Rethinking workplace charitable campaigns

Leading businesses and organizations find fresh ways of engaging employees through corporate giving
Megan Paterson
Megan Paterson is the chief human resources officer at Kinaxis, which has found new ways of engaging with its employees and giving back to the community – even in the absence of in-person events. Photo by Mark Holleron
Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the 2020-21 Giving Guide. Read the full publication here.

Remember the good old office days when everyone did everything together, including raising money for charity through bake sales, BBQs and bingo?

Not anymore – not during the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many employees still working from home and large gatherings deemed too risky, face-to-face fundraisers at the workplace just aren’t happening right now.

But that doesn’t mean employees are any less supportive of giving and volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic. If anything, companies and their staff want to lend a hand now more than ever.

Professional fundraisers are seeing more innovation with how employees support their favourite charities. Some are using virtual and digital technology. Others are turning to fundraising events that are all about staying healthy. 

At Kinaxis, some employees have been passing on their pandemic perks to help out those in need. When the nation went into lockdown, the Kanata-based supply chain management software firm gave its employees $1,300 each to set up home offices with supplies, furniture and equipment. Some staff who already had everything they needed to do their jobs remotely offered to give some or all of the money to charity.

Kinaxis loved the idea so much that they agreed to match all donations, said Megan Paterson, the company’s chief human resources officer.

“We wanted to make sure that we’re still able to give back, even though we know we’re not able to have these in-person fundraisers and events that are typically part of our culture,” she said.

Kinaxis, which employs nearly 600 people in Ottawa, has three local charities of choice: the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) Foundation, Interval House of Ottawa, which is a domestic abuse shelter for women and their children, and Quickstart, which provides early intervention programs for children with autism.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to give back to the communities that we live and work in,” said Paterson.

Employee and community engagement

Elsewhere in Ottawa, Field Effect Software employees have been turning to social enterprise GiveShop to help raise money for the CHEO Foundation. The new app-based, online marketplace allows donors and buyers to exchange gently used items while simultaneously raising money for charities.

“People still care about our charities, and are trying to figure out how they can support them in this current COVID landscape when they can’t be face-to-face.”

“People still care about our charities, and are trying to figure out how they can support them in this current COVID landscape when they can’t be face-to-face,” said Chantal Charbonneau, director of annual giving and employee engagement for the CHEO Foundation. “It’s pretty heartwarming to see the creativity but, even more importantly, to see the continued passion to support the physical and mental health of children and youth.”

It’s becoming a growing trend for workplaces to support fundraisers that boost health and wellness. Such events can be held over a period of days or weeks, allowing participants to complete their goals on their own time.

“Mental health and physical health are both top of mind right now with companies everywhere,” said Lydia Blanchard, CHEO Foundation’s director of community engagement. “They’re finding a way of keeping employees happy and healthy while also making an impact on the community around them, which is a really effective combination.”

Hydro Ottawa has had a longstanding relationship with United Way East Ontario (UWEO). During the company’s 2019 annual charitable campaign, it matched every donation made by employees to United Way.

United Way “appeals to a lot of different aspects of what the needs are in the community,” said Geoff Simpson, Hydro Ottawa’s chief financial officer and the charitable campaign’s executive sponsor.

UWEO collects and distributes millions of dollars each year to projects and local charities that bring people together to build strong, healthy and safe communities. Between March 17 and Aug. 31, 2020, UWEO distributed in excess of $5.3 million to support more than 120 local initiatives that were responding to the effects of COVID-19.

Hydro Ottawa employee Shane LaBrash is returning for his second year to chair the utility’s charitable campaign. He’s facing new challenges with having to organize fundraisers that will have a drastically different look.

“It’s certainly not going to be easy, but I’m looking forward to the challenge,” said LaBrash.

Hydro Ottawa has several fundraising activities planned that respect physical distancing protocols, including a virtual lunchtime trivia series and a pet photo contest. 

It’s all about engagement and fundraising, said LaBrash.

“We hope that if we focus on engagement, the fundraising (will) come naturally.”

“We hope that if we focus on engagement, the fundraising (will) come naturally.”

Local news coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak has helped to highlight how the pandemic is having a particularly devastating impact on vulnerable populations living with mental illness, disabilities and/or in poverty.

“You name it, those things have been made exponentially worse by COVID, and society at large is now seeing this,” said Mark Taylor, vice-president of resource development with United Way East Ontario. “This has driven unprecedented amounts of engagement with us.”

The organization has seen its volunteer numbers double to 600 this year for its Government of Canada Workplace Charity Campaign. “There are people who are just coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘With everything that’s going on, we’d really like to get involved with the United Way campaign and help give back to the community this year,’” said Taylor.

Read the full 2020 Giving Guide: