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Born Out of a Tsunami, Ford Volunteer Corps Uses Pandemic to Redefine Community Service

Marking 15 years of serving communities, Ford Volunteer Corps is exploring the future of employee volunteering

15 YEARS FORD VOLUNTEER CORPS logo, African American female in Ford blue hat and shirt in front of Michigan Central Train Station, masked persons with blue Ford Fund bags in back of vehicle, people in Ford Fund attire on hands and knees sorting bulbs on ground with onlooker with text Ford Volunteer Corps Celebrating 15 years


Sometimes money isn't enough. Sometimes situations are so dire they demand more. That's what Bill Ford decided after a magnitude 9.1 earthquake shook the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia on Dec. 26, 2004. Waves taller than coconut trees demolished entire neighborhoods. More than 227,000 people died.

Ford Motor Company could send money, like it had in the past. But it could also do something different. It could send people. That's what Bill Ford had in mind when he created the Ford Volunteer Corps in early 2005. Think of it as a Ford version of the Peace Corps, the 1960 experiment in public service created by President John F. Kennedy. With Ford giving them time away from work, employees in turn give their labor, expertise and a desire to help communities and people in need.

7 people sitting around table, 3 with blue Ford T-shirts sorting coins in China

Fifteen years later the world confronts a different type of tsunami. The coronavirus pandemic is sweeping across the planet, so far killing more than 900,000 people. To slow the virus spread, governments ask their citizens to avoid large groups, stand apart, wear masks. But hunger and homelessness don't catch the virus. They're alive and well. If anything, they're doing better than before. Behind the masks and across the six feet that separate us, people still want to help.

So how do we respond? How do we come up with something more when money—or a vaccine—are not enough, or ready, to save us?

The Ford Volunteer Corps is looking into what the future of service might look like. Like millions of other people around the world, many Ford employees are commuting to dining rooms and extra bedrooms instead of corporate offices. With people getting jobs done in new ways, the opportunities for virtual volunteering have increased.

We redoubled efforts with our U.S. nonprofit partners and found new ways to offer projects that can be done from a remote work location—like calling Detroit residents about the importance of the census, or mentoring students via a Zoom call. We even launched a special online educational program where employees read children's books in multiple languages for home-bound students this spring.

At the same time, the world of skill-based volunteering is flourishing. Nonprofits that could no longer have in-person events or had to reduce staff suddenly find themselves in urgent need for expertise in alternative fundraising; email marketing and social media; website and IT topics; HR support; and operational issues like how to safely re-open facilities.

Female and male in blue Ford attire pushing brooms on covered walkway, more volunteers in background

Ford Volunteer Corps is looking at new ways to tap into the surging need for skill-based service. In the U.S., we are planning pilot program with Catchafire, a New York-based company that pairs skilled volunteers with nonprofits. We are also part of an internal research project exploring new ways for employees to engage with nonprofit organizations to schedule and perform community service projects.

Meantime, the need for traditional in-person projects continues. Nonprofits still need to pack and deliver food. Homes need building and parks need refurbishing. Ford Volunteer Corps has revised its policies in line with company guidelines to keep employee volunteers and nonprofits safe.

Someday, the world will gain the upper hand against COVID-19. What lessons will we take from banding together to battle a common enemy? Will the distances we enforce now result in a stronger need to connect through community service in the future?

Whatever the outcome, Ford employees organized by the Ford Volunteer Corps will be part of the solution.

Just like they were 15 years ago.

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