THE BLOG
03/07/2014 02:23 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2014

International Corporate Volunteering: Profitable for Multinational Corporations

People from multinational corporations head off and volunteer for weeks or months in another country, leaving their work behind for others to do. Referred to as Global Pro Bono or International Corporate Volunteering, is this a feel-good thing, or is it really business-related? If you listen to executives at companies that sponsor international corporate volunteering (ICV), these are powerful initiatives for developing employees as leaders to solve global challenges, gaining expertise in emerging markets where the companies want to enter, and building capacity in regions where companies want to expand their businesses and sales. If you listen to Deirdre White, CEO of PYXERA Global, the NGO that facilitates ICV programs for dozens of multinational corporations, she has a vision for ICV 2.0 which will bring even greater benefits to companies and the world.

A growing trend. Beginning with only 375 international corporate volunteers from six multinational corporations (MNCs) surveyed by PYXERA Global in 2008, ICV has grown to 6,000 employees representing 29 MNCs between 2008 and 2013. These volunteers have worked in 64 countries, primarily in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Structured experiences. ICVs are carefully designed experiences, most often for teams comprised of people from multiple countries with a variety of skill sets, from marketing and human resources, to information technology and finance. The volunteer projects are selected based on the company's priority interests -- in terms of the challenge (micro finance is one of Credit Suisse's priority interests) and geography (Peru is a priority interest for Symantec for strategic reasons). Many companies prepare volunteers in advance and have a period of debriefing that involves the next group of volunteers. And many companies include the volunteers' teams back home in a way that makes them part of the leadership development experience as well.

Leadership development. ICV programs are highly selective -- designed by companies to invest in employees who demonstrate significant leadership potential. Companies consider problem-solving and cultural sensitivity to be essential for effective leadership.

Google's "Global Reach" program, established in 2011, emphasizes its focus on "human capital and technology to address global humanitarian challenges and develop globally conscious leaders." Google facilitates leadership development for three months, by providing training for each 16-person team during the month before they deploy, building in a process for team members to coach each other during the month while they are out on assignment, and having the team prepare the next group for a month after their return.

"Each group of 16, who come from multiple countries, is comprised of people with a set of complementary skills," said Sarah Nickerson, Program Manager, Employee Social Responsibility at Google. "Essentially, the team looks like a mini-Google office."

Credit Suisse also underscores vital skills for leadership development.

"Our volunteers work in unfamiliar environments, without their home team for support. They have to build rapport with new people in a new culture in order to problem-solve. This involves practicing, enhancing, and developing skills to deal with change and uncertainty. This requires adaptability," explained Eva Halper, Vice President, Corporate Citizenship, Credit Suisse, whose volunteers have worked on micro finance and education projects for five years in twelve different countries.

Symantec is piloting its first global pro bono project in Peru. The company envisions this as a leadership development experience for the team back home as well as the volunteers abroad.

"Managers and the teams back home participate as well as the employees who deploy, because they have to step up," explained Cecily Joseph, Vice President, Community Relations, Symantec. "Additionally, there's ongoing communication between the volunteers and the home teams via social media. Everyone becomes part of the experience, and everyone is recognized."

Surveys show the leadership development benefits. According to an IBM survey, 97 percent of their managers reported that the employees who participated returned with enriched cultural awareness; 78 percent showed improved attitude and motivation; and 73 percent showed enhanced leadership. Additionally, 97 percent would recommend the experience to a colleague; 90 percent returned with a better sense of businesses role in society; and 88 percent reported that they returned with an increased ability to listen for client needs and envision their future. According to PYXERA Global, 67 percent of ICV assignments are team-based; 76 percent of returning volunteers were described as having improved their ability to work with a team.

Emerging markets. Companies that deploy international volunteers engage in emerging markets for two reasons. First, to deepen their understanding of the needs and interests of people and communities in new markets where the companies are expanding. Second, to facilitate capacity building of NGOs and small and growing businesses, economic development and improvements in education and healthcare in markets where companies are expanding. By helping to educate the workforce, improve the health of the community, and increase family incomes, multinational corporations are improving their own business opportunities in emerging markets. Building a better world is good for business.

"For a global firm, a stable social and economic environment is key to our long term success as a company," stated Halper of Credit Suisse. "We see ourselves as an integral part of society. We want to work with our partners long term. We want our relationships to grow and have an impact."

Employee satisfaction and retention. Many studies tie employee satisfaction and pride in their company with increased productivity and retention. Ernst & Young has tied its ICV program to employee satisfaction.

"According to EY's annual Global People Survey of employees, EY Vantage Advisors (one of our international corporate volunteerism programs) return to the workplace with significantly higher engagement in their careers at EY and are more likely to recommend EY as a 'great place to work' and commit to building a long-term career with the firm," said Deborah Holmes, Americas Director, Corporate Responsibility, Ernst & Young.

Higher retention rates go directly to a company's bottom line.

PYXERA Global. "PYXERA Global [an NGO] is an invaluable resource for us," pronounced Cecily Joseph from Symantec. "We tell them which communities we want to work in, and they help to identify the projects where our volunteer teams can have the greatest impact."

Joseph added that, "We want the experiences to be meaningful but we also want our volunteers to be safe. PYXERA Global helps us navigate many important issues to help us make sure that our employees are well taken care of."

Sue Tsokris, Vice President of Sustainability and Global Citizenship, and Vice President of the Foundation, PepsiCo, agreed, "PYXERA Global has experts in a variety of geographies to help sew a lot of pieces together -- from identifying local NGOs, to identifying communities with certain needs. We talk with PYXERA Global when we're looking for a project that addresses a particular need in a particular location."

What's next: ICV 2.0. "While we are seeing more and more multinational corporations getting involved in ICV, this is just a start," said Deirdre White, CEO, PYXERA Global. Not only does White hope to see more companies establish ICV programs, but her vision is bigger.

"If ICV is so powerful in developing new styles of leadership at companies, and building capacity in emerging markets where companies seek to establish a serious presence, then ICV needs to scale up in a more significant way," explained White. Her vision is of companies partnering with each other to help develop local supply chains that are useful to their industries.

"The ultimate win-win is when company experts -- as international corporate volunteers -- serve as advisors to help local businesses in emerging markets to become multinational suppliers to multinational corporations," said White. "The experience for the advisors will also help them to understand the real challenges facing these local businesses and rethink how they work together, including finding innovative ways to contract with these businesses," added White.

With this vision, ICV could help lift entire regions out of poverty, while providing opportunities for companies to profit and increase their long term value.

Learn more on April 7-8, in Washington, D.C., when PYXERA Global is holding its fifth annual ICV conference, "Catalyzing Growth in Emerging Markets."