How Corporate America Stepped Up during the Pandemic 

Companies’ quick response and adaptation has proven to be the lifeblood of philanthropy during a time of crisis

by Carla Vargas Jasa 

The Giving USA 2020 report showed 2019 philanthropic giving close to the record level set in 2017 and that the past three years were the highest years on record. This report also showed corporate giving was up 13%. 

Then, COVID-19 hit home —hard — requiring all of us to quickly adapt and bend to respond to new situations and needs for our communities, employees and our families. Corporations, foundations and individuals had to make a decision: maintain philanthropic investments as “business as usual” based on predetermined focus areas, or quickly adjust to meet community needs during this crisis? 

Fortunately, many companies chose the latter, making lightning-speed decisions to stabilize local communities, and adapting to new methods of employee engagement and giving to respond to immediate and evolving needs in the virtual environment. 

Valley of the Sun United Way partners with companies in the Phoenix metro area through employee giving campaigns and volunteerism to support our neighbors in areas of education, homelessness, hunger and financial stability. When COVID-19 struck, we were concerned corporate partners would put giving campaigns on hold, suspend them altogether, or that it would be difficult to reach their teams through our new “Zoom normal.” In fact, we found the complete opposite to be true.

It’s heartening how companies “stepped up” and their leadership and associates “showed up” virtually, to learn about community needs and contribute to immediate solutions. Here are some examples:

Increased Giving. According to Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) of America’s June/July 2020 The Voice of Corporate Philanthropy in Response to COVID-19 Worldwide report, one-quarter of the corporations surveyed are giving 10-25% more and over 12% increased giving 50% or more. Our local community benefited from heightened support, as 44 corporate partners increased their United Way giving to include the United for the Valley COVID-19 Fund, while 14 supported our United Way for the first time.

Flexible Grantmaking. Due to the urgent need, some corporations streamlined their grantmaking processes and shortened timelines. In many cases, significant corporate grants were made based on a simple letter request and granted within a week. Grantors saw the need, cut through traditional processes, and responded. 

Unique Cause Marketing. This past year, several local cause-marketing partnerships emerged, such as one of America’s most recognizable beer brands donating $1 to the United for the Valley COVID-19 Fund for every case of beer sold, and a full-service real estate technology company committing funding from every Arizona home sold. Several restaurants contributed a portion of online and drive-through sales to support hunger relief. Staff at a local store of the world’s largest coffeehouse chain created United Way greeting cards to spread holiday cheer.

Innovative Volunteerism. Vello, Valley of the Sun United Way’s virtual tutoring program, quickly pivoted to connect volunteers to students at home, ensuring they wouldn’t be left behind despite uncertain school schedules. These volunteer tutors, typically employees of United Way corporate partners, share 30 minutes per week to improve student reading skills in school and at home. In partnership with several corporate partners, we launched the Connect United helpline for families navigating virtual learning technology. More than half of the I.T. hotline shifts were staffed with volunteers employed by the largest bank in the U.S. 

Diversified Employee Giving. Companies are providing employees simple ways to support solutions to racial, social, economic and education inequities, and, in some instances, matching employee donations to make the impact even greater. For example, one of the Big Four accounting firms quickly created an opportunity for employees to donate to a “Digital Divide” fund, creating equity for all students learning in a virtual setting. Others are partnering with United Way to use its digital giving platforms so employees can easily learn about and support emerging issues. 

Corporate support remains vital as the impact of the pandemic continues to widen gaps for struggling families. As one of our education partners stated recently, “Damage continues to be done on a daily basis and it will last for generations.”

It’s clear that cross-sector collaboration and partnership — with nonprofits, corporations and the public sector working together, listening to each other and responding nimbly — is critical to address the ever-changing, complex and critical needs of our communities. Companies are to be commended for “stepping up” and investing so strongly in local communities, and in such innovative ways, despite the impact many experienced to their own bottom lines due to the pandemic.

Let this be an instructive case study of the leadership role companies can play by flexibly and responsively investing resources and engaging employees in solutions during our current community crisis, and beyond.  

Highlights from ‘The Voice of Corporate Philanthropy in Response to COVID-19 Worldwide’ Report

Charities Aid Foundation of America captured the voices of 73 corporations and corporate foundations that shared the impact of the pandemic on their philanthropic giving. The Volume #4 report, conducted June 25 to July 10, 2020, found:

  • 98.61% of corporations supported U.S.-based charitable organizations (past three months of giving)
  • 72.46% of giving was to Food Security/Agriculture (top area funded)
  • 43.66% of corporations increased their number of grants 

Carla Vargas Jasa is the president and chief executive officer of Valley of the Sun United Way in Phoenix, which serves the more than 4.3 million people of Maricopa County and is among the largest United Way chapters in the nation.

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