International corporate volunteering programs critical to development efforts

Sabrina Aberra (third from left), an Accenture employee volunteering through Cuso International’s Diasporas for Development initiative, posing with local partner LIVE-Addis in Ethiopia. Photo by: Cuso International

The private sector and the international development community often seem to operate worlds apart: different drivers, different environments and different resources at their disposal.  

But we often overlook the shared contexts and challenges of operating as organizations in a rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected world. Nonprofits and businesses are driven toward new revenue generating business models, the threats of climate change require new approaches to business and development and we are increasingly aware of the need to stretch and share resources.  

Take Elizabeth Gore of Toronto, Canada, who works for Deloitte and applied to be a Cuso International volunteer through Deloitte’s International Development Fellowship program. Gore was assigned to advise a Guyanese nonprofit women’s agriculture association that assists rural women to build sustainable agro-processing and business training ventures.

In Guyana, where extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas reliant on subsistence farming and low agricultural productivity, nearly half the population lives below the poverty line and 30 percent can’t meet basic nutritional standards. Building commercial markets and creating jobs is critical to economic growth and poverty reduction, but the skills and knowledge required to add value to primary products are short in supply.

Gore’s objective for her seven-week assignment was to review the role of farmers, processors and traders along the value chain of two products, virgin coconut oil and cocoa sticks, and find ways to maximize revenues for women along each point of this chain.

Not only did the community benefit from her expertise, but “it completely challenged my thinking on international economics, policies, and relationships,” Gore said of her experience. “I took away lessons that I will be able to apply going forward…My understanding of development in the field has increased immeasurably.”

As we approach 2015 in eager anticipation of what the next iteration of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals will look like, we are sure that they will mention partnerships with the private sector to strengthen sustainable development. We ask ourselves: “Can humanitarian and development organizations and businesses and their shareholders work together to reduce poverty and end conflict while reducing the impacts of climate change?”

Another way to approach this question is: “Are there business incentives to partnering to reducing poverty, conflict and climate change globally?”

Good business

Business generates 60 percent of GDP in developing countries, creates 90 percent of jobs and receives 80 percent of capital flow. Business assets, when applied to overcoming shared challenges, have the potential to contribute to reaching our development goals. Cuso International, a nonprofit international development organization that works through skilled volunteers to reduce poverty and inequality around the world, believes that there is common ground between the nonprofit and private sectors — and that we will benefit together from reducing poverty, conflict and climate change globally.

Cuso has been working with corporate partners to leverage a key business asset: human capital. Skilled employees from all sectors can be an asset to international development; however, leveraging the shared value between the private and not-for-profit sectors is important because it takes money, among other things, to effectively transfer skills and build capacity that can impact the lives of poor and marginalized communities in both urban centers and rural areas.

This doesn’t mean that business or private sector employees have a monopoly on effectively transferring skills, but it does mean that business is a key resource partner in scaling up capacity development efforts.  

And the incentives for business to engage the development sector are many and growing.  

International corporate volunteering provides an opportunity for business and nonprofits to work together toward building more sustainable and resilient communities and institutions by tapping into several key assets and motivations of most corporations: a skilled workforce; demand for more effective and comprehensive leadership and talent development approaches; desires of employees to be actively engaged as global corporate citizens; interest in reaching new clients and consumers and need for local knowledge and capacity to support business growth in emerging markets.  

Multidimensional benefits        

When international development organizations work with business, we benefit by learning business approaches that enable us to be more “business-like” and results-focused. Our corporate volunteers help open doors to new networks, knowledge and strategies for performance enhancement and success. Cuso International has learned, through partnerships with companies like Accenture and Deloitte, to approach our capacity development work with a “human capital lens,” a tool commonly used in management consulting.

Local institutions, civil society and enterprises who host corporate volunteers receive many of the same benefits as international development organizations — but also receive the benefit of tailored mentoring, coaching and technical assistance that supports them to improve the reach, effectiveness and efficiency of their socially and economically beneficial products and services, which in turn benefits individuals and communities.  

Cuso International and our volunteers work together to equip local development and business leaders with the skills required to manage robust change management processes by addressing needs at the individual, organizational and systemic level to enhance performance and deliver targeted outcomes.  

In the process of providing technical support to our overseas partners, volunteers benefit from their experience by learning about themselves and the challenges faced while operating in developing world contexts. They expand their networks, build new skills and develop new ideas and solutions to complex development and business challenges. Perhaps of most value to their employer, corporate volunteers feel personally and professionally rewarded through their experience, which has an impact on their return to the workplace.

Ensuring responsibility

The scope of development work is complex, and many international aid efforts have been criticized for disrupting local economies while operating on behalf of foreign interests. In order to ensure that development projects are sustainable, it’s crucial that the needs of local communities take precedence and partnerships are built upon shared interests and common ground.

Cuso International works with corporate partners who share a passion for building community and local capacity. It evaluates the work of local partners, and empowers them to maximize the benefits of working with an international volunteer, offering professional skills. As part of the selection process, Cuso evaluates the background and skills of volunteer candidates, including soft skills like commitment and adaptability, to ensure volunteers are agents in deepening relationships between Cuso and our local partners.

Since 2003, Cuso has engaged 99 corporate volunteers through partnerships with Scotiabank, Accenture, Randstad, Business Development Bank of Canada and Deloitte.

Exposure to global poverty and inequality teaches people to think about their role and footprint as citizens of a global community. Through corporate partnerships, Cuso International and our partners continue to strengthen our ability to collaborate and expand our positive social, environmental and economic impact.

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

About the author

  • Robyn Stewart

    Robyn Stewart is manager of program development and funding at Cuso International. She heads Cuso International’s U.S. operations and manages a public-private partnership between Cuso International, USAID and Accenture called the Diasporas for Development Initiative. Her work focuses on building partnerships and developing programs that allow Cuso International to deliver on its vision of promoting sustainable economic growth and development through volunteering.