Corporate volunteerism emerges from infancy, identifies key challenges

IBM volunteers work with staff from the Catholic University of Valparaiso in Chile to develop a strategic development and marketing plan. Photo by: CDC Development Solutions

New data shows that international corporate volunteer programs like those run by IBM, PepsiCo and Intel win high marks inside companies, but the practice faces questions about its development impact – and whether it is scaling fast enough among companies.

A “benchmarking” study of corporate volunteerism programs conducted by CDC Development Solutions, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that works with companies to run volunteer programs, found that 94 percent of companies surveyed were “pleased” or “extremely pleased” with their programs. The top benefit mentioned was building employee skills and leadership capacity.

“If these were Yelp reviews, the restaurants would be flooded,” said Steve Hurley, a senior consultant at CDC Development Solutions, which hosted its fourth annual gathering of companies, nonprofits and others at the International Corporate Volunteerism conference this month in Washington, D.C.

The rate of growth of new programs has been “steady but slow,” according to the benchmarking report. While some figures are impressive – the number of volunteers in the field has more than quadrupled since 2008, from 375 to 1,700 – other indicators show modest progress. For example, three new programs were launched in 2012 – the same number established in 2003.

These numbers include data from the 22 companies that participated in the survey. Hurley said that he is aware of only another 10 to 15 companies with existing programs.

“I am unhappy with the growth rate,” he commented. “I don’t know why we don’t have 50 or 100 companies in this game.” Hurley challenged companies to collectively send 10,000 volunteers a year, roughly 2,000 more than the Peace Corps currently annually deploys outside the United States. Given that companies sent an average of 10 to 20 volunteers in 2012, at least 500 companies would need to have international volunteerism programs in order to reach that goal.

More than service

As defined by CDC Development Solutions, international corporate volunteerism is skills-based pro bono work that involves volunteers moving from one location to another, usually across a national border. The time volunteers spend overseas is usually several weeks to several months, compared to the Peace Corps, which deploys volunteers for 27 months.

Deirdre White, president and CEO of CDC Development Solutions, explained that this type of volunteerism is different from “heart-and-hands” corporate service, which has traditionally involved corporate employees in activities like painting community buildings or planting trees.

The employees rather draw on their core professional skills in everything from logistics planning to strategic communications to website design to assist local nonprofits, universities or other organizations that work directly with people in need. While employees may receive their salary while participating in this type of corporate volunteerism, they are engaged in projects that don’t directly bring revenue to their company.

White described visiting with a team of IBM corporate volunteers recently in Nigeria, who were working alongside a state government to improve an onerous procurement process. “There were 55 steps in the process to get any goods and services to the government offices or to the people of the state,” she said. The IBM team worked with government employees to eliminate 22 of the steps. “What a massive improvement, just by helping them identify bottlenecks” and building a consensus for change,” said White.

Two of the best-known corporate volunteer programs celebrated anniversaries this year: IBM’s Corporate Service Corps turns five, having sent 2,000 volunteers overseas since 2008, while Pfizer marks the tenth anniversary of its Global Health Fellows, that has involved 300 employees.

Lessons from an emerging field

While the number of companies engaged in international corporate volunteerism may be limited, for those who’ve invested, the learning has been fast.

For PepsiCo, one lesson of its three-year-old “PepsiCorps” program is that volunteer work must fit within company strategy. “Every project has to fall within our global citizenship agenda,” known as Performance with Purpose, said Sue Tsokris, vice president for global citizenship and sustainability. “That’s an important glue.”

As an example of this strategic integration, Tsokris pointed to PepsiCo’s company-wide citizenship focus on water access, and how a group of PepsiCorps volunteers worked with a local nonprofit in rural India to address extreme water scarcity through improved catchment systems.

In addition to personalizing the companies’ citizenship agenda, PepsiCorps aims to help employees develop new skills and leadership traits.

Tsokris said that for Pepsi to be competitive in the future, it needs leaders with a “global mindset” and skill set that includes agility, flexibility and the ability to “influence and align people over whom you have no direct authority.”

According to the benchmarking report, companies reported that the three most important factors for success were selecting highly motivated employees; assigning volunteers to clearly defined projects; and working with strong implementing partners, who are often responsible for selecting the projects on which employees work.

Other companies have been experimenting with where to locate international corporate volunteerism within their company.

According the benchmarking report, 55 percent of companies locate international corporate volunteerism programs within their corporate social responsibility offices, while others nest it within human resources (18 percent) or the corporate foundation (14 percent). Only four percent run volunteer programs through business units.

Google operates its corporate volunteerism program like a hybrid, located within two separate parts of the company. “We believe there are different ways to make an impact,” said Samantha Hennessey, program manager for social responsibility at Google.

Half of the program is “purely philanthropic,” with volunteers working on projects in partnership with Grameen Foundation, said Hennessey.

The other half of the program is run through the company’s emerging markets business unit and is not considered pro bono, since it is part of a business strategy. One initiative in Ghana has been building and running a technology innovation center, where small business owners can take classes from Google volunteers. “We see that as important to the community but also aligned with our core business,” said Hennessey.

She noted, however, that even the philanthropic programs, which emphasize leadership development, have a clear tie to business objectives.

“At Google, we see culture as part of our core business and part of the innovation required to create our products,” she said. Volunteerism programs reinforce Google’s “non-hierarchical” culture by bringing together employees across functions, regions and seniority. “You’ll find a senior level executive working with an entry-level sales person.”

Measurement challenges

Another open question for corporate volunteerism, as in many areas of global corporate citizenship work, is how to show development impact.

While two-thirds of the companies measure the business impact of their program, only half formally measure the social impact, the benchmark report says.

“It’s something that we can all admit is a challenge,” said Gina Tesla, director of corporate citizenship initiatives at IBM. “We’re looking at how to measure the short-term impact, the long-term impact, and balancing quantitative versus qualitative data. The question is: How do you measure the expertise you’re imparting?”

As companies work to measure development impact, she said it was important not to lose sight of the “intangible benefits” that arise when volunteers work closely with local organizations. “They can spark new ways of thinking and be a catalyst for change.”

Explore related content:

Globally minded leaders ‘essential’ to business survival
Corporate volunteerism: Moving today’s workforce where it needs to be tomorrow
Measurement tools abound but need ‘democratization’

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About the author

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    Andrea Useem

    As Associate Editor and Content Director for Devex Impact, Andrea creates and manages cutting-edge content on the intersection of business and international development. An experienced multimedia journalist, Andrea served as leadership editor at the Washington Post and spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Africa reporting for publications including the Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and San Francisco Chronicle.