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2020 could well be described as the year of the virtual volunteer. With COVID-19 forcing the closure of schools for much of the year, as well as severely limiting capacity for social interaction and physical meetings, the very basis of many of corporate citizenship programmes was called into question writes Karina Howley, Head of Citizenship at KPMG in Ireland.

Our programmes go virtual

We quickly adapted to this new environment and successfully pivoted a number of existing and new programmes to enable them to be delivered safely from home or other remote locations and over 130 KPMG staff members have continued to volunteer and give back to their communities despite the challenges presented by COVID-19.

This has seen us continue to work with elderly people in the immediate vicinity of our Stokes Place office in Dublin, provide support to elder charity Alone, assist Junior Cert students with remote study, help immigrant workers find jobs in the professional services sector and, of course, run an incredibly successful KPMG Children’s Book Ireland Awards in a virtual format.

Young man using laptop and wearing headphones

Changing plans

When COVID-19 hit in March the schools closed almost immediately. This had a massive impact on our plans and we weren’t able to continue with many of our programmes. We responded by looking at other needs in the community which could be met in a virtual or socially distanced format. Our corporate citizenship agenda focuses on skills-based volunteering and we looked around for appropriate fits for our people’s skills. 

Staying in touch with our older citizens

Among the first things we did was contact ALONE to find out how we could support the organisation during this difficult time. That resulted in 50 KPMG volunteers providing support to ALONE’s befriending service with elderly people and also supporting their check-in service to existing volunteers.  

One of the high points of our citizenship activity every year is our old folks party for people who live near Stokes Place. In its absence, this year we launched the All Write Together initiative where KPMG volunteers wrote to elderly members of the local community to ask them how they were dealing with COVID-19 and sharing their own experiences. In many cases, they also got their kids to join in by drawing pictures or enclosing their own notes.

The response to this has been truly heart-warming with people telling us how wonderful it is to receive a personalised hand-written letter.

Lady reading a handwritten letter

At the YMCA…

At the other end of the age spectrum is one of our new citizenship partners, the YMCA on Dublin’s Aungier Street. Prior to COVID-19, YMCA provided an evening homework club for young people. That has been able to continue online thanks to the work of six KPMG volunteers. They helped Junior Cert students to continue to study online through a series of weekly Zoom sessions.

Helping new arrivals through mentoring

It was also particularly gratifying to be able to continue with our EPIC Mentoring using technology. We have been providing mentors to these important programmes since 2011 and it was very important to us that they continued this year. Run in conjunction with Business in the Community, the programme is aimed at migrants who have business or accounting qualifications from their home countries but who find it difficult to get jobs in the professional services industry here due to a lack of personal networks and other factors. Our volunteers help them overcome these difficulties through one to one mentoring advice. Instead of it being a physical meeting in previous years, now are mentors are meeting their mentees over Zoom.

A new programme we developed with Business in the Community is our Career Buddy initiative. This initiative is open to people from the Business in the Community Ready for Work programme (supporting people with disabilities or health challenges), EPIC’s migrant people and Women@Work (where women who are single parents, returning to the workforce or female migrants), all struggling to get into employment. The career buddy service provides career guidance and CV and interview techniques advice as well as other supports for possible next steps in their job search. 

The KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards go virtual

The KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards provided another positive experience. The Awards recognise excellence in writing and illustration in Irish or English by authors and illustrators who were born in Ireland or are based here. We announced our sponsorship in January of this year and almost immediately found many of our planned events and activities derailed by COVID-19.

We had to figure out new ways of engaging with our young audience and encouraging reading generally. We used social media very effectively and KPMG volunteers took to Instagram to talk about their favourite author or book when they were a child. We also ran weekly competitions on social media for children to write short pieces about their favourite book or share questions they would like to ask their favourite author or draw a picture inspired by a book.

KPMG Children's Books Ireland Awards

Audrey Faldador reads a story to Seamus Hand, Managing Partner, KPMG in Ireland; Elaina Ryan, CEO of Children's Books Ireland; and Karina Howley, Head of Corporate Citizenship, KPMG in Ireland.

Rick O’Shea announces the winners

This was highly successful and generated a real buzz around the Awards which were presented in May in an online ceremony hosted by Rick O’Shea. The book of the year award went to Máire Zepf for Nóinín; honour award for fiction winner was Sarah Crossan for Toffee; and honour award for illustration went to Ashling Lindsay for The Tide. (For a full list of winners click here)

Citizenship in a virtual world

We are now looking forward to dealing with a new set of challenges. At a time when we would normally be looking for volunteers to work with our partner schools on literacy and numeracy programmes, accountancy grinds, and career mentoring there are clearly limitations on in-person activity. And with the schools having to deal with the mammoth challenge of operating with COVID-19 still in the community, these programmes are slower to resume and more challenging than in previous years.

We are looking at a blended format for some of our programmes and adapting them for delivery in that format. We are confident that by working closely with our partner schools we will come up with solutions to meet the children’s needs.

That needs based approach is at the core of everything we do in our Corporate Citizenship programme. We look at where our own skills and expertise lie and how they can be utilised to meet the needs of the community.

Woman using laptop and wearing headphones

Lessons for other businesses

Looking at needs and combining them with the skills based approach can be adopted by any organisation. For example, many charities and not for profits have had to move online and have struggled with technical aspects of that change. Many companies have the IT expertise which they could lend to organisations which are dealing with those challenges. Similarly, they could offer expertise in areas like marketing to assist them in running online fundraising campaigns.

Harnessing the power of our people

This support can be delivered from anywhere. We have been working from home in so many situations that it is more important than ever for employees to feel engaged and connected to their employer and their communities. Never before have I seen people wanting to give back so much. It may be more challenging in the current environment, but we need to harness that and find ways to use our skills, experience and expertise to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Corporate Citizenship at KPMG