Like most experienced business professionals, I am highly suspicious of things that seem “too good to be true.” So, I shouldn’t be so surprised when people continue to ask—even demand, “What’s the business case for corporate volunteerism?”
International corporate volunteerism (ICV), or global pro bono, was one of the top considerations—and one of the most popular sessions—at two recent high-profile events regarding volunteerism: the U.S. State Department’s Forum on International Corporate Volunteerism and the Points of Light conference, which explored and promoted volunteerism of all kinds. Having directed ICV efforts of a multi-billion dollar international enterprise, I can tell you the question is frequently asked internally as well. So, maybe this is a good time to “pull back the curtain” and as one of the sessions at Points of Light highlighted, learn to “Speak Corporate” when it comes to ICV.
Volunteering is CSR—In Action
In order to make the business case, you always need to think value. Businesses are responsible for generating value, but value, contrary to public opinion, is not always measured in dollars. Sometimes that value is delivered in the form of information, services, or influence. But, recognizing what the business needs is the first step in determining how volunteerism can be used to generate the value. Fortunately, in volunteering, it’s a virtuous cycle.
In ICV programs, a company puts one of its most precious resources—its talent—to work for a purpose that is not directly related to its commercial business, but instead, advances a purpose in common with other stakeholders. A company’s motivation for supporting employee volunteerism is the same motivation that drives smart executives to promote a healthy, strategic and impactful approach to corporate citizenship:
Reduce Risk: secure and protect a “license to operate”
Securing and protecting a “license to operate” isn’t necessarily a legal license. It’s the tacit permission our society gives for businesses to operate in certain contexts. Businesses have a tendency to forget that they operate within a natural environment and a political-social structure that allows commerce to take place. Good managers recognize—and never take for granted—the need to secure and protect that license to operate. Sharing talent for advancing common goals or combining forces to battle a common problem is an efficient, impactful, and authentic way to make deposits into the bank of public trust. Some experts like Paul Klein, the founder of Impakt, a firm which helps large corporations increase business value through positive social change, argues that corporate volunteer assignments have the potential to be game changers in the development sector. In addition to providing value to the company and its employees, ICV programs have the potential to provide development impact in local communities as well. “Local communities benefit from the new skills they learned and the services that have been provided by the corporate volunteers,” said Klein in an article written for Forbes last year.
Develop Talent: attract, engage & retain employees
Good corporate citizens have a competitive edge when it comes to attracting, engaging and retaining their employees, one of the most important resources for any successful business. A bonus, volunteering efficiently and effectively develops talent, as well. Skills-based volunteering (or pro bono) is especially effective and economical for leadership development, as reported in a George Washington University Study published in 2012.
Secure a Good Reputation: activate appropriate advocacy amongst key stakeholders
Everyone needs allies—no one can go it alone. Good corporate citizens build alliances that serve as appropriate advocates in those decisive moments of our individual and corporate lives. The customer who recommends us; the neighbor who speaks on our behalf; the politician who is more open to a point of view; the employee who enthusiastically and proudly sports the corporate brand—all of these are examples of advocacy-in-action. Such advocacy requires long-term commitment and authentic relationships that are built on trust. One of the most effective and economical ways to build trusting relationships is on the common ground that volunteer engagements provide.
Grow the Business: gain valuable insights into emerging markets
In addition to meeting these important objectives, volunteerism in the service of under-served communities is also a potential source of intellectual and emotional insight to develop new markets as well as sustainable supply chains. There is no substitute for on-the-ground experience, and ICV assignments are particularly rich sources of insight, without requiring an immediate long-term commitment, making them especially attractive to companies assessing multiple options. Dow Corning, a silicone supplier based in Midland, Michigan, pushed its employees to conduct market research and identify business opportunities during volunteer trips. Dow Corning’s business development unit then identified the most promising and innovative ideas sparked by volunteer assignment which became part of their new opportunity portfolio.
It may seem too good to be true, but there’s substantial experience and evidence to demonstrate that a strategic approach to volunteerism can help reduce risk, develop talent, secure advocates, and grow the business.
What other business strategy boasts that kind of return?
Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.