Corporate Volunteers Heed the Call of Disaster Relief

Brian Calcagno

From rebuilding hurricane-damaged homes to building resilient cities, how individuals and groups can use service to improve communities and corporate social responsibility.

On a hot and humid Houston summer day, the room was buzzing with close to 50 Macy’s employees anxious to get to work. I began my morning introduction to the group by welcoming them to the Team Rubicon Houston Rebuild office and thanking them for taking time out of their lives to help their community. These corporate volunteers, most of whom are employed at one of the retailer’s Houston-based stores, came to join Team Rubicon in its rebuild efforts for local families affected by Hurricane Harvey. Intermixed in the sea of their red shirts were the Greyshirts—Team Rubicon volunteers—excited to bring a group of Macy’s employees under their wing and teach them how to install insulation, hang drywall, or even the art of taping and mudding. After a quick rundown of our mission in Houston—rebuild 100 homes in two years—we sent the Macy’s employees off with Greyshirts to their respective houses.

Eight hours later, as the groups returned from their worksites, exhausted and covered in paint, drywall, mud, and sweat, the joy and laughter on their faces said it all. Many Macy’s employees shared their positive and heartfelt experiences from the day’s work, and all left with some new skills and a new family in Team Rubicon. Some were so inspired they signed up to become Greyshirts giving them the opportunity to deploy to operations around the globe. One, Judy, would come back to work numerous shifts at Rebuild to help these families recover. A year later, she even organized a small group of Macy’s employees to return to Houston Rebuild, where they worked on a home in La Porte, TX. Motivated by their experiences, those Macy’s employees even facilitated a donation of furniture to go in the home once it was complete.

In my various roles over the last three years with Team Rubicon, I’ve had the privilege to organize volunteer days with many corporations. The Macy’s deployment to Houston is one of many stories of our corporate partners not only supporting financially to fuel our mission but also investing their time to help their community. Since as far back as Hurricane Sandy, when Goldman Sachs employees volunteered along Greyshirts, Team Rubicon has seen the incredible impact corporate volunteers bring to disaster relief. Over the last decade, corporate volunteers have proven vital to our impact time and again.

Corporate Volunteers Help Build Resilient Cities

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Team Rubicon launched its largest operation to date, flying volunteers from across the country to Houston, TX. From September to December, 1,762 Greyshirts worked more than 139,900 hours on 972 homes between Rockport and Beaumont, totaling in $6.72 million in estimated retail value. Truly an incredible impact and a sign of the commitment our volunteers have to communities affected by disasters.

But then Team Rubicon asked: Could the gap between disaster striking and mobilizing the first response be reduced in a way that saves lives, helps restore communities more quickly, and even help prevent billions in economic loss?” The answer: yes, and to do so would mean creating local resiliency. 

According to 2010 Census information, 103,000 veterans lived in Harris County at the time of Harvey’s landfall. We imagined what would have happened if, prior to the storm, Team Rubicon had trained just 10% of those veterans to our standards, and empowered them to personally help their community recover. The impact we could have made with a very localized response would have been immense. We wouldn’t have needed to fly thousands of volunteers from major metros across the country. Instead, a local density of volunteers would be trained and ready to help their neighbors immediately after a disaster.

From that line of thinking, and with an initial $1 million investment from the AT&T Foundation, Team Rubicon’s Resilient City Strategy was born. The Resilient City Strategy is to grow Team Rubicon’s ability to rapidly and consistently respond to local and national disasters by establishing teams of volunteers in major population centers across the country. These teams will work together to train and develop members and support our ability to help communities affected by disasters.

Already, resilient cities are up and running. And, the volunteers who embody them isn’t strictly limited to military veterans. Employees of our corporate partners play a pivotal role in filling our ranks since they live and work in these communities. To date, roughly 2,300 of our 140,000 Greyshirts identify as employees of one of our 55 strategic corporate partners. This leaves tremendous room for growth as Team Rubicon continues to scale in reach and capabilities to meet the more than 300 natural disasters that hit the U.S. every single year.

To further build out resilient cities in places hit by everything from tornadoes to blizzards every year, Team Rubicon is actively growing its ranks of corporate volunteers. And while it’s easy for corporations and their employees to sign up, it’s not just the employees and corporations that reap the rewards of being a Greyshirt but the very communities these corporations call home.

Serving the Community; Serving Corporate Social Responsibility

One of the valuable ways that Team Rubicon includes corporate volunteers is through membership as Greyshirts. Single-day group events can have tremendous impact on rebuild sites or response operations, but it is the full integration into the Team Rubicon family that has a lasting effect on communities seeking to recover from a disaster and the volunteer.

One such example is Hilton employee John, who, through Hilton’s support for Team Rubicon’s Houston Rebuild, signed up to be a Greyshirt. After participating in several Team Rubicon activities, John stepped up to become a local Volunteer Leader helping to organize volunteerism and impact right in his hometown. He’s one of more than 1,800 Team Rubicon Volunteer Leaders strewn throughout the country, more than 30 of whom are volunteers who engaged as part of their corporation. Since first volunteering with their organizations they’ve taken matters into their own hands and are engaging in higher level, community-based impact.

Having employees sign up to become individual Greyshirts does not prevent a group of employee-Greyshirts from serving together. In fact, it often serves as team building.

Groups of Greyshirts

When Hurricanes Laura and Delta struck the Gulf in the fall of 2020, Team Rubicon was there, helping the communities of Lake Charles, LA and Orange, TX begin their recovery. A few weeks into our response, Dow Chemical, which has recruited more than 85 Greyshirts within its ranks, reached out with interest in deploying four Dow Greyshirts from their Plaquemine, LA site. The four volunteers were dispatched to Lake Charles for a week where they joined our response teams. Through internal messaging and company buy-in, Dow Chemical has created a bench of corporate Greyshirts ready to spring into action when their community needs them most. 

Dow is just one of numerous corporate partners that has recognized the value of allowing their employees to participate with Team Rubicon.

Corporate Volunteers Serve on Own Time

While we are proponents of corporate engagement in volunteerism, we also believe volunteering is most successful when it’s the choice of the individual. For that reason, our culture puts the decision about whether to volunteer, and when and where to participate, into the hands of the individual, as opposed to that of their organization. 

Volunteering as a Team Rubicon Greyshirt is not a one-size-fits-all solution: Some drive to an operation and lend a hand for a day; others commit to a week of service and are flown to an operation by Team Rubicon. While it’s up to the individual to determine what fits into their schedule and their lives, many also benefit from corporate leave programs that reward volunteerism.

That includes Team Rubicon partners such as ADP, Booze Allen Hamilton, Dow Chemical, and Thermo Fisher Scientific, all of which write Team Rubicon into their HR polices and allow employees time off to deploy to a disaster without having to use paid time leave. Other companies, like Microsoft, allow employees to donate PTO into a pool for Team Rubicon volunteers to use when deploying, rather than personal time. The culture instilled in these organization shows a commitment to their employees’ dedication to causes they are passionate about.

To Activate Corporate Volunteers, Employ Technology

Signing up and preparing to get into the field takes just a few simple steps and can be finished in a single evening from the comfort of one’s own home. Deploying those Greyshirts when a disaster hits is equally effortless for volunteers: leveraging our Microsoft-powered technology platforms, Greyshirts receive push notifications when there is a specific Team Rubicon operation close by. No more refreshing a webpage or need to send constant emails, we strive to keep all our volunteers in the know, especially in their local community. 

Using Metrics to Track Impact—and Volunteerism

Participation data and impact metrics are extremely important for companies to track in order to justify the causes they support. As an organization that leverages technology and values transparency and impact, Team Rubicon has developed ways to keep partner organizations informed on the overall participation of their employees.

Upon sign up and completion of a Greyshirt profile, volunteers can select from a dropdown list of current Team Rubicon partners. Then, using our new volunteer management system, we can share impact numbers back with the company; such as number of employees who are Greyshirts, where employees are in the full Team Rubicon sign-up process, number of operations they’ve served on, the locations where they’ve served, and much more. 

While it is still on the individual to report their volunteer hours in systems like Benevity or YourCause, Team Rubicon is working on an opportunity for Partner Greyshirts to elect to share their specific participation data with their employer.

Purpose, Identity, and Community

Our mission is to help communities in need after disasters and humanitarian crisis. We see a dual impact from this type of service – helping our neighbors recover after their worst day and providing volunteers with a sense of purpose, identity and community. 

In our Annual Impact Survey, we continually see feedback that participating in Team Rubicon has a positive impact on a volunteer’s sense of purpose and sense of self. It was purpose, identity and community that drove me to volunteer with Team Rubicon for the first time. Recently out of the military, I saw how wildfires in 2017 devastated the community that I was living in. I knew that it was my time to step up and help. While I was nervous and a bit intimidated the morning I showed up, after spending the first 24 hours on an operation, I was hooked. While, I had an amazing job and was surrounded by an incredible support system, Team Rubicon was the piece that was missing in my life’s service.

The value-add that Team Rubicon brings to fellow veterans and all our volunteers brings more resilience to the individual and in turn strengthens the communities we are part of.

Serving Others Serves to Better Employee Retention and Recruitment

Volunteer opportunities through work are becoming more and more prevalent in the corporate world. Many companies give their employees the opportunities to donate both their time and money in support of select causes. From these opportunities, companies are seeing happier and more engaged employees that want to stay at a purpose-driven brand.

The “corporate purpose software” platform Benevity’s recently released Goodness Engagement Study found that “turnover is reduced by 57% among employees who engage in both [donation and volunteer activity].” Understanding that the cost of losing an employee is higher than retaining them, it is extremely valuable for companies to give ample avenues for their employees to donate both their time and money to the causes they are passionate about.

The relationship that companies have built with Team Rubicon has even helped our partners recruit veterans into the ranks. As many veterans leave the military and are looking for their next path, why not choose an organization that not only suits their professional growth but will also set aside time for them to participate in Team Rubicon activities.

Novel Ways to Manage One-Time Volunteer Groups

While we highly encourage individuals to sign up and become full-fledged Greyshirts, there are still ways groups of corporate employees can volunteer alongside Team Rubicon. We know that in the aftermath of disasters there is a groundswell of local organizations that want to provide meaningful impact to their community. Leveraging the organization and safety parameters that Team Rubicon employs, we can put groups of local community volunteers to work in the field right next to Greyshirts.

A volunteer in Irvine, KY, helps clean up after flooding in 2021.

In 2021, after the winter storm and heavy rains, Irvine, KY saw flooding affect numerous households. With facilities located in Irvine, our longstanding partner Carhartt was able to mobilize 39 employees over the course of a week to help their community recover. Alongside 33 Greyshirts, their efforts allowed Team Rubicon to serve an estimated 21 individuals and provide a total of $51,320 of labor value to the area. Empowered Carhartt employees helped their own communities begin the long process of recovery after disaster. 

These single or multi-day volunteer events are feasible, but in the dynamic nature of disaster response efforts, they take quick planning and execution to employ. That is why Team Rubicon stresses becoming a Greyshirt, getting your training done, and then being ready for the next disaster—this is our take on preparedness.

From building resilient cities to improving corporate culture, the past decade working with corporations has taught us that, by creating a culture where we put the decision and participation into the hands of the individual, corporate Greyshirts can have lasting impact on their communities while still meeting the goals of the organization they belong to.

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