Walk for water - employee edition

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WaterAid/ Georgie Lord

Walk for water in a virtual world

Just as the country was in lockdown, GAP Inc. adapted their planned Walk for Water so it could work for their remote employees.

In March 2020, just as everyone began to face the challenges of isolation, three thousand Gap Inc. employees representing six countries rallied in support of clean water. To celebrate World Water Day, they pledged to walk or move 1.2 extra miles in solidarity with those who have no choice but to walk that distance on average to collect water every day. Gap Foundation chose to match every 1.2-mile pledge with a $12 donation up to $5,000 to support WaterAid’s work. 

We (virtually) sat down with Gap Foundation’s Employee Engagement leader Sneha Patel, to learn about how her small but mighty team hosted this successful event during unprecedented times. 

Q: Why did you choose a Walk for Water for Gap Inc. employees?

A: We were looking for a way to engage employees for World Water Day and we wanted to create an activation that was both interactive and educational. As we were looking at different facts and information for employees to know, the piece that stood out was that so many people, specifically women, have to walk to get access to clean water.

We thought it would be inspirational for employees to do that same walk and to think about what that might be like. It was also really easy and something that every single person could do. That’s really important for all of our campaigns, that it’s compelling and relevant to every one of our employees. 

Q: What was your planning process like and how did you decide on details like the timeframe and technology?

A: We use a CSR platform called YourCause, where all our employees use to find out about current campaigns and activations. We wanted to incorporate this activation around World Water Day and given that we have so many employees, we wanted give them enough time to participate. We decided on the week of World Water Day and launched the campaign the week before as part of the leadup to World Water Day.  

We are a global company with employees in stores, distribution centers, working from home, or at our HQ offices. It was important for us to work with those business partners to make sure we were getting the word out about the campaign. 

The most important thing for us is planning our communications and timing, deciding when we need to start talking to employees. We typically connect with our stores earlier, because while some of our employees are at their computer most of the day and can access digital content more readily, for our store employees, it makes more sense to give them something visual. We produced sign-up sheets and posters for our stores to post in the employee sections.  

Communications is the biggest part of the project plan because we get things translated, we make sure we’re sending out an email that’s not going out the same time as another email, there’s a lot more coordination there. 

We rely on our general managers to make sure they have the right information. We also have a network of community leaders who are an extension of the Foundation and have signed up to be the community leader of their team. The community leaders are the first people we reach out to when there’s something like World Water Day so they have that information and can be responsible for making sure their teams are aware of it. 

Q: How did your plans change in light of the COVID-19 and working from home? How did you strike a balance with communication?

A: Traditionally our campaigns are team focused, whereas this was a campaign could be done as a team or individual. We didn’t want employees to lose that team component, so before COVID-19 we really pushed for teams to organize walks together. And at our HQ offices we were planning to coordinate a specific day and time for the whole building to walk together. 

When COVID-19 hit, we obviously couldn’t encourage this anymore, so the nice part was that this campaign was flexible. Thankfully, taking a walk and going outside was the one thing people could still do, so that worked in our favor. It was nice to see a lot of teams still organizing to walking together at the same time, and then they would take photos and share about their walk. We kept that team component, it just looked very different.  

In light of the fact that nobody really knows what the future holds, it was good for us to learn about making our campaigns more flexible, to allow more people to participate. It wouldn’t worked out so easily if we designed it with more parameters. 

When we first started communicating about this campaign, COVID-19 hadn’t hit the company or the country yet. Had that been the case, things would have been very different. Because the campaign was so simple, it didn’t require a ton of follow up. We did do some follow up, but where we had initially planned for an all employee email, but we limited it down to an email to our community leaders. We wanted to be really sensitive to the situation, but it was an easy sell because of how simple the activation was. It was walk 1.2 miles because 1.2 miles is the average distance to the closest water source. That was it, there wasn’t anything else we needed to explain or remind, it was very easy and I think that helped us a lot. 

Q: How did you decide on matching participation? Would participation have been different if you chose not to?

A: We wanted to have an incentive for employees to participate, so that their involvement went beyond education and awareness. While that was the main goal, this was the first year we had run a challenge like this and we thought it needed a way in which we could say, “We’re all working toward this together to reach people with access to clean water”. We wanted to tie an amount to each person who walked. So some of it was just let’s think of something and throw it out there, but it was mainly because we thought we needed something but weren’t sure how much that would actually motivate employees.   

I don’t know if participation would have been different because I think the activation piece was so simple, but I do think it inspired or motivated employees to share why they were doing it, if you look at the social posts, people said, “I’m walking in support of WaterAid,” they called that out. I think if we didn’t have that piece, it would have been harder for employees to share the “why” behind their participation.

I think it was important for them that this was going to equal something beyond education and awareness. Because the activation was easy, I still think people would have participated, but I don’t know if people would have shared, or been as proud or as inspired to share about it. 

Q: What was one of the highlights of the campaign for you?

A: I was delighted by how many people shared their experiences via social media or over email or Teams, especially because it was in the midst of COVID-19 and stores were closing, employees were being furloughed from their job.

It was a really hard time for the company and I was pleasantly surprised that people were still really exited about the campaign and motivated to do something. They were still willing to recognize that even though thing might be hard because of this situation, life has been really hard for a long time for people without clean water.

I was happy that employees could still look beyond what was happening in their own world and recognize that there are a lot of issues right now. 

Q: What would you do differently next time?

A: One challenge was that we’ve typically done more traditional volunteering, where employees track volunteer hours and this campaign wasn’t that. But we still wanted to be able to track participation, so we had to use our YourCause system and work with a program that wasn’t really designed for this campaign. We set up a volunteer event for people to sign up for, but the challenge was that employees created their own walk for water events and didn’t really know they needed to sign up for the larger event. So we thought carefully about how to track participation, set goals and look at data that’s very different from traditional volunteering.  

If it hadn’t been during COVID-19 it would have been great to record some of our leaders walking and have them send photos for us to promote – understandably we didn’t think about doing that this year, but that’s something I would try and do in the future. 

Q: Anything else you want to add?

A: One thing we talked about in the beginning was that we were calling it “Walk for Water” but we know that we all have diverse physical abilities. That piece was really important, and we were intentional about being inclusive in how we communicated about the challenge. We made it really clear that there was no real parameters, that the point really was for you to recognize that this is an issue and to raise awareness. It was less about your physical ability or the distance that you go. You didn’t have to complete 1.2 miles, you could travel any distance and any way of movement. Making sure it’s inclusive is really important here. That was something we called out from the beginning. 

The other piece which we honestly didn’t really solve was we did talk about whether some of our own employees might have faced water scarcity issues or live in water stressed environments. This was something we noted and thought about whether it would be a concern or if we’d get feedback on this. We never really found the right way to address it or whether it needed addressing at all, but it was something that came up. 

Q: Would you recommend this event to other employee engagement leaders?

A: Definitely, like I said, it’s really easy – sure there were certain things we did like creating a tool kit, posters, intended to organize office-wide walks. There were specific things that we did just for our employees, but essentially it boiled down to asking our employees to walk the average distance to a local water source, and then tying that to a donation. I think it’s an easy activation. We’re thinking about whether we want to rinse and repeat this and how we might make it fresh and new so that it’s not just the same thing. I think part of why this was successful was because it was different and because people thought “wow I didn’t know this”.  

If there’s anything teams can do to make it more personal to their business and value, for example, for us water is one of the big issues we work on and most of the people that work in our company are women, so there were ways that we could tie why we were doing this back to who we are as a company. I would definitely recommend it to other companies, and I think it would be important for them to think about what parts are you highlighting and make it relevant to your values.

Q: In what way did you draw a link between our partnership?

In addition to highlighting the 1.2 mile statistic, we made sure to include other content and educational information for our employees. We partnered with our Global Sustainability team who work with WaterAid so that we were updating the employees about what Gap Inc. is doing, what our partnership with WaterAid is. We also worked with them because they work on this issue year-round, so we wanted to make sure we were integrating with their plans, so it felt like one big connected piece between global sustainability and employee engagement.  

About Gap Inc. and WaterAid  

The Gap Inc. and WaterAid partnership began in 2015 in India, helping marginalized women and their families transform their lives through access to basic sanitation and hygiene.  

 In 2019 WaterAid joined Gap Inc.’s Women + Water alliance with USAID. where WaterAid is working to accelerate women's access to sustained WASH services by strengthening community drinking water management, WaterAid and Gap Inc. are also working with Diageo and Unilever to publish evidence-based recommendations on the business value of investing in WASH in supply chains and workplaces. 

Since the partnership began, Gap and WaterAid have reached thousands of people with access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene. 

For more information about employee engagement, contact Phoebe de Hoog

The proof is in the posts!