Lessons learned from international corporate volunteering programs
By Bill Hatton
What’s working in international corporate volunteering (ICV)?
We put that question to PYXERA Global, a Washington, DC-based non-profit firm that helps companies set up global pro-bono programs. The key trend: These programs are getting more popular with companies, and are very popular with employees. In 2013, 6,000 participants took place in an ICV program; in 2014, that figure has increased to 9,000, according to PYXERA’s 2014 benchmarking survey. (PYXERA surveyed 26 of 39 companies with known global pro-bono programs.)
As you can imagine, setting up and managing a program requires a heavy investment in time and effort – it’s a classic Big Project, and needs to be thought through from beginning to end, with a feedback loop to apply lessons learned to future projects. Among the challenges noted by ICV program managers:
- Strategic alignment. How does an ICV program fit with the company’s business objectives? How does it fit in with the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy?
- Shared value. Which company strengths and resources are best used to create social good?
- Impact. What impact can an individual ICV program have, and how can that impact be sustainable?
- Workforce sustainability. These programs promise to build a lasting connection between participants and their companies, that is, create more engaged employees who are less likely to leave – while building the institutional knowledge of the organization. What gets in the way of those benefits and how can they best be applied when returning home?
- Market intelligence gathering. Learn the facts on the ground in new markets, seek new ideas and ways of looking at business, identify new business partners and entrepreneurs, and build a new customer base. How can these potential benefits become reality?
In the following pages, you will read some of the experiences and lessons learned from several leading companies conducting ICV programs. Since these programs are fairly new, having grown rapidly since 2008, many companies are still feeling their way around getting answers to the above questions.
How SAP rolled out their program
5 keys for making Social Sabbaticals work
IT firm SAP wanted to make its corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs more aligned with its corporate business strategy—and global pro bono has proven to be a good fit to add shared value, says Alexandra van der Ploeg, interim head of global CSR, SAP, and Robin Meyerhoff, director, sustainability & CSR communications.
“We realized about 2 1⁄2 years ago, when we started looking into this, that we were at a crossroads in terms of our CSR work,” says van der Ploeg. “We designed
a new CSR strategy which is in line with the business strategy and that is to strengthen and empower young people in education and to propel emerging entrepreneurs in emerging markets.”
One of the programs they came up with was a shared- value initiative called the Social Sabbatical.
“Typically what we do is we send teams to emerging markets for four weeks,” says van der Ploeg. “They will work with organizations or emerging entrepreneurs on their business challenges. We try to make sure that the organizations and entrepreneurs we choose are within or closely aligned with our business strategy and to our CSR strategy. That literally means that we focus all our efforts on strengthening the entrepreneurial sector in emerging markets.”
Here are some methods they used to get their program off the ground and working (Note: In SAP’s case, PXYERA helped with designing and rolling out the program):
1. Tested the waters with pilot programs
The company started with an initial test, to build interest, develop institutional knowledge, and create a feedback loop for a larger roll-out planned in subsequent years. They chose three emerging markets that closely aligned with their business goals—Brazil, India, and South Africa—and decided to send one test team each the first year. That would mean one team of 10 people, for a total of 30 people in three teams the first year. (The second year, aka, the rollout, had four teams of 12.)
They asked for volunteers for the Social Sabbatical by selecting top talent—high performers and leaders within the organization. Even then, that time and ever since, the number of applications/interest has been high.
“At the time we did a soft launch (the first year), we only needed 30 people,” explains van der Ploeg. “We’re about 68,000 employees worldwide. Even targeting the top talent pool—it’s about 10 percent of the entire organization—we had too many people (applying). So we needed to target it. Last year, 10 percent of the eligible employees actually applied. If I opened it up to all employees, I would be probably get the same percentage. There’s a huge appetite for something like this.”
Take-homes: Start small. Choose sites based on strategic goals. And anticipate high interest.
2. Look for organizations where teams can make a quick, sustainable impact
SAP’s team started with the resources they had on the ground: managing directors who were local. They chose a short assignment time (four weeks), long enough to complete one project, but not so long as to be disruptive to their current job. And they targeted shared-value opportunities for the projects.
“One of the things that we realized is that it’s a four week assignment, so it’s not very long and at the same time we wanted to make sure that teams could create the maximum impact for the orgs as possible,” explains van der Ploeg. “For the selection process for orgs, we decided to work very closely with our local market units.”
Example from the second year of the program: “In Kenya, I worked very closely with managing director of SAP East Africa,” says van der Ploeg. “We gave him some suggestions about organizations that we felt could work. We asked him to look very closely in his network to see what types of organizations he might already be working with, and organizations he may want to work with, and organizations he would want to introduce SAP to. Out of that we created a short list, and he was involved from the beginning right to the end with regards to the selection process.”
The projects themselves—a local organization that provides sanitation facilities such as toilets for some areas in Kenya, and an organization that invests capital in local entrepreneurs.
Take home: Start with what you know about the market, and the programs can help you build more contacts in that local market, including who you want to know.
3. Add your value to what’s missing from the local organizations
SAP found a great opportunity in the open-capital firm, aka, the entrepreneurial incubator. The firm was investing in entrepreneurs who are likely to become the next generation of business leaders. Getting to know the company, with its contacts and its customers, would serve an obvious business benefit: You know the players who will be making a difference for a long time.
“With open capital advisors, the incubator, they are at this stage where their business model works really well,” says van der Ploeg. “They have been growing rapidly almost too quickly. They wanted, in the first instance, our team to look at their business strategy and to figure out how they can better manage their clients and also with what types of solutions and tools they could better manage their CRM.
“You would think that in the first instance, our team would come with SAP solutions, but they didn’t,” explains van der Ploeg. “We tell our teams that should always take a back seat; they shouldn’t come in with SAP solutions. If that fits, then that’s fine. But they should always look at it with the customer needs perspective. So they first and foremost look at the customer, what they need and not at what we might have available to sell. But ultimately what the team did in four weeks, they didn’t just redesign their CRM processes and provided them with recommendations as far as a solution… they actually looked into all of their core business processes. So they basically did a full business reengineering project.”
Results: The client was “over the moon.” The SAP team made recommendations for four core business processes, so the client could handle their growth.
Take-home: Teams may need to broaden (or narrow) the scope, so they should have flexibility. Remember, the business strategy was helped in learning and opening the market, not just, as SAP demonstrated here, in selling their own products.
4. Leadership development: Give people a coach
Beyond impacts on the client side, a key to these programs is the impact on the company’s employees. SAP, for example, had already opened the program to top performers tagged for leadership, so global pro-bono became a way to accelerate leadership development. After all, if there’s any place you’re going to need lots of leadership, it’s in a cross-cultural environment where you are trying to learn a lot quickly and “get ’er done” at the same time.
“On the leadership development side, I think when you look at global pro bono programs, the leadership competency development component is obviously very strong,” says van der Ploeg. The key: “Figure out how to anchor the learning that takes place and how to reflect on the learning and who to incorporate it back in to their workplace in ways that is really not trivial. I do think we’ve come a long way, I don’t think we’ve completely mastered it yet.”
One addition was a coach. “Every participant gets a coach and receives coaching sessions, so that they have somebody to reflect with and to really think about [in voice of a participant] what is it that I want to achieve via the social sabbatical before they go and how do I want to bring the skills and competency back to SAP?” says van der Ploeg. “And once they’re back and they’ve had time to reflect with the coach, so [in voice of participant] what have I learned what has happened, what are these skills, what are these competencies can I bring back to my workplace and how do I make sure I can incorporate into my daily work?”
Coaching was a lesson learned: “We didn’t do the coaching in the pilot, so that was only added last year. We also did more in preparation; we get HR much more involved as well and we do a particular session just on personal development planning and for the participants before they leave—so they take that component seriously and really think it through, to see [in voice of participant] how can I bring those skills and competencies back to my workplace?”
5. Break out of the box
The overwhelming enthusiasm for the program, and the impossibility of sending enough people on Social Sabbaticals, led SAP’s team to adapt: “The response was so overwhelming we’ve been looking at ways about how we can take elements off of the Social Sabbatical and create new programs around it,” explains van der Ploeg. That way, “similar experiences can become more available to more employees at SAP.”
One pilot they are trying out: a local Social Sabbatical, where local SAP employees work with local organizations. “It’s not global, but how we work and how we select organizations, and how projects are chosen remain the same. That reduces costs significantly if you don’t do it internationally and we’re piloting it this year in two different locations,” says van der Ploeg. “I have high hopes. If it works well, that is definitely a program that we could potentially scale in a lot of different regions for many more employees.”