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The Power of Aligning Employee Engagement with a Critical Community Need

By Heather Nesle, President, New York Life Foundation

Every day, New York Life’s field force is tasked with helping individuals and families secure their financial futures and prepare for the unexpected. We are there during some of our clients’ most painful times and we see firsthand how grief impacts families. This deep connection to people in communities across the country has driven our philanthropic focus on childhood bereavement. Through the course of this work, we began to see an urgent need for more grief support at school.

In response to this growing trend, we developed the Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative (GSSI), which trains our workforce to deliver much-needed resources to K-12 school communities so they can better support the millions of grieving students in America’s classrooms. To date, the program has reached more than 25,000 school community members in 46 states and over 1,000 schools have received grief training and resources. We aim to triple our impact by the end of 2020. 

As we build the program, we are learning important lessons about how to best engage our workforce while making meaningful change in our communities. Here are three components of our strategy that have driven its early success – and can be applied to other corporations looking to boost the impact of their community engagement programs.

1. We determined gaps and trends in the bereavement field to look for new ways to make a positive impact.

Our decision to create GSSI came out of a longstanding commitment to deliver support to bereaved families.

Childhood grief is a pervasive issue across the U.S.: recent data shows that 1 in 14 children will lose a parent or sibling before age 18. Losing a loved one can be devastating for a child, creating profound stress, adversity, and trauma. There is no “easy fix”: grief is long-lasting and, when support is not provided, it can interfere with children’s social, emotional, and academic development over the long term.

Over the past decade, the New York Life Foundation has helped shine a light on grieving children.  In doing this work, we leverage insights on how our grant dollars are deployed to determine gaps in the bereavement field and continuously evaluate our work to identify trends that provide insight into new ways we could make a positive impact. As a result of this consistent evaluation, we found a persistent trend: local bereavement sites were requesting school-based programming.

By collaborating with new and existing partners that were entrenched in the school community, we created an initiative with real traction within the field of grief support. Children spend most of their waking weekday hours at school, yet most educators feel underequipped to deliver support and care when a student is grieving. The need to provide more grief resources to educators – especially given the rise in school shootings and other tragedies – was clear.

2. We worked with diverse, credible stakeholders and content-area experts to bring thought leadership and best practices to the program.

To ensure that we brought best-in-class materials to schools, we drew on our longstanding partnership with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. To reach our core audience – school communities and ultimately, grieving students –  we worked together to convene the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a consortium of key stakeholders within K-12 professional organizations, to design industry-endorsed grief resources which are now shared in schools across the nation through GSSI. This diverse group of stakeholders has been paramount to the program’s success and credibility. 

Participating in GSSI helps school personnel address the grief training gap and signals to students, parents, and community members that their school is strongly committed to supporting the social-emotional needs of its grieving students.

At the same time, our workforce is empowered to bring the Coalition’s resources to their local schools; they can participate in the project with confidence, knowing that the program’s resources are expert-endorsed, well-vetted, and comprehensive.

The intrinsic value of the resources has also enabled us to take this program to some of the nation’s largest school districts in California, Colorado, and Florida – further supporting the program’s rapid growth.

3. We worked to amplify our workforce’s existing presence in their local communities. 

 For New York Life’s nationwide workforce, our philanthropic commitment to grieving children and their families has proven to be a natural fit with their day-to-day work in the life insurance business as well as with our core mission to offer clients peace of mind. This connection has helped to generate strong, authentic interest in addressing childhood grief.

Today, over 1,800 of our agents and employees have participated in GSSI – a commitment that involves first becoming trained as a grief ambassador, and then delivering in-person presentations to local schools to share grief support resources and tools – many of them giving multiple presentations in their community’s schools.

Companies that wish to make a positive impact in the communities where members of their workforce live and work have an opportunity to amplify their efforts by first leveraging insights from current programs to determine gaps to be addressed by future initiatives, engaging diverse, credible stakeholders and content-area experts,  and amplifying an existing community presence to forge even deeper ties.  

You can find out more about the New York Life Foundation’s Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative here.