Corporate volunteerism: Moving today’s workforce where it needs to be tomorrow

Why are more and more companies engaging their employees through international corporate volunteerism? Deirdre White, president and CEO of CDC Development Solutions, explains. Photo by: Personal collection

As the former president of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, Ángel Cabrera knows that companies with global ambitions need a workforce – and a leadership pipeline – to match.

He wrote in his 2012 book, Being Global, that the “challenges of global engagement require leaders at the helm who can craft solutions by seamlessly bringing together people and resources across national, cultural, and organizational lines.” According to Cabrera, now president of George Mason University, that means companies “can’t just act global. They need to be global.”

Companies with these aspirations understand the need for a workforce that can operate globally – not just in theory, but in practice. They actively seek out leaders who can effectively create value with individuals and organizations across borders, whether in Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, or Russia.

How, then, to create a truly global workforce? For some of the largest and most innovative companies today, the answer comes through international corporate volunteerism, or ICV.

Companies including PepsiCo, SAP, John Deere, IBM, and Pfizer are sending teams of employees beyond the traditional office setting to volunteer their professional skills in South Africa, India, Chile, and Mozambique. CDC Development Solutions works with these companies to place teams of future leaders in emerging and frontier markets. Working on short term assignments in a completely foreign context, employees are developing a start-up like learning mentality and a global mindset.

This trend is growing. In 2006, just six companies sent 280 employees into four countries. In 2012, a nearly 2200 employees traveled to dozens of countries, according to CDC Development Solutions 2012 ICV Benchmarking Study.

Josh Bersin, an expert on talent development, points out an important principle in leadership and learning. “If you’re an investor, look at how a company builds, develops, and attracts leadership. This is perhaps the most important thing they do,” he said. “By allowing people to actively interact and share knowledge, organizations are empowering employees to teach one another. They are actively encouraging conversations that foster problem solving.”

IBM’s Guruduth Banavar is one example. Prior to his volunteer assignment in Vietnam, Banavar was Director of Research at IBM India. Since returning, he was promoted to Vice President of IBM’s Smarter Cities Initiative and Chief Technology Officer and has assumed global responsibilities. Banavar has taken on a leading role in developing a number of Smarter Cities projects around the world.

According to IBM’s 2011 Corporate Service Corps Essay, which included a survey of past participants, 88% of volunteers said the experience increased their leadership skills. 76% said it boosted their desire to complete their career at IBM. Interestingly, 90% of past volunteers, who are considered among the next generation of leaders, said the experience increased their understanding of the company’s role in the developing world.

Learning how to do business anywhere

Working with team of strangers, without an assigned leader, operating on a deadline in a foreign environment sets the stage for powerful lessons in collaboration. Teamwork and adaptability are two essential ingredients.

By learning how to do business in India—or Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, Laos, or anywhere else for that matter—these corporate volunteers are learning how to learn how to do business anywhere. They are becoming adaptable, learning how to analyze business settings completely different from their home office.

Recently, for example, PepsiCo employee volunteers from Lebanon, the U.S. and Turkey lived and worked together in rural India through its PepsiCorps program. They assessed rainwater harvesting systems – an approach to storing rainwater in a desert area plagued by increasing water scarcity. Working with the local organization, Bhoruka Charitable Trust, they recommended new technological approaches to capture and use rainwater and a marketing strategy to encourage widespread adoption.

This type of experience cultivates a cultural intelligence in employees that transcends geographies. At the same time, PepsiCo is developing a workforce that is more adaptive—not only to cultural differences, but to other rapidly evolving dynamics.

What local organizations learn

Conversely, the local nonprofits, organizations, and governments that host pro bono consultants develop their own degree of adaptive behavior. This can positively influence their approach to problems that arise down the line.

In most cases, a team is brought in to provide a clear deliverable, such as a strategic plan or a database architecture. While the local organization gains tremendous benefit from this deliverable, its managers and staff benefit on an even deeper level. In less than one month, they are participating in a business process that has taken many corporate employees years, if not decades, to master.

This hands-on, interactive tactic helps local clients such as Bhoruka Charitable Trust develop an enduring business mindset. The trust is now looking at scaling the PepsiCorps teams’ recommendation to implement the rainwater harvesting system across the rest of the drought-ridden region.

Pfizer, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Global Health Fellows (GHF) program this year, is seeing similar benefits among host organizations. According to Cary Kimble, associate vice president of development of GHF partner, Project HOPE, “These members of Pfizer helped us measure and validate the impact of our work, develop business and marketing plans, and allowed us to reach more people, more effectively.”

As Stan Litow, president of the IBM Foundation and vice president for corporate citizenship at IBM, once pondered, “Imagine if every Fortune 500 company committed to an international corporate community service program. By working in close cooperation with the public and social sectors, there is the potential to solve some of the most complex global challenges.”

Tackling bigger questions

Some question the validity of investing in creating and scaling an international corporate volunteer program, as corporate budgets grow increasingly strict and competing interests emerge.

I am seeing a trend, however, not just in the number of companies participating in these programs, but in employees such as Guruduth Banavar, who is now playing a strong role leading the Smarter Cities program. PepsiCo, John Deere, SAP, Pfizer, and many others are investing in one of their greatest competitive assets – their employees. These forward thinkers are uniquely poised for the global marketplace with talent who are equipped to lead them there.

Join us, along with these companies and keynote speaker, Dr. Ángel Cabrera, in this conversation at our Annual ICV Conference, taking place this April 11th and 12th in Washington DC.

Explore related content:

IBM’s Stan Litow: 3 steps to effective corporate citizenship
Development disrupted: How business is changing developmentHyatt’s Brigitta Witt: Workforce training for ‘favelas’

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