All volunteer programs, from skills-based Global Pro Bono programs to traditional hands on engagements are experiencing significant changes to their plans as a result of COVID-19, with many programs postponed, canceled or shifted from in-person to virtual engagements.
Informing program stakeholders—whether they are participating employees, host organizations, or other interested parties—about program changes and the long-term implications will be important for the continued success and sustainability of your programs and can help protect relationships with partners.
A strong communication strategy will minimize uncertainty and put you in a good place to restart full operations once the current situation has passed. We’re happy to share some of our learnings developed over 30 years facilitating pro bono and volunteer programs to help you navigate the way.
Overarching Approach to Communications with your Global Pro Bono Program Stakeholders
- Engage your stakeholders as early as you can to determine the best decision and a possible path forward for your program
- Be transparent in your communication—this will help maintain trust and ease the disappointment of a delayed activity
- Provide clear reasons for specific decisions so the “why” is as clear as the “what”
- Continue to communicate updates with your stakeholders even after initial decisions have been made—they’ll appreciate that you are keeping them informed
- There will definitely be disappointment and not everyone will understand why you’ve decided to delay your activities. As you know, the safety of all your stakeholders is always top of mind so be clear as to how that contributes to your decision and that a variety of factors will need to be considered prior to resuming programming
- Leverage senior leadership to communicate when necessary
- What you communicate will depend on the status of program, if participants are already on assignment, about to begin program preparation, in the interview stage, en route home, or other. It’s important to tailor your message to each so that people have the information they need, but aren’t overwhelmed by unnecessary details
- Make sure you are consistent with existing travel policies to the extent possible, but provide flexibility if the situation requires. Just be sure to document where you have bypassed the standard policy for future reference
- Ask participants to seek refunds from vendors on any expenses they may have incurred for the programs and, where relevant, cancel flights as soon as possible
- Thank participants for their understanding and enthusiasm for the program … then thank them again
- Direct participants to alternative ways to engage in their community by linking them to resources such as the VolunteerMatch COVID-19 Resource Hub, which provides direct access to search and connect to volunteer opportunities
- Update participants periodically to let them know that your team is closely monitoring the situation
Host Organization Communications
- What you communicate will depend on the status of your program, if you are just in the process of initiating a relationship with a host organization, beginning scope of work development, or an organization is preparing for participant arrival/departure
- Your communications should align with your existing communication plans
- Be mindful not to overpromise a future engagement but do keep the door open to future opportunities and consider asking:
- Would your organization be available to work with a volunteer team in the coming months?
- When would be the best timing for your organization?
- With the program being foreseeably postponed, will your current scope of work still be relevant to your organization later in 2020?
- Thank the organization for their understanding and enthusiasm for the program
- Consider connecting the organization to other opportunities such as VolunteerMatch Connect, a free product that supports organizations to recruit and coordinate volunteers at a local, state, and federal levels or open source materials while they wait for a revised timeline
- Update your host partners periodically to let them know that your program team is monitoring the situation
Remote staff/Consultant Communications
- Clearly communicate the work and travel that is permitted based on the status of your program
- If possible, repurpose field-based staff to support ongoing efforts
- Revisit staff contracts and issue contact modifications based on the new scope and timeline. It might be necessary to put a formal pause on contracts and reinitiate them when the program restarts
- Local staff and consultants can act as a resource in communicating with local host organizations and vendors, provided they have very clear guidelines
Considerations for Revisiting your Global Pro Bono Program Plan
If you are planning to restart your program at a later date, it’s not as easy as simply choosing to relaunch once the situation has stabilized. It’s important to fully revisit your program plan—look at your program’s timeline, understand your resources and remaining budget, and determine steps to reengage your participants and host organizations to confirm their interest and availability. Below are key considerations for revisiting the various aspects of your program plan.