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Lessons Learned: Reflecting on Race, Privilege, and Employee Volunteerism

The start of a new year is a natural time for reflection, and here in the U.S. – where 2020 included a long-overdue reckoning with racial injustice, a global pandemic, and heightened political unrest – there is a lot to reflect upon, especially for corporate citizenship professionals. As a corporate citizenship practitioner myself (current consultant, formerly in-house), I wanted to share how I’ve been thinking through parts of my job  – specifically, how we can challenge racism and privilege within employee volunteer programs – and the responsibility I have to approach my work differently in the year (and years) to come. In doing so, I hope I can provide some useful ideas for your own corporate citizenship work.

Note: This piece is meant to be a personal reflection. The conversation around corporate volunteerism, race, and inclusion is broad and multi-faceted, from understanding white privilege within volunteerism, to addressing equitable access to volunteerism within companies, to dismantling the power dynamics between corporations and nonprofits. I hope to continue this dialogue in pieces to come. In the meantime, here are some articles I’ve found helpful: this piece on inclusive volunteer engagement, as well as this post on recognizing racism in volunteerism by MAVA. And Anti-Racism Daily, while not specific to corporate citizenship, has broadly applicable lessons, especially on impact vs. intent.

Why Focus on Employee Volunteerism?

Throughout my career, my work has focused on employee engagement and volunteerism, operating frequently at the intersection of company and community. But the reality is that corporate volunteerism, while well intentioned, can do unintended harm to the very communities we aspire to strengthen. Because racism is structural, if we aren’t actively fighting it, we end up inadvertently reinforcing it.

There have undoubtedly been times in my job when the dynamics of race and privilege resulted in some tricky situations. Sometimes, the best path forward was not clear cut. Other times, the path was clear and I didn’t follow it. Why? Because it would have led to hard, uncomfortable conversations that I didn’t know how to – or didn’t want to – have.

As I reflect on some of these ‘missed opportunities’ for imperative conversations, I do so with the intent to think through how I could have handled them better. Most importantly, I ask: how can I learn from these experiences and use them to jumpstart necessary conversations and create change?

Missed Opportunities

Conflating Impact and Intent

An important lesson I’m bringing into this new year is understanding impact versus intent, and how easy it can be to equate the two, especially from a corporate citizenship lens. Looking back, there have been times when I’ve gotten too tied up in my own corporate vision of success (how well does this activity support my company’s stated goals?) and failed to really listen to our nonprofit partners (how well does this activity support true community needs?). For example, following a volunteer event I once helped to coordinate at a summer school program in NYC, I received a call from an upset volunteer; the children were supposed to leave with a few takeaways, including a brand new book, but instead the teachers chose to keep the books for their classrooms. The volunteers in attendance were not happy; the books were meant for the kids, and they felt the teachers behaved inappropriately by keeping them. In attempt to resolve the situation, I called the nonprofit, concerned about the outcome of the event.

Upon further reflection, my concern seems misplaced – had I missed the bigger picture? The focus of my work was to address inequalities and prioritize under-resourced communities, but did I fully understand the needs of the community when planning the event? In retrospect, I didn’t. Did the nonprofit potentially defer to my corporate vision of success when coordinating the activity? Very much likely. Did I use this opportunity to start a conversation with the nonprofit to better understand community needs moving forward? Unfortunately, I did not.

While this event was certainly unique in some ways, when I look at what happened through the lens of impact vs. intent, the outcome was more commonplace than I’d like to admit. In the end, while my intent was to do something good, the activity highlighted real (and unmet) community needs I hadn’t been aware of. By not using the situation to jumpstart an open and honest dialogue with the nonprofit about why the teachers kept the books, I missed an opportunity to understand and address those needs, and enhance impact moving forward.

Prioritizing Volunteer Comfort

In my previous jobs, I always saw my company’s broader employee base as my client – what can I do to make volunteering as easy and straightforward as possible?  I’ve worked in companies where certain departments could barely get away from their desks during the day to use the bathroom, let alone volunteer, so the pressure was strong to make sure I was using employees’ time wisely. Although that should always be a consideration, at times, I took this mindset too far and prioritized volunteer needs over the actual goal of the activity at hand.

For example, when faced with volunteers who expressed discomfort at the timing or location of a volunteer activity – not wanting to park their car in a specific neighborhood or be at a certain location after dark – my responses ranged from suggestions like expensing an uber, to asking our nonprofit partner to adjust the timing of their activity, or in some cases not sending volunteers to an activity at all.

This is challenging, because while I want all volunteers to feel safe and excited about their experience, I now understand that some of the solutions I previously offered centered the volunteer and prioritized their well-being over the needs of the nonprofit, and I missed out on an opportunity to challenge some of these feelings of discomfort. What unconscious (or explicit) biases do we have that deem certain neighborhoods unsafe? Is it from being a group of (mostly) white volunteers in a predominantly Black or Latino community? This isn’t an easy talk, nor one that everyone will feel comfortable having, but calling it out presents an opportunity to lean in to these harder conversations, even if it starts with acknowledging how you might have handled similar situations in the past (i.e., changing the time or location of the activity), why it wasn’t the best approach (because it reinforces an already privileged dynamic) and what you’ll do moving forward (prioritize the needs of the nonprofit).

A Taken Opportunity: Learning in Real Time

Part of my reason for writing this piece is to hold myself accountable throughout my learning (and unlearning) process. As I was talking through some of these examples with a colleague, I referenced working on a program for low-income youth. In that moment, she paused and took a moment to acknowledge the language I was using, and how some of the descriptors we tend to use in this field – phrases like low-income communities – establish a deficit, and prescribe descriptors to children and communities that they may not self-identify as. Yikes, I thought. Imagine seeing a picture of yourself in a report and being described as low-income. I felt embarrassed, like this is something I should really be more conscious of, but it was a perfect, real-time example of the kind of conversations we should – and need to – have.

I’d Love to Hear from You

As 2021 kicks off, I hope you can take some time to reflect on your own ‘missed opportunities’ and consider how you’ll approach things differently this year. As you do, I would love to hear from you.

  • How have you seen, or experienced, racism, bias, and/or privilege within employee volunteer programs?
  • As a corporate citizenship practitioner, what lessons have you learned about the role racism and privilege can play in employee volunteer programs? How are you working to incorporate these lessons moving forward?
  • What resources would you find helpful as you work to better incorporate DE&I priorities into your citizenship work?

I hope to learn from your experiences, whether employee engagement specifically, or thinking more broadly to other corporate citizenship initiatives like nonprofit board service or grantmaking. This is just a small piece of a much bigger conversation, and I look forward to continuing this discussion throughout the year.

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Leah is a Senior Director in Changing Our World’s Corporate Social Engagement Practice. With over 8 years of philanthropy and corporate responsibility experience, Leah brings a strong background in program strategy and implementation, employee engagement, and communications to her role. She is passionate about helping companies create programs that deliver meaningful social impact outcomes, while driving key business objectives.

 

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