Welcoming our community into the Park to keep our four miles of shared urban green space clean, green and beautiful is what the Hudson River Park Friends Volunteer Program is all about – and bringing teams of employees from our Corporate Members into the Park to make a difference is a big part of that. In 2020, when we were unable to invite large groups into the field, we expanded our understanding of what giving back to the Park through volunteering means.
Last year, longtime Park supporter ViacomCBS took part in our first ever virtual volunteering projects as part of their annual Community Day, and they’ve returned for more virtual volunteering in 2021. We spoke to Adam Robinson, ViacomCBS’s VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, about why volunteering matters so much to his team, especially over the past year and a half, and how to maintain the impact and engagement of projects when going virtual.
HRPK: ViacomCBS teams have volunteered in Hudson River Park for several years now; why has volunteering been so important to you and your colleagues?
AR: When we conducted a survey last year, 90% of our employees who responded flagged volunteering as an important element of their employee experience.
Volunteering is important because it creates a sense of purpose across our global workforce and helps reinforce the notion that our work, passion and commitment to one another stretch far beyond our office and organization.
From the pandemic to the racial reckoning happening across America and around the world, the last year and a half has only amplified the relevance of community and the value of giving back. And, our employees have demonstrated a real commitment to stepping up and engaging in a meaningful way. It’s important for our team to help create those opportunities and make those connections – it’s our job to help nurture a more impact-minded workforce, and our employees have been more than up for the task.
HRPK: How long has ViacomCBS, or Viacom before the merger, been doing corporate volunteering?
AR: This past Virtual Community Day was ViacomCBS’s 25th year devoting a day to give back to the community. It’s been a part of this company’s DNA from the beginning, and something that continues to be woven into all aspects of our organization, from our employee values to our renewed focus on access and opportunity across the media and entertainment landscape.
It’s also a global event across ViacomCBS – this year, we activated over 30 regions globally with events literally following the horizon line. It always amazes me to get the footage and hear the stories of our international offices – this is among the most binding experiences within our organization in terms of employee engagement… it’s pens and papers (and laptops) down around the world!
HRPK: Last year, early in the pandemic, Friends put together some virtual volunteer projects for ViacomCBS employees. In fact, the ViacomCBS projects were the first virtual projects we produced. This is now the second year that ViacomCBS volunteered virtually with Hudson River Park Friends. Can you share a little about those experiences?
AR: Yes! TBH, when the pandemic struck a month before our annual day of service in 2020 our team was perplexed to say the least. We had just been told we’d be working from home indefinitely, and virtual volunteering hadn’t yet immersed itself across the impact landscape (what a difference a year makes…). We got ahold of our community partners and had very real conversations as to whether any of their offerings were easily reimagined in the virtual environment and/or if they had any tasks or opportunities for our employees to lend a hand.
When Friends suggested a data project focused on fish counts within the Hudson River, we thought: Why not? It was a virtual opportunity helping a longtime friend of the organization and it underscored one of our company values—agility and adaptability. What we didn’t anticipate was how popular this activity was going to be – and it just “sold out” for the 2nd year in a row! We couldn’t be happier with the idea that our goal of finding something for everyone couldn’t be truer with this project.
This year we also added a 2nd activity that engaged our employees who are fluent in foreign languages. From Turkish to Spanish, we were able work with Friends to help HRPK’s River Project translate a series of online lessons to further amplify their education efforts and reach more members of the community.
HRPK: How has shifting to virtual affected the impact ViacomCBS has on the surrounding communities?
AR: I think the important word in this response is that it’s affected the impact but hasn’t minimized or eliminated it. In any partnership, I think it’s important that the value exchange is, in essence, valuable. When the world went virtual, we had to recalibrate our approach, and more importantly, put even greater focus and intent on centering the organization at the core of any engagement conversation. What we were very clear on from the beginning was not volunteering for volunteering’s sake.
It became even more vital to make sure we were maintaining a solution-oriented mindset, and whether it was helping reimagine direct services in the virtual environment, shifting and consulting on messaging pivots or simply checking in on senior members of the community, the impact was guided by the need and the opportunity to collaborate – if anything, it was a nice reminder that the approach and bedrock of why should remain the same regardless of the medium.
HRPK: Can you tell us about your employees’ experience working with the Hudson River Park Friends team?
AR: Hudson River Park Friends is a legacy partner of ViacomCBS. Our employees are passionate about a multitude of causes, partners and movements and have a true passion for giving back. This includes the shared spaces in our cities as well as their surrounding environments.
We’ve always had a great time visiting the Park and immersing ourselves in nature – especially for those who live, work and commute in the concrete jungle that is Manhattan. Whether virtual or in-person, we truly value our partnership with Hudson River Park Friends and look forward to continuing our partnership – on Zoom and in the grass.