Rethinking Community Service in a Pandemic

Mortenson volunteers at Cedar Valley Elementary earlier this year.

By Christina Zavislan

Christina Zavislan

To say this year has been full of challenges would be an understatement. But it is how we respond to those challenges that says everything about our character – as individuals, as neighbors, as a business community, and as a country.

When it comes to Mortenson’s community outreach program, like many companies, we’ve been tasked with developing more creative ways to help one another out. For more than 25 years, Mortenson has given 5 percent of its pre-tax earnings to a wide range of community initiatives. Every year, the Denver team donates their time and talents to local organizations, from renovating homes for veterans or packing food for the hungry to sponsoring efforts that expose the next generation of youth – especially students of color and young women – to career opportunities in the construction trades.

Usually our volunteer efforts get us out and about in our community, providing hands-on support to dozens of nonprofits throughout the state. Since March, Mortenson’s outreach activities have looked a little different, but they are still happening.

Rather than resigning to the difficulty of the situation, Mortenson’s Community Impact Team has re-focused the type of efforts it organizes with the goal of helping employees to achieve a greater impact than any one person could do alone.

Taking Outreach Virtual

The most obvious change Mortenson’s Community Impact Team implemented was a creating a full slate of virtual volunteering activities that can be completed entirely from the safety of one’s home. These can be accessed through a special online portal we created for our team.

The activities include things like food and clothing donations, blood drives, online reading programs with local schools, virtual 5K and bike rides to benefit local charities and causes, and making holiday giving ornaments or writing letters of encouragement to seniors in assisted living facilities.

As people are trying to maintain distance to limit the spread of COVID-19, providing safe opportunities like this to connect with the community has proven especially meaningful for our team members.

Most recently, our team completed our annual “Do Something Good” campaign with Mile High United Way. Denver team members took actions to improve themselves and the world around them, giving financially as they were able, or volunteering at one of 10 virtual events or 14 COVID-compliant in-person opportunities. This effort resulted in more than 440 hours volunteered over two weeks.

Making Action Feel Manageable

While we understood it was more important than ever to maintain our levels of community outreach, we also had to acknowledge that in-person events would need to change or be postponed.

We also knew that many people in our community were no longer in a position to be able to give at the levels they usually did. People were (and are) stretched. They may be dealing with a spouse’s layoff or have kids learning at home. They may even be dealing with illness themselves. It’s hard to think about helping others when your own mental and physical health feel jeopardized.

The most basic goal of the Community Impact Program is to improve our communities. Our belief is that we improve our communities every time we improve ourselves, because when we do, we are able to show up in our communities as better people.

With all these factors in mind, our Community Impact Team prioritized the mental and physical health of our team members during our community outreach activities. Less focus was placed on monetary giving this year. We featured activities aimed at supporting mental health and empathy because we recognized that sometimes bettering yourself as a person is the first step in becoming a better member of your community.

We broke activities into categories, with opportunities for different levels and types of activities. For example, employees have access to an online system where we bucketed out activities listed by 30-minute, 1-hour or 2-hour increments. They are also broken into categories like Mental Health and Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (DEI).

Many of the activities were also designed to be family friendly. For example, kids of Mortenson team members contributed design ideas for the official State of Colorado face mask or went with their parents to clean up the Cherry Creek Bike Trail. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for team members to find a meaningful activity to add to their week.

Connecting in Person

When it comes to in-person volunteering in 2020, there are, understandably, a number of restrictions and precautions needed to ensure a safe experience. But these haven’t stopped in-person volunteering entirely.

Fortunately, many of the safe opportunities to volunteer – outdoors and socially distanced – happen to fall within our wheelhouse of construction. From installing a new playground for Firefly Autism to asphalting and landscaping the Hope Center to building the new Women’s Village at Clara Brown Commons, which will provide a path to stable housing for women experiencing homelessness, our team has found ways to use our skillset to give back.

These sorts of activities also help keep us connected as a company. The fact that community service is such a strong part of Mortenson’s culture has made a noticeable difference in our ability to keep people engaged and connected during challenging times. More than anything, what this year has taught our Community Impact Team is that where the will to give back is strong, people will find a way. They will surprise you with their resiliency and their passion

Christina Zavislan is senior marketing manager, Community Impact Team co-chair at Mortenson. She leads all strategic marketing initiatives for the local $650M a year business focused on builder, developer, and engineering services for the commercial, institutional, and energy sectors. 

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