The evolution of skills-based volunteerism has much to teach us about international development, partnerships and creating measurable impact.
By Laura Asiala, Senior Director of Client Relations and Public Affairs, PYXERA Global
I’m not sure why “five” is such a magical number—why we create five-year plans or celebrate anniversaries so easily divisible by that number. But I find myself looking back over my shoulder at the last five years and marveling at an innocently asked question and an answer that set me on the path to where I find myself today.
“I wonder if placing a group of employees in a service-learning project in a developing market would provide us with the insight to be successful in those areas?” I mused five years ago to the then-CEO of Dow Corning Corporation, Stephanie Burns.
Fortunately, we were having this discussion on the eve of the very first conference for International Corporate Volunteerism, hosted by CDC Development Solutions, now PYXERA Global.
Timing is everything.
With 70 attendees gathering in a small D.C.-based law office, the first conference was little more than a workshop. Global pro bono programs then were beginning to take root inside companies. According to a recent benchmarking survey by PYXERA Global, in 2008, just six companies sent 375 employees on cross-border skills-based assignments. By 2010, 884 employees were traveling abroad to volunteer their professional skills.
Lessons from IBM
I was eager to learn from those who had already designed successful programs. Most notable among these was IBM who had launched their Corporate Service Corps in 2008 with a model that many other companies would come to follow. The Corporate Service Corps placed teams of 10 to 15 of their highest performing employees with non-profits, local governments and small and medium (often social) enterprises in underserved markets to achieve three things:
- Develop the global leadership and professional skills of the company’s employees,
- Leave in place a tangible, professional contribution to the host organization and local community, for which they would not otherwise have access, and
- Gain insight into new markets and earn a well-deserved reputation amongst key stakeholders for authentic corporate social responsibility.
As a prospective client, my key takeaway was that this was an economical, efficient and powerful way to meet multiple strategic objectives, but that understanding which objectives, and in which order of priority they stood, were the critical first questions to be asked and answered.
Over the next year, the ICV (international corporate volunteer) practice grew in interest and prominence across numerous companies. In 2011, 11 companies sent nearly 1,400 employees abroad on team-based and individual assignments. This was in large part due to the leadership of IBM, who along with PYXERA Global, entered into a public-private partnership with the U.S. Government (USAID) to establish the Center for Excellence in International Corporate Volunteerism in 2011. Although individual corporate programs would always require a level of customization, the Center for Excellence reduced barriers to entry by providing a free toolkit and start up guide.
By 2012, resources such as the Center for Excellence and a network of practitioners were readily available to new companies entering the practice along with those that had well-established international pro bono programs, like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.
Programs at several companies had grown and the ICV conference responded by including a host of breakout sessions to delve more deeply into the various objectives and strategies that could be accomplished through global pro bono – like “Human Centered Design," tying leadership competencies more tangibly to employee development outcomes and the evergreen topic of stakeholder engagement.
…to Responsible Leadership…
The following year, in 2013, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce played host for the conference, and for the first time I joined the team as a consultant. That year, the event focused on responsible leadership and explored how pro bono could provide a means to address social issues facing emerging economies such as access to clean water, healthcare, education and technology. True Impact President Farron Levey, for example, spoke about the challenges of measuring the social impact of development efforts in the short term.
Yet, companies were beginning to align business strategies with their programs to gain tangible insight and awareness into new markets. With a focus on frugal innovation, the GlaxoSmithKline’s PULSE Innovation Challenge, for example, now crowdsourced and nurtured ideas from Fellows who had returned from the PULSE Volunteer Partnership for business and social benefit.
… and Professional Development
Over the five-year period between 2008 and 2013, nearly 6,000 employees traveled on assignment and companies began measuring the experience both from the managers’ perspective as well as the employees'. IBM, for instance, found that not only did employees report positively on their own development – 88 percent of past participants reported an increased ability to listen for client needs and envision their future – managers reported favorably as well – 78 percent of managers reported improved attitude and motivation among the program’s alumnus.
The Evolution of Skills-Based Volunteerism
As I approach the 5th Annual Conference for International Corporate Volunteerism now as a senior director at PYXERA Global, it is refreshing to shift from "why" to the "how to(s)." With experienced leaders from companies like The Dow Chemical Company, IBM, SAP, Merck, EY, Credit Suisse, GSK, PepsiCo, Symantec, John Deere, BD, Google, "la Caxia" Foundation and PIMCO Foundation among others, we’ll take a deep dive into the complexities of international corporate volunteerism.
At the same time, as emphasized by many during the recent Twitter chat hosted by CSRwire on headlining trends of 2014, we’re broadening the context by hosting a Public-Private Partnership Forum a day before the conference to focus on exactly what the name implies. Broadcast live from the Newseum Knight Studio along with a roundtable of corporate executives, senior government leaders, members of Congress, and social sector leaders, we’ll address ways in which cross-sector interests converge to achieve shared value and look closely at ways in which new types of cross-sector partnerships can deliver sustainable impact. Think cultivating livelihoods and leadership on the new frontier, powering new businesses in emerging markets and forging new pathways for partnerships.
Pro bono programs are an equitable exchange. When successfully implemented, both volunteers and the SMEs realize the importance of sound and fair governance, which provides the very base for an effective society. No one sector can do it alone.
Five years, five Aprils.
Where will the next five years take this practice—and more importantly the individuals touched by it? Join us for the discussion on April 7-8, 2014, for the Annual International Corporate Volunteerism Conference.
As a precursor to the conference, we hope you'll join our upcoming debate "What is the Secret to Catalyzing Growth in Emerging Markets?" on March 4, 2014 at 1pm ET at #WhyProBono.