There’s nothing like a pandemic to illustrate the value of experienced, virtual help.

Encore Fellowships match skilled, seasoned professionals with social sector organizations in high-impact, paid engagements lasting from six months to one year. Since 2009, approximately 2,000 individuals have provided over two million hours of service to nonprofits. Most have shown up for work in person, but some have done their fellowships virtually.

Last year, Marc McCarthy started a virtual Encore Fellowship with iFoster, a membership-based portal that pools resources to support youth and families currently in the foster care system. “I’ve always loved working on issues that impact kids,” he says, “and the fact they wanted someone who could work remotely was great.”

McCarthy’s Fellowship lasted one year, during which time he contributed 1,000 hours and received a $20,000 stipend.

Husband and wife Reid and Sarita Cox (shown below) started iFoster 10 years ago and work out of their office in Truckee, California. “My wife was raised in the foster care system,” Reid shares, “and we felt that we could have the biggest impact by finding new ways to get more resources to foster youth, families, social workers and nonprofits working in this space.”

Outcomes often reflect his lack of investment. Findings from a 2016 California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study show that within four years of aging out of the system, about 70 percent of foster youth receive government assistance, and 50 percent are unemployed.

iFoster forms partnerships with companies, local businesses and nonprofits to negotiate low-cost purchases of items foster youth need, like laptops, and works with foundations and companies willing to donate products and services to foster youth across the country.

Marketing was a competency the organization didn’t have, and was actively seeking. “We’ve been so focused on doing the day-to-day blocking and tackling to get these kids what they need,” Reid says. “We brought Marc in to help us take a step back, and think about how we should be communicating what iFoster is doing, to set us up as the leading voice in providing resources to these kids.”

McCarthy left the private sector in 2006, after a 26-year career in corporate communications and marketing. Over the years, he worked with nonprofits like GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), where he served as the first-ever straight ally on the senior leadership team, and St. Baldrick’s Foundation, where he helped solidify the organization’s brand as the leader in funding the most promising pediatric cancer research.

The Encore Fellowship program felt like another interesting way to give back, McCarthy says. During the interview process for the iFoster role, he was drawn to Sarita and Reid’s story and what they had already accomplished.

In recent years, Reid and Sarita reached out to a computer refurbisher to get discounted laptops, got Microsoft to provide free software, and enlisted foundations to help cover the cost. iFoster then delivered 7,800 computers to foster youth in 48 states. Afterwards, the young people reported improved school performance, higher-self esteem, and a stronger belief in their own futures.

“It met all my checkboxes of an organization I could work with and wanted to support,” he says. “They’ve been nothing but open and informative, so I could learn more. It’s been a very strong relationship from the start.”

McCarthy created a “Culture + Brand Book” for iFoster, providing guidance for staff, board and key partners on branding language, key audiences, design assets, and more. He worked with the team to create a blog and established a dashboard to better understand the data being collected, and how to best measure engagement and success. “We’re currently testing out several communications tools, and plan to begin targeted email outreach this year,” he says.

The Encore Fellowship experience was so positive for both parties that they’ve decided to continue working together, which happens with about half of all fellowships. “I don’t want to leave them hanging,” says McCarthy, who plans to stay on as a part-time consultant, working from his home in Dana Point, about 90 minutes south of Los Angeles.

The timing feels right to Reid, too. “For the first nine years, we didn’t spend any money on general audience advertising,” he says. “That was the beauty of Marc and the Encore Fellowship program. We could bring someone in who has a lifetime of experience in this area, and go from zero to where we are today in just a year.”

Learn more about hosting an Encore Fellow at https://encore.org/fellowships/host/. Learn more about virtual fellowships by emailing Jim Emerman at [email protected].

Sarah McKinney Gibson is a storytelling and media specialist at Encore.org.