What's the impact of international corporate volunteerism?

PYXERA Global CEO Deirdre White during the 5th Annual International Corporate Volunteerism Conference where she delivered a speech about purposeful global engagement. Photo by: PYXERA Global

As more companies get engaged in international corporate volunteering programs, many wonder just how much social and business impact these programs actually have — and how to measure those results.

Measuring impact is critical not only in determining whether a program is effective in achieving social goals, but also in how the business goals are met — which is essential to the program’s sustainability.

About 39 companies around the world now have international corporate volunteering programs, up from about 26 in 2013, according to PYXERA Global. And those firms are increasingly strategic about the programs they run, aligning them more closely with core business, said Deirdre White, CEO of PYXERA Global, which earlier this month hosted a conference focused on the global pro bono community.

Until recently, not much effort has been put into understanding the impact on the ground of these programs, but that’s beginning to change and companies are increasingly interested in measuring social impact.

“I think we’re going to see some new tools available to all of us in the near future to tell that piece of the story better than we have been able to, and, frankly, to be able to adjust our approaches based on what we learn,” White said.

For instance, IBM has been looking at measuring the value of the program to the company to the community and to the participants -—a triple-bottom-line approach. If a program doesn’t provide all three it can be at risk in an economic downturn, said IBM Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and IBM Foundation President Stan Litow.

How hard is it?

Many companies and implementers say that measuring impact is a challenge, and a task that is often pushed aside due to limited time and resources.

PYXERA Global conducts surveys of beneficiaries immediately after volunteers leave, at the six month mark and after a year, when there is funding. The questions try to determine if the initial goals were achieved, but the challenge is that it’s difficult to measure some of these impacts in the short-term or measure the broader effects of the work.

Google Reach, Google’s ICV program, has found one way to assess impact over time: in many cases, Google teams will work with the same company or organization more than once in order to track progress and create sustainable impact.

“We want to ensure that we measure program implementation while our employees are in-country and when we are back at home,” said Sarah Nickerson, program manager for employee social responsibility at Google.  “We evaluate what is actually implemented,  what was missed, and what can we do better to help organizations further their mission when we return the next time."

Measuring the impact is critical, but Nickerson called impact measurement the "million-dollar question" that everyone is asking and no one has quite figured out.

"We could be doing more in impact measurement," she said. "We're always looking for new ideas and trying to figure out the best way to do it moving forward."

One of the challenges is that while often business is considered to be good at measurement, they sometimes lack the expertise measure the social outcomes, explained Justine Bakule, executive director of the Shared Value Initiative, who has discovered that often companies have multiple programs working on the same key issue — but they are not used to evaluating the outcomes on the whole.

The perception that measurement is impossibly hard is wrong, said Farron Levy, president and founder of True Impact, which specializes in helping companies and their nonprofit partners evaluate the impacts of their social and environmental investments.

“It actually can’t be hard because if it is hard it’s going to fail,” he said. “People are way too busy to take on new efforts. Measurement shouldn’t be anyone’s second job.”

Rather, he suggested, it’s at the start of a project when the company or partners should determine what impacts are most important and then build a way to capture that information into existing systems. Most programs already have some way to get feedback from the beneficiary or the volunteers, so it’s about choosing the right questions to capture the key impacts.

“When you do that it just sort of happens in the background” and at the end of the year you can “roll up all those impacts,” Levy said.

In the traditional volunteerism space, True Impact has created a benchmarking network, through which they provide a survey tool to companies and then allow them to see how they compare with the other corporations in the network.

A similar network could be created in the international corporate volunteering space, Levy proposed, as it’s largely a matter of reaching critical mass.

Ways to measure

While there has been less done to assess social impacts, more robust ways of measuring the business impact have been developed and the results at some companies make a compelling case for continued investment in the programs.

IBM, which sends about 500 employees a year to volunteer through its Corporate Service Corps, and is widely considered a leader in the global pro bono space, has spent a lot of time recently working on how measure impact, Litow said.

The firm tracks five key metrics: Recruitment and retention, technical capability, investment value, media and brand value, and attracting clients.

Of these, the most important for the company is the first, because a company’s ability to recruit and retain quality staff is a key differentiator and critical to business success, he said. The value of technology and intellectual property that results in patents and business products is also clearly measurable as is the company’s reputation as a responsible brand — which can lead to better brand rankings and investment from responsible investment funds.

Corporate citizenship programs can help build relationships with existing clients and help open new markets for the company.

In the case of IBM, some clients have sent employees on IBM programs and the CSC initiative has often gone into potential growth markets even before IBM had a commercial presence. For example, a CSC project on operations and management for a free health care program in Nigeria led to IBM bidding and winning a contract to build infrastructure in the area and a significant scale-up of IBM staff in the country.

When IBM has assessed its programs using these metrics, it has determined that the citizenship program provides a three to one return on investments in the corporate citizenship program. Among the key findings was that eight of 10 employees reported that participation in the program made them in all cases likely to finish their career at IBM. Given the costs of replacing top talent, that in itself can result in significant savings for the company.

Several of the indicators, especially the ability of citizenship programs to attract new clients and open new markets, benefit from the integration of those initiatives with the company’s core business values.  

IBM will be using its latest technologies, which it is working to sell to its clients, in its citizenship programs as well, Litow said.

“Citizenship is not separate from your business strategy, it’s integrated into your business strategy,” he explained, adding “not in a superficial kind of way it’s done in a systematic way.”

That means that IBM and other companies are looking at CSV programs as a way to learn about emerging markets and in some cases leverage that into opening or expanding business in those places.

In addition to measuring the internal impacts, IBM is also increasingly focused on measuring community impacts, a renewed focus that is driven by the demands of the workforce, especially millennials who want to work for companies that align business interest with community interest, Litow said.

PYXERA Global is also looking for ways to track the social impact of these programs on a broader scale — beyond the micro-level project level. With more than five years of experience and data, White noted the organization plans to study how the programs have impacted key issues like women’s empowerment and global health.

Making the case for growth

More data can reinforce the case that companies are making for their programs and lead — not only to growth among existing businesses, but new programs as well.

Most of the ICV programs are still quite small, sending only one to two groups a year, and have not scaled, according to White.

“What if every Fortune 500 company sent 100 people a year? Think about how it could change the world,” she explained. The change isn’t only about the shorter-term social impacts, but in influencing the way that the future leaders of major corporations see their responsibilities to the world. 

Nickerson offered one possible explanation: many companies that have recently started are trying to ensure that they get the program right before scaling. Google Reach, which started with one cohort of about 16 people in 2011, will send four cohorts this year to Ghana and India, where it will look to potentially expand to another country and add cohorts in the future, but also wants to ensure that it remains something special for employees.

“We are growing incrementally to ensure the quality of the program for all involved and to keep it as a unique opportunity that Googlers aspire to join,” she said.

Bakule pointed out that not every volunteer program needs to lead to shared value — the other benefits to employees and beneficiaries are still valuable — but that companies that seek to truly incorporate it into the business are often constrained by the number of volunteers.

If ICV programs are to generate shared value they either have to serve as a pipeline for innovative ideas or provide insights into new markets, he said.

“Both of those are strongly, strongly predicated on taking what those people are out there learning and feeding it back into the business,” Bakule explained. “You have to have some sort of rigorous feedback because I think that the size means that the insights have to be captured to then let the company scale.”

Most programs don’t have that type of component at this stage, he said, but as examples emerge it may increasingly be part of the system.

IBM is working to do that and collaborating with others to start and improve their ICV programs, in part because it will help improve perceptions of the private sector.

“It’s really in our interest to make sure that the level of performance for all companies improves,” Litow said. “You get judged by your peers so anything you can do to improve the level of performance of everyone, is going to improve your ability to perform well.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.