In July of 2008, I coordinated the first-ever IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) team in Timisoara, Romania. While I’d spent most of my career working with individual pro bono volunteers on development projects, working with 10 corporate employees at the same time was a completely new experience. For those of us working for PYXERA Global (then Citizens Development Corps), it quickly became apparent through the work completed in Romania and in the other pilot locations that international corporate volunteerism, or global pro bono, would have a game-changing impact on enhancing local capacity in emerging and frontier markets. In a mere four weeks, a team of 10 IBMers had demonstrated just how much a highly-skilled team could accomplish, completely changing how our organization worked.
On the first team to Brazil, a software engineer was tasked with designing a database handbook for an organization working with youth centers in the favelas of Sao Paulo. We thought it was an ambitious month-long assignment—to first assess and understand the system, to outline the handbook, and then to actually create it. He accomplished it all in the first week, and then had it translated into Portuguese.
Nearly six years later, IBM’s CSC, has sent more than 2,500 employees on assignments in emerging and frontier markets and PYXERA Global has designed and facilitated similar programs for fifteen more corporations. This year, our benchmarking survey went out to nearly 40 companies, all with programs that provide opportunities for their employees to work on skills-based, pro bono projects in countries other than their own. And yet, I think we are just reaching the tipping point of the dramatic impact global pro bono can have on some of the world’s most pressing global challenges.
Many Roads to Transformation
Global pro bono programs are by no means one size fits all. They are infinitely adaptable to meet corporate goals and to best support the communities in which they take place. While a team-based, four-week model continues to be the most popular, PYXERA Global is increasingly working with companies on new program models.
For example, last year Dow Chemical’s Leadership in Action program provided opportunities for 36 high-potential Dow employees from around their global operations to work on virtual teams with six organizations in Ghana over the course of several months, capped by an intensive week working with their clients directly in Accra. For the participating employees, this experience—working in a virtual team, finding ways to address the challenges in connecting with their local clients over stressed telecommunications lines, and ultimately working side-by-side with their local clients, even if just for a week—provided context, perspective, and a better understanding of one of the company’s most important expanding markets. The Dow program is better suited for employees whose day jobs and daily lives don’t so easily permit them to take several weeks off.
Other companies provide longer-term assignments through individual Fellowships; Pfizer’s Global Health Fellows and GSK’s PULSE have been in existence for years. Both provide opportunities for individual employees (rather than teams) to spend an extended period of time—up to six months—working with an organization in an emerging market. While this is a significant commitment from the business, the returns are tremendous. Employees return with a deep understanding of business-related issues in their project country. Merck’s Richard T. Clark Fellows program is an adaptation of this approach, linking career development and teaming into an extended fellowship model. Fellows participating in Merck’s program receive career coaching throughout their three-month assignments and, teams of three individuals are often each assigned to different projects working for the same organization, therefore combining the teambuilding aspects of the group program with the depth of immersion of the fellowships.
But Can We Measure It?
Global pro bono programs—as with any development program—are only as good as their results. What makes these programs special is their potential for dimensional impact, what IBM calls the Triple Benefit. Since the program’s start, comments from returning volunteers have for years touted the transformational impact on participating employees, but recently these findings were made even more robust through demonstrable quantitative evidence as well.
IBM recently surveyed 534 managers whose employees undertook a CSC assignments: 89 percent reported that the employee returned with a better sense of IBM’s role in society, 73 percent reported that their employees returned from their assignments with enhanced leadership skills, and 66 percent reported that their experience had improved their problem-solving abilities. The results reported by the participants themselves are similarly impressive: 88 percent reported they improved their ability to listen for client needs and to envision their future needs and 82 percent reported their increased desire to stay with the company.
Having an impact on the employees and the business is great, but what of the impact on the local clients in emerging markets? For host organizations—be they emerging enterprises, well-established NGOs, or local government agencies—global pro bono programs enable the more rapid and effective achievement of key business objectives, providing access to inaccessible skills and expertise. Hosting a team of highly skilled IBM employees for one month also exposes the organization to the professionalism and operational process of a large multinational company. Demonstrating the value of process-driven work, something the private sector excels at, can be hugely beneficial to improving outcomes for that organization on future projects as well.
Forging a Pathway of Partnership, #Catalyze14
Last June, the U.S. Department of State hosted a forum on international corporate volunteerism to begin a cross-sector dialogue about the importance of this emerging practice, touting its enormous potential to have a measurable impact on some of the most vexing issues of our time. Stan Litow, the Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and the President of the IBM Foundation gave the closing keynote address, and he issued this call to action:
“What would happen, if every Fortune 500 company fielded 100 employees a year? Imagine the impact that would yield, both on your employees and on the world.”
Global pro bono fuses the combined strength of the private, public, and social sectors in a unique way. It’s not just money from one, materials from another, and ideas from a third party as can often be the case. The human aspect of global pro bono, how it brings these groups together at the individual level, is what makes it special and what provides the potential for transformation. Not only that, but the practice can also help companies like IBM, Dow Chemical, GSK, and others discover new market insights that unlock the potential of what their business can contribute to future market potential as well. But potential is only that. More companies must embrace this opportunity for it to be realized.
This spring in Washington, DC on April 7 and 8, PYXERA Global will host its 5th Annual Conference on International Corporate Volunteerism, Catalyzing Growth in Emerging Markets. The conference will include speakers from a great number of companies that are developing programs to meet their corporate goals, including Dow, Ernst & Young, SAP, Merck, IBM, BD, Credit Suisse, Deere, Google, GSK, PepsiCo, Symantec, Pfizer, La Caixa Foundation, and the PIMCO Foundation. They will discuss how corporate global engagement can enhance leadership and talent development, frugal innovation, business insight, hybrid and sustainable value chains, in order to foster a culture of holistic community development. I promise it’s a conference you won’t want to miss.
Feature photo courtesy of PepsiCo.
Amanda MacArthur is the Vice President of Global Pro Bono and Engagement at PYXERA Global where she leads the organization’s Global Pro Bono and MBAs Without Borders programs, as well as the Center for Citizen Diplomacy. In this capacity, Amanda designs and implements corporate social responsibility programs for the public and private sector focused on skills-based volunteerism in emerging markets, leadership development, and sustainable economic impact. Most recently, Amanda played a key role in designing IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, while overseeing Global Pro Bono programs for PepsiCo, Pfizer, FedEx, and several others.