By Allison McGuire
I’ve recently learned about a terrific example of the benefits of companies using corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies to solve problems abroad—IBM’s Corporate Service Corps. For background, you can read my posts about CSR and international development on this blog and through the Truman Project.
IBMers in Ghana | Photo credit: IBM/Katie Levey
How the program works: IBM sends 10-15 employees, ranging in skillsets and national origin, to a developing market for four-week assignments that are pre-scoped by NGO partners such as CDC Development Solutions. At the intersection of business, technology, and society, IBMers work with and within communities to solve economic development problems.
Since 2008, the company has already sent more than 1,500 IBMers to participate in the Corps.
IBM outlines three benefits to the Corporate Services Corps:
1. Communities have their problems solved.
Communities thrive through connecting with IBM’s unique problem-solving skills, and IBMers remember key takeaways that can later be scaled up in other locations. By helping to create stable communities, IBM improves future opportunities to work in those markets.
2. IBMers receive leadership training and development.
During an Executive Service Corps program in Vietnam, one IBMer relayed her experience with connecting to key regional stakeholders in order to better understand local and national issues:
“In my case, [Ho Chi Minh City] was interested in ensuring food quality and safety, and developing a plan for how to respond in the case of a food emergency,” says Michele Grieshaber. “So in that first week, I visited a vegetable farm, a vegetable processor, a seafood processor and exporter, a wholesale market at night, a clam farm, and a shrimp farm. We met the people that are part of the supply chain, we asked questions, and we tried to understand the process and the problems.”
This program builds solid relationships between IBMers and community stakeholders; Grieshaber flexed her leadership qualities by connecting with a wide swath of interested parties, and in turn, locals benefited by learning from her expertise.
3. IBM develops new markets and global leaders.
Like many multinational companies in the tech sector, IBM is continually looking for new markets to grow their products and services, and/or establish supply chains. By working within burgeoning governments and communities, IBM gets access to markets that have yet to develop their full potential. In addition, IBM has a hand in shaping future leaders—both internally with their employees and externally with local government and community citizens.
Wondering why haven’t I mentioned how USAID wins?
Good question. The Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism (CEICV) is a new partnership between the USAID and IBM, and implemented by CDC Development Solutions–it enables companies to establish and expand on their International Corporate Volunteering initiatives. USAID wins through each of these steps because it sees its goals completed (or moving towards completion). Its mission statement couldn’t describe this more perfectly:
“Our assistance develops the markets of the future; long-time aid recipients have become strong trade partners and are the fastest growing markets for American goods. USAID is developing partnerships with countries committed to enabling the private sector investment that is the basis of sustained economic growth to open new markets for American goods, promote trade overseas, and create jobs here at home.”
You can learn more about this new public-private partnership via CEICV.
As this example illustrates, pro bono and skills-based volunteer work in developing markets can be a great training ground for employees and an important component of a company’s CSR portfolio. Here are a few guiding principles to inform your company’s international volunteer program:
1. Select projects in markets that matter to your company and your employees. The work has to be both relevant and meaningful. Passion projects have their place, but a pro bono service program is not just about social impact – it has to make business sense.
2. Develop long-term partnerships with on-the-ground partners. This will ensure a good alignment of needs and skills and promote strategic projects that will have sustainable impact once the project ends.
3. Foster a corporate culture that values non-traditional experience as part of the leadership development pathway. The last thing you want to do is encourage the passion your employees have for international service and then punish them upon their return because they chose to climb the ladder in a different way.
4. Showcase both the good work employees accomplish overseas and the professional development they achieved through the experience. This is where lunch and learn sessions, employee blog posts and more informal communication can have a real impact on the health of the program. Let employees share what they learned and the difference they made in their own voice. Their passion will inspire participation.
5. Be prepared to learn and adjust the program with each new assignment. Work in developing markets has its unique challenges and the program needs to be flexible enough to maintain high standards but adapt to doing business at the bottom of the pyramid.
Would you participate in a program like this? Why or why not?