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13 workplaces helping our communities get through COVID-19


Photo courtesy of Carleton University via Twitter.

At United Way East Ontario, we’ve long known the power of workplace teams when they rally together about a cause they care about, to make a difference for those in need.

In fact, each year, hundreds of local workplaces across Prescott-Russell, Ottawa, Lanark County and Renfrew County gather to learn about local issues, hear from experts on work being done, and engage in fundraising efforts—all with the goal of making our communities stronger.

With many workplace teams choosing the fall as the time they partner with the United Way, we knew this year would be a challenge because of the pandemic. Normally, our supporters in workplaces across our region are used to kicking off their campaigns with fun, in-person events, celebrating their impact with guest speakers, and inspiring donations through bake sales, auctions, talent shows, truck pulls, breakfasts, and so much more. 

But, as September rolled around, many offices were still closed, employees were working remotely, and we weren’t sure how everyone’s personal circumstances had changed since the pandemic began. Even those whose incomes were unaffected by the shutdowns and slowdowns were unsure what the coming months would bring.

A photo of Mark Taylor

By Mark Taylor
Vice President of Resource Development

While everything around us was riddled with uncertainty, one thing was clear: our communities needed our help more than ever before.

Kids who were struggling with school before were at greatest risk of falling behind, because they were disconnected from mentors, teachers, and friends. Seniors couldn’t go to their day programs, and were dealing with overwhelming feelings of loneliness. Homeless youth didn’t have their typical support hubs, mental health struggles were affecting even more people, and people living in low income situations needed access to basic needs, like masks. All of the issues United Way works to tackle year-round were amplified because of COVID-19, and it was up to us to find innovative, measurable, long-lasting solutions.

We needed to make sure that our workplace partners had everything they needed to help us fuel the solutions to this new reality. So, we adapted our physical toolkits by bringing them online, and introduced new experiences that not only helped educate our caring partners on emerging local issues, but also offered them a way to engage their workforce in creative and fun ways to make a difference together.

What we’ve seen over the past four months is nothing short of exceptional.

Not only did our workplace supporters embrace wholeheartedly the virtual nature of their campaigns, but their creativity and overwhelming support has been inspiring to witness. We’re still tackling the issues we faced at the beginning of the pandemicremaining nimble as needs evolveand thanks to our supporters, we’re equipped to support our communities’ most vulnerable for the long-term. 

Below are just a few examples of how our workplace partners have adapted this year:

1) Costco

The Costco Canada Call Centre in Ottawa who has speakers come in each year continued to do so at a safe distance, once a week during the month of October. Our colleague Sue Hutton, Director of Workplace Philanthropy, shared the impact we’re making in our communitiesthanks to supporters like Cotsco employeesfrom the second floor of the call centre with a megaphone! This year, Costco achieved 88 per cent of staff participation in their campaigna 36 per cent increase from 2019, even during COVID-19. 

2) TechInsights

As part of TechInsights’ charitable focus of supporting mental health and family-based initiatives, this year, they’ve partnered with United Way to support an after school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning club aimed at high school-aged youth from some of Ottawa’s most at risk neighbourhoods. 

Beginning in January 2021 at the Britannia Woods Community House, the program will leverage TechInsights’ foundation of supporting technical innovation while leveling the playing field for youth and bolstering their social and educational development for years to come. TechInsights staff have been rallying to support the initiative through virtual engagement activities like a shortbread cookie fundraiser and fantasy football. In the new year, they look forward to meeting the youth that they will support, and offering tours and mentorship to encourage them to join careers in technology.

Sue Hutton at the Costco call centre in Ottawa

3) Carleton University 

Carleton University has bolstered their support for the community this year. Kicking things off with a virtual soup lunch and campaign launch, staff learned to prepare an amazing butternut squash soup and heard from United Way guest speaker, Sue Hutton, about the local impact they have with United Way. 

They’ve also proven their courage through their annual Polar Bear Dip event, where Carleton’s President, Benoit-Antoine Bacon, and French language professor, Chantal Dion, made their way into the crisp November waters of Westboro beach in support of their campaign. Carleton University also organized a successful virtual auction with United Way support, and promoted creating impact in the community through digital communications.

Benoit-Antoine Bacon and Chantal Dion

4) CIHI (Canadian Institute for Health Information)

CIHI became a national campaign this year, centralized from United Way East Ontario. Their rock-star campaign planning committee organized a “masked singer” contest and ran a virtual pictionary tournament using the white board feature on Microsoft Teams. This event helped many staff become comfortable with the technology feature, but also let them have a laugh with colleagues and involve their families in the fun. 

5) Hydro Ottawa

Hydro Ottawa employee Shane LaBrash returned for his second year as chair Hydro Ottawa’s charitable campaign, and was faced with new challenges of organizing fundraisers that would need to have a drastically different look. In the Ottawa Business Journal’s Great Giving Guide of 2020, he said “It’s certainly not going to be easy, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.” Hydro Ottawa planned activities that would respect physical distancing, including a virtual lunchtime trivia series and a pet photo contest. 

CIHI United Way Committee and virtual pictionary

6) Carleton Place LCBO

The pandemic didn’t stop our region’s essential workers, and it most definitely didn’t stop Carleton Place’s LCBO staffand residentsfrom supporting their community in this time of increased need. LCBO’s point of sale campaign in support of United Way ran throughout the country in October, and Carleton Place’s fundraising efforts landed them at number 6 in the province! “My team was on fire”, said Ed Merkley, Manager of the Carleton Place store. 

7) Chemistry Industry Association of Canada

During President and CEO Bob Masterson’s eleven years at Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), employees have always been offered the opportunity to contribute to United Way either through an annual donation or payroll deduction. But as a national association, the corporate efforts were always focused on engaging in causes and issues closely related to the industry they represent.  Most, if not all, of their member-companies actively engage and invest in their own communities, so a few years ago they challenged themselves to do the same and directed their efforts more locally. They have risen to that challenge.

By adding a silent auction with all proceeds going to the United Way to increase their overall contribution, their efforts have been quite successful—even with the added challenge of a pandemic. This year, Bob Masterson said, “I am proud to say our contributions exceeded my expectations, with 92 per cent staff participation. Staff donations, matched by corporate funds, led to a record amount raised. We’ve set the bar high for next year, and it couldn’t be for a more worthy cause.”

8. Surgenor Automotive Group 

As an essential service, Surgenor Automotive Group remained open during the shutdowns to continue supporting their customers with their automotive needs. Despite the added pressure of operating during a pandemic, Surgenor Automotive Group was able to continue helping those most vulnerable in our region through support of their community campaign with United Way. With no ability to host special events and with half the time to inspire giving in comparison to previous years, team members didn’t let that stop them and managed to raise $100,000 despite the challenges—an incredible achievement. At all Ottawa locations, the team at Surgenor continues to work together to make a difference for those who need it most.

9) CGI 

This year, CGI, like many other organizations, was forced to move their campaign efforts 100 per cent virtual. The committee at CGI decided to host an auction, where individuals can bid on the Vice President they’d most like to see pied in the face. Keep in mind, the VPs were more than happy to take part in this virtual fundraising effort! With six VPs included, they promised that if their fundraising efforts exceeded $1,000, they would all get pied. $1,140 later, all six VPs were subsequently pied in the face, online, in front of many staff watching intently.

As a result, this team had a great time, slowed down for an afternoon, and laughed … a lot! CGI also invited United Way to share impact stories and information to their staff in a virtual town hall event, where they also enlisted the help of a local celebrity chef to provide instructions on how to make the perfect scrambled eggs.

10) Innovapost

When approaching their campaign, Innovapost wondered if a 100 per cent virtual campaign would be possible, and if people would participate. Their dedicated team of volunteers said they would not have it any other way, because they knew that while the amount raised may be lower, more than ever it was important to be involved and do whatever they could to support their community. 

Some of Innovapost’s biggest fundraising events from past years were not possible in a virtual environment. While the team cut back on the number of virtual events, they made sure they would be fun, interactive, and engaging—prizes included! Events included a team trivia pursuit challenge using Kahoot, a virtual team scavenger hunt, and a virtual Halloween costume contest where people submitted pictures and the staff voted. One of the staff’s favorite events was where the executive team competed against each other in a series of short challenges such as stacking dice on a popsicle stick, sorting M&Ms by color and a few more.

11) Ontario Provincial Police

For many years the Ontario Provincial Police-East Region has supported UWEO-Lanark and Smiths Falls through an annual truck pull.  Such a large community event was not possible because of COVID-19, so our friends at OPP-East Region opted for an online evening of trivia and games, an outdoor staff barbeque, and an in-office challenge to continue the tradition of donation in their workplace. The members of the OPP see first-hand the value of their contributions to the vulnerable residents of Lanark County and Smiths Falls, and their support of United Way East Ontario is unwavering, even during a pandemic. 

12) Immigration and Citizenship Canada

Immigration and Citizenship Canada held an impactful panel event on the subject of mental health that brought together United Way partners and people with lived experience of mental health challenges, both to break down the stigma of mental health challenges and to raise support for these programs in our communities.

13) Deloitte 

Deloitte held a virtual live poll event, engaging their team in a “virtual speaker with a live poll” challenge that encouraged staff to spend a day in the life of someone in our community who has accessed community support. They followed this up by offering their team to support United Way’s role in helping the community respond to COVID-19, and encouraging their group to become volunteers with United Way and other organizations across Ottawa. 

Special mentions:

A number of workplaces have also requested to write letters to vulnerable seniors, including Algonquin College Pembroke Campus, BMO, TD, Accenture and The Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC).

Friends at TD and BMO have also stepped up to help us with donating items like winter supplies, hygiene items and kits for those most vulnerable, including homeless youth.

While community service organizations are rallying and innovating to make a difference for those in need, so too are workplace teams across our region.

These local leaders are not only raising awareness for the issues and causes they care about, but they are inspiring increased engagement and overcoming virtual hurdles to truly make a difference in their local communities, all while bringing teams together during a time when we’re craving connectedness. 

Thank you to all our workplace partners who have made it a priority—this year and every year—to learn about the issues facing your communities, hear about the impact we’re able to have together, and support this important work. 

Learn more about how your workplace can make a local difference with United Way.



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