration. Collaboration is key to building successful community impact initiatives, and throughout this crisis we’ve seen incredible examples of how both internal cooperation and cross-sector external partnerships have accelerated COVID-19 relief.

  • Collaboration within the business: From pivoting operations to produce masks and hand sanitizer to transitioning tens of thousands of employees to a remote workplace, a sense of shared purpose drove massive companies to shift gears overnight. This impressive display of adaptability presents a unique opportunity for citizenship professionals to consider how they can work with business partners, on a regular and ongoing basis, to address pressing social issues like climate change.
  • Collaboration with unlikely external partners: Ford partnered with 3M and GE Healthcare to make ventilators, face shields and respirators for first responders. Google and Apple are working together to enable contact-tracing so the U.S. can reopen safely. Sanofi and GSK have joined forces to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. All stand to benefit greatly from these efforts and, instead of working in competition with each other, put the health and wellbeing of our collective society first and came together for the greater good.

Reconsidering employee volunteerism. While social distancing has forced us to cancel upcoming employee volunteer events, it has also allowed us to think creatively about how we can best support our nonprofit partners’ greatest needs in this challenging time. For many, pro-bono and skills-based volunteerism have presented the greatest opportunities for impact. Looking ahead, we expect these types of opportunities, which today are often limited to niche projects for a few employees, may see much broader adoption. This is not to say traditional volunteerism will fade away – food banks need manpower now more than ever – but rather, we hope citizenship practitioners continue to treat their nonprofit partners as key stakeholders, engaging them to understand their greatest needs and identifying creative solutions to leverage corporate skills and assets to help them achieve their goals.

Redefining Success. To empower nonprofit organizations to respond quickly and effectively to the impacts of COVID-19, philanthropic leaders came together and pledged to provide nonprofits with greater flexibility and fewer restrictions in this critical moment. Reflecting on their role in this pledge, Ford Foundation made the case for philanthropy, beyond this moment in time, to shift to long-term, flexible funding designed to build nonprofits’ capacity. For citizenship professionals, this may mean a greater emphasis on establishing long-term strategic partnerships which build mutual trust and, through that trust, evolve to more wholistic funding and support models. It will also mean changes in how and what we measure to demonstrate progress and tell our stories of impact. But if there is anyone up to the challenge of combining strategic funding decisions with skillful storytelling that cuts to the big picture of what success means, it should be companies.