- By Deirdre White
How do multinational corporations today develop their leadership and team-building skills in a globalized world? How can they ensure that their employees have a global view and a deep understanding of new markets? And how, in the face of cost-cutting measures, do you maintain your company’s commitments to creating sustainable value as the market now requires?
One innovation that has gained real momentum over the past couple of years is International Corporate Volunteerism (ICV). Companies as diverse in size and scope as IBM, Pfizer, Pepsi, Dow Corning, FedEx and Deloitte are tapping into the skills, the spirit of volunteerism and the desire of their employees to learn more about emerging markets and global engagement. These corporate giants work with nonprofit partners such as CDC Development Solutions to place top-performing professionals in ICV programs that develop leadership skills, increase cultural intelligence and offer a broader view of business practices, while at the same time providing assistance to local social enterprises and nonprofits so that they might better serve their communities and contribute to economic growth.
In a recent article in Employee Benefit News, the IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) experience was described as “life-changing” by a program alum:
"It's a leadership development exercise besides being a corporate social responsibility program. It was like a 30-day intensive MBA course in the real world outside our comfort zone in the U.S.," explains Tim Willeford, global communications lead for IBM, and a past participant of the program facilitated by CDC Development Solutions. "It was a life-changing experience. I think we come back with the bigger view and also the hunger to do more and become a global citizen."
Stanley Litow, President of IBM International Foundation, described the multifaceted benefits of the IBM program in a June 3 Huffington Post article:
Aside from helping local governments and citizens looking to improve societal, civic and free market institutions, employees that render service to these places come back with renewed cultural sensitivity, leadership skills, professional acumen and improved collaboration savvy. They tend to feel more fulfilled and develop deeper loyalty to their employer. And, of course, these folks can give valuable insight to the company about new commercial opportunities.
In a CDC Development Solutions’ survey of employees at three corporations who piloted their international corporate volunteerism programs in the Fall of 2010, 97% responded that they were more motivated to perform their day-job, 94% said their experience positively changed their perception of their company as a corporate citizen and 75% said they brought back new ideas for products and services. According to a recent benchmarking study we conducted, major corporations plan to send nearly 2,000 employee volunteers to 58 nations this year, up from just 280 to a handful of countries in 2006.
It is clear that more and more companies are seeing great benefit in engaging in these types of programs. But what is the real development impact and leave behind in the communities where these corporate volunteers serve? Certainly I have heard people question the value that can be delivered to the host community over periods that may be as short as one month; my experience having been on the ground with a dozen or so of these teams personally, and having heard from the skilled development professionals that are on the ground with each and every team, is that these programs are invaluable to the host organizations and communities.
In Ghana, for example, IBM partners with small businesses and trade associations to ensure readiness to supply goods and services to the burgeoning new oil and gas industry. This is a critical time period to ensure that Ghanaians can directly benefit from the opportunities presented by the nascent industry, and IBM teams have helped small businesses understand and work to meet the requirements to participate. IBM also has sent several CSC teams to Cross River State, where several volunteers worked with local government and NGOs to help a local health clinic to computerize records and create databases, improving its efficiency. Today, pregnant women and young children in Cross River State have better access to health care and the clinic is able to do more effective outreach to people that are eligible for its services.
Last fall, Dow Corning sent a team to Bangalore, India. When that team of 10 communicated the challenges they were facing to their fellow employees on a company blog, scientists, engineers and welders from Midland, Michigan sent back potential solutions for their colleagues, bringing the expertise of not just 10, but 10,000 employees to their Bangalore partners. In fact, it was a welding solution that solved a critical design problem that had been plaguing the host social enterprise since it began to produce clean cook stoves.
Examples like these are beginning to show that ICV programs can be highly impactful, not just for the companies and volunteers, but even more so for the communities that need are in dire need of this type assistance. The host NGOs, social enterprises, small businesses and local governments would be unlikely to have access to such skilled resources through any other means. Recognizing the potential for significant development impact, just two weeks ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development unveiled a program to make it easier for more companies of all sizes to send professionals abroad to help local governments, small businesses and civic groups in developing nations. The new Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism was developed with IBM and CDC Development Solutions and is designed to allow other companies to leverage the expertise of IBM and others to set up or expand international volunteer programs.
In a MSNBC article about the partnership, Samuel A. Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction, an alliance of 190 U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations (NGO) commented on the partnership:
The reality is that to be able to achieve Millennium Development Goals — to improve the well-being in the poorest places on Earth — requires a partnership of government, corporations and non-profits...With individuals going into long-term projects, you are in essence getting a private Peace Corps, and the technical expertise that comes with it, and increased mutual understanding between two countries.
The USAID partnership will offer structure and training needed to make sure volunteers also seen as citizen-diplomats are aware of cultural sensitivities while delivering help, Worthington said.
Also commenting on this new opportunity to attract more businesses to offer their most talented employees to take on development challenges, John Campbell shared these thoughts in a Council of Foreign Relations blog:
In an era of very tight federal budgets and slow American economic recovery, this public-private partnership deserves to be better known. It has the potential for mobilizing millions of dollars worth of expertise for development assistance from the American private sector and at virtually no additional cost to the taxpayer. Such corporate initiatives may also have the added advantage of being exceptionally nimble, so they can respond easily to specific circumstances in the countries where they are working.
And while we have both empirical and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates the immediate value to companies, individuals and host communities, one thing we have not yet been able to capture because this type of programming is so relatively new, is the influence the experience has on the way these future leaders of the corporate world will engage with the society. According to Edward Colbert, director of talent management at Dow Corning:
“These employees return as different people, deeper thinking people, people that have stretched their brains and hearts, opened their eyes and figured out solutions to problems that they likely had never thought of before.”
I am an idealist, yes. But given what we already know about the effects of the ICV experience on those who have participated, even my highly practical side is prepared to predict that as these individuals take over the leadership of their corporations in the coming years, they will lead with a passion to reinvent business engagement and focus on building sustainable value: creating a better world while creating a better company. What could possibly be more impactful?
Deirdre White is president and chief executive of CDC Development Solutions (CDS), a nonprofit providing market-driven solutions that empower individuals, businesses, and governments in emerging markets to lead economies towards self-sustained growth and opportunity.