Corporations Turning to Skill-Based International Volunteerism

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 18, 2011

Ron Favali likens the month he spent in Cross River State, Nigeria, in 2009 as a member of IBM’s nine-member Corporate Service Corps (CSC)—and the preparation leading up to it—to receiving a master’s degree in international business.

Favali, communications manager, IBM, provided pro bono work on a project designed to encourage people from major cities in Nigeria to travel to Cross River State’s capital inCalabar on holiday during what is the slowest time of year for hotels. Favali parlayed his skills to create marketing materials and help develop communications tools for such stakeholders as local hotels, travel agents, restaurants and tourist attractions.

He worked with Tourism Employment and Opportunity (TEMPO) that is affiliated with U.S.–based CDC Development Solutions (CDS) and funded by the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Project (MSME); the MSME is piloted by the World Bank and Nigeria’s federal government.

His colleagues, who worked primarily onassignments that supportedthe government of Cross River State,helped a social welfare program determine the best information system for monitoring and recording child and maternal health, and created an information technology framework and policies to manage a computer network so 18 different government departments can collaborate more effectively.

“Classroom” experiences included cruising the Calabar River in a police boat to tour a hotel and golf resort located upriver from where mangroves and tiny fishing villages of thatched-roof huts dot the land.

They lived in a hotel around the corner from a preserve for endangered drill monkeys. They worked in an environment where inconsistent electric power is common and a generator is not installed until the cash-in-advance-only transaction is sealed.

Their “thesis” was a formal presentation on the status of the five projects that Favali and his colleagues gave to the Cross River State governor’s cabinet before returning home.

“It was everything I hoped it could be and more, just in terms of the number of people you meet, the impact that you’re making on the lives of other people,” said Favali, whose blog posts recount a myriad of cultural experiences.

It was “a profound experience” and one he’d like to repeat.

It’s also a growing trend.

Making a Social Impact

International corporate volunteerism (ICV) began in the early 2000s with Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers, according to a 2010 case study of IBM’s program, Best Practices in International Corporate Volunteerism by three senior IBM employees.

A September 2007 report,
Volunteering for Impact: Best Practices in International Corporate Volunteering, cited statistics from the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) that showed 41 percent of 103 major corporations CECP surveyed had at least one formal international volunteer program.

Pfizer’s Global Health Fellows program has sent more than 120 employees since 1995 to developing countries for assignments that have ranged from three months to six months. Volunteers have included scientists, clinical researchers, financial and data analysts, nurses, doctors, and HR managers. Projects have included providing financial advice to HIV-positive women participating in micro-lending programs in Honduras, and implementing management systems for health care in health centers across Rwanda.

Dow Corning launched its Citizens Service Corps in 2010, sending 10 employee volunteers to Bangalore, India. Their work included promoting more environmentally friendly, financially sustainable improvements to homes there.

“There is a greater demand from employees—existing employees and incoming employees—for companies to provide these kinds of experiences,” said Deirdre White, CEO and president of CDC Development Solutions (CDS). It designs and implements corporate volunteerism programs in emerging global markets.

“As companies become more global it makes sense for their workforce to be exposed to … a variety of different markets and to understand what the challenges are, understand what the opportunities are,” White said.

“Sending teams that are multinational brings another whole element, using this opportunity to actually expose staff around the world to what their colleagues from other countries are like, what kinds of things they’re working on.”

Recruiting, Engagement, Retention Tool

Ed Colbert, Dow Corning’s director of talent management, sees ICV as an effective recruiting, engagement and retention tool that gives an organization valuable insight into other parts of the world. Dow is another of CDS’s clients.

“This whole activity isn’t necessarily about business opportunities for Dow Corning,” Colbert said. “We were really looking for places [to assist] that were bottom of the pyramid in terms of buying power, looking for places that had a need … that Dow Corning may be able to [fill].”

Dow’s three objectives, he said, are social consciousness; exposure to potential ideas or innovations by being in an area it normally does not have a presence; and development opportunities for participants. It chose India because the projects there aligned well with the company’s criteria, Colbert explained.

“Did we get any sales out of this? Did we get any revenue out of this? No, but that wasn’t the intention,” he said, citing the long-term benefits of employee development and building goodwill.

There can be other intangible benefits, though, such as innovation, and research and development, various sources suggest.

IBM’s teams established business incubators with leading universities in Ghana and fostered business-to-business and business-to-government relationships, according to a company news release.

Additionally, the program is “a sparkler in terms of benefits,” Favali said, calling it one of the biggest attention-getters with students at recruiting events.

There can be tangible benefits. In 2010, after a successful one-month pro bono project by one of its volunteer teams, IBM signed an agreement with Cross River State to provide consultancy services, according to an April 2011 company news release.

How to Make It Work

Who a company sends, the criteria for participation, and the intent of its program varies from company to company.

IBM’s program is for its highest performing nonexecutives and “designed to provide social good,” White said. Deloitte aims its program at incoming young talent, and participants from Pfizer are nominated by a supervisor.

“There just is a whole gamut … based on company culture, based on the overall strategy on what they’re going to get out of the program,” she said.

ICV requires advance planning with local beneficiaries, training of volunteers, and coordinating in-country logistics, the 2007 Brookings/Pfizer report pointed out.

Favali and his colleagues underwent about 10 weeks of preparation that included learning about cultural adaptability and intelligence, corporate social responsibility, the role of international development in emerging markets, consulting with clients in emerging markets, team development, and exploring social media, he wrote in his blog.

Their preparation included international conference calls with colleagues in Australia, Finland, India, Ireland, the U.S. and Venezuela who were on the team.

Some corporations partner with an intermediary, such as CDS, whose clients range from organizations with revenues of $25 million to Fortune 500s.

Others work directly with individual groups—nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, privates businesses, individuals—to plan assignments. One information source for employers is the Center for Excellence in International Corporate Volunteerism (CEICV), an online resource CDS helped create through a 2011 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

A company’s investment can range from only covering employee salaries to customized pre-service training programs, centralized project management, structured partner relationships, product donations and grant enhancements, according to the Brookings/Pfizer report.

CDS’s White estimated it costs an employer about $150,000 to send a 10-member team on a month-long assignment and cover travel, visas, orientation, lodging and other assistance.

Assignments can range from one week to one year, although three to four weeks is becoming standard, she said.

“[It] gives people time to get settled, really dig in and have an experience that, across the board, people are describing as ‘life changing.’ ”

However, “30 days isn’t a lot of time to do as much as the clients want to get done,” IBM’s Favali said.

“It’s actually a little bit scary and overwhelming a couple of weeks before you start” when reading over the expectations of what the team is expected to accomplish. “Those get pared and changed,” he said.

Several months after his team returned home and debriefed colleagues, another IBM team arrived to carry on the projects.

Don’t Get Tripped Up

One thing corporate volunteerism needs to guard against is an overemphasis on metrics—the number of volunteers, total hours of service—rather than the potential impact it can make, according to the Brookings/Pfizer report.

However, there is a need to measure the impact of a company's ICV, according to the report. It pointed to IBM and Pfizer as examples of companies that use external evaluators such as the nonprofit Points of Light Foundation or Boston University for this purpose.

Being unclear in its purpose can trip up a company.

“Corporations neither regularly articulate the strategic purpose nor measure the social impact of volunteering,” according to the report.

Instead, they are based on “improved employee morale and contributions toward corporate citizenship” and ignore the potential business or social impact they could make.

For companies considering starting an ICV program, the report recommends:

  • Identify the business motivations for volunteering and develop programs to fit the company’s goals.
  • Determine whether the program will focus on cross-border volunteerism—employees traveling abroad—or local service—employees based in countries outside headquarters volunteering in their communities.
  • Leverage employees’ workplace skills and knowledge.
  • Look for opportunities to combine volunteering programs with the organization’s ongoing philanthropic or corporate social responsibility work.
  • Consider a partnership that can provide access to resources your organization may not have.
  • Invest in infrastructure to ensure there are adequate internal resources to manage the volunteering program.
  • Clearly communicate the organization’s motivations and benefits of the program to internal and external stakeholders.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

Related Articles:

CSR Overseas, SHRM Online Global HR Discipline, August 2011

Giving Back Can Build Cultural Competence, SHRM Online Diversity HR Discipline, February 2011


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