THE BLOG

Sending Employees Abroad to Attract Talent at Home

05/03/2013 05:24 pm ET | Updated Jul 03, 2013

Retaining and motivating employees is a growing challenge in a culture where educated professionals want to make a difference in the world, not just take home a paycheck.

Historically, the traditional route has been organizing employee giving programs designed to support local charities or specific issues. Think United Way or more recently, EarthShare.

While the "employee giving" model isn't going away, I'm seeing an emerging trend: companies creating opportunities for employees to undertake humanitarian trips overseas. These trips, designed to match employees' skills with the needs of underdeveloped areas of the world, may be the future of corporate charitable activities.

Cal State Professor Dana McDaniel Sumter, an expert on management and human resources, says that "...combining an international opportunity with a values-driven cause would make the [work] experience even more rewarding and attractive... Companies that are seen as 'getting it', that care about the same issues that talented employees care about, will engender loyalty."

One global business doing just that is Covance, a Princeton, NJ-based $2 billion drug development services company. Covance has partnered with CARE, the international aid charity, to create a three-year, $300,000 project aimed at reduce alarmingly high infant mortality rates and engage their employees. The project, called SMILE in Nepal (Saving Mothers' and Infants' LivEs) works to increase maternal healthcare during pregnancy and after giving birth through improved facilities, more birthing centers and basic education. Based on a similar program started in Rwanda in 2007, the NEPAL program aims to help 100,000 women improve their lives by receiving prenatal care education.

The program could not be targeted to a needier place. According to the CIA Fact Book, maternal mortality rates in Nepal are grim: 170 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2010. Infant mortality is just as bad: 43.13 deaths per 1,000 live births.

"Good health is priceless," Covance CFO Alison Cornell, who accompanied three employees on a recent trip to Nepal, told me. "We're a global service company. We have a responsibility to give back and help communities thrive."

Easier said than done, given Nepal's isolation and lack of infrastructure, medicine, equipment and education, not to mention roads consisting of "more potholes than pavement," as Cornell put it.

However, the opportunity to educate and empower thousands of women in Nepal was so strong that more than 120 Covance employees in 60 countries around the world competed for just three slots on the trip in early March.

One of the winning employees, Joanna Lim of Singapore, who'd been on mission trips to Malaysia and Ethiopia before, said that despite the grim environment, the courageous female health workers in Nepal's villages remain undaunted, doing whatever they can with the little they have.

"I was impressed with their dedication to the community, their spirit of giving and their resourcefulness,"she told me. "They look for ingenious ways to raise funds, like renting chairs and selling handicrafts... I watched (a woman) standing quietly behind her cart. There was a dignity and strength on her face that seemed to say 'I don't have much but what I do have, I worked hard for and I have nothing to be ashamed of.'"

In a society where having babies is an honor ("The more the better," according to Cornell), pregnancy carries status for the fathers, but expectant mothers are given almost no respect. Hence, helping women end their silence and realize their place is of utmost importance to the Covance employees. "I think it's about a light going on,"Cornell says. "It's all about helping women find their voice and understand that they are more powerful than they think they are."

The trip to Nepal exceeded Cornell's expectations, inspiring her on a fundamental level. "There is no doubt that the SMILE program is changing and saving lives... (and while) we are making a dent, there's still more we can do. This trip made me want to give even more."

It's this type of meaningful experience that creates a win-win where employees are motivated and companies like Covance strengthen employee loyalties.

Larger companies are adopting this new model as well. Fed Ex's Global Leadership Corps, a program to offer overseas charitable opportunities to employees, is in its second year. Dow Corning is in the second year of a program which sends director-level executives to developing countries to work on "cook stove" technology projects.

Professor Sumter says the programs "tend to provide: increased confidence, adaptability, dealing with change and ambiguity, cultural awareness, social savvy, interpersonal and people management skills, and communicating with diverse others. So companies who are known to offer these types of assignments, and run them well (an important distinction), will tend to attract top talent."

I predict this trend will grow as employees share their experiences and as charitable opportunities become part of corporate recruitment pitches to potential new employees-- people who want to work for companies that share their values.

Laurie Dhue is Founder and President of Laurie Dhue Media. A New York City-based journalist, she has hosted programs on Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC. On Twitter: @RealLaurieDhue.