10/07/2014 11:28 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Taking Skills-Based Volunteering Around the World

I'm always interested to see how companies are doubling down on their employee volunteering programs, and in the process reinventing the possibilities for what these programs can become.

Symantec is one of the companies out there that is applying a ton of passion and creativity to their program, and the results are fascinating. Their Symantec Service Corps program is an outstanding offshoot of their strong overall volunteer program, bringing together 10 employees from around the globe to provide pro bono consulting to NGOs in a specific region of the world.

When the company launched this pilot program, they received 200 applications for just 10 spots. Applicants from across the world explained why they wanted to participate, what skills and experience they possessed that could be applied to this initiative, and their commitment to community relations and impact. Symantec matched high-performing employees who had the appropriate skill sets with the right nonprofits, ultimately sending 10 employees to Arequipa, Peru for a four-week pro-bono volunteer assignment, focusing on marketing, accounting, and HR-based projects for three non-profits in the country.

The Symantec team provided one organization, Paz Peru, with a year-long marketing strategy, how to guides and implementation training, and measurement tools. A second nonprofit was given accounting system review and recommendation, improved business processes, improved security, functionality and efficiency for day-to-day operations. And for a third NGO, the team delivered a new mission statement, new technologies to improve daily operations, training on communications and trust building, and a proposed organizational structure and succession plan.

According to Cecily Joseph, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility for Symantec, the effort was a huge success and has quickly become one of their most rewarding volunteer initiatives. "We're really proud of this effort, and that pride is shared widely by our employees. The reward of the program and tie in to our business is so clear, and the impact for the nonprofits is so evident, that it's well worth the effort. It's a great investment for our company."

Impact tracking is important for Symantec. Demonstrating the impact that Symantec's CSR efforts have on the organizations it supports helps Symantec develop a management plan, and also helps the nonprofits develop their own marketing program, which only makes the nonprofit stronger. Meanwhile the impact on Symantec itself is also significant, showing how these programs help managers build future leaders.

Joseph believes that these sorts of immersive, international skills-based pro bono opportunities accelerate awareness and engagement. That's why she places a great deal of focus on building consensus and support for this program, and making sure that the company measures the success of this kind of an investment. "I know that employees like to volunteer, and that they get a lot out of it, but I was amazed at the level of commitment the service corps employees had and how much they got out of this experience. It surpassed all of my expectations."

What is the effect of Symentec's corporate philanthropy efforts? Lots of employee engagement. "We have tons of internal communications around our programs. Employees share their stories with other employees about how they were able to work as a part of a global cross-functional team, which by the way is important for multinational companies today. They learn about living in an emerging country and get to really experience what giving back means. Working in another country is so important for leadership development. One of the key messages that gets sent back to the company is that what employees are doing there aligns with their own leadership success."

Another recent international effort for Symantec was an initiative to help Rwandan women pursue careers in STEM fields. Since 2011, the company has been a part of the U.S. State Department's TechWomen Program, which brings female IT professionals from the Middle East and Africa to Silicon Valley for a month of mentoring. Because Symantec encourages its female employees to apply to this program, there have been about a dozen women in Symantec volunteering their time as either a Professional or Cultural Mentor.

As an extension of that program, employees who participated were invited to visit two of the 16 countries where these aspiring technologists came from. The company recently sent a group of three Symantec employees to Rwanda to represent the company, with the purpose being 1) to encourage girls there to pursue careers in STEM; 2) to increase the number of female candidates for the program; and 3) to visit the U.S. embassy in Rwanda to solicit their help in supporting the program.

"We want to help grow the infrastructure of women in technology to fill the increasing number of jobs created by firms opening up offices in Rwanda that prefer to hire locally," says Joseph. This also helps Rwanda with its self-stated goal of becoming the IT hub of Africa.

Symantec's employee volunteer program is one part of a much broader CSR initiative, with the overriding goal being to operate from integrity with a respect for the environment and a commitment to positive social impact. "Each year when go through and do analytics as a company," notes Joseph, "one area that rises to the top of the priority list is employee satisfaction and talent management. Volunteering and employee engagement are two of the ways we think we can foster greater connectivity between employees and the communities in which we operate."

While Symantec has a corporate focus on a few core issues, the company recognizes that its employees are passionate about a wide range of issues and often they want to be engaged in activities that have nothing to do with their jobs. "For example, my passion is around homelessness prevention, which has very little overlap with my day-to-day corporate job." Conversely, some employees prefer to leverage their skills to support different causes.

That's why, in addition to supporting Symantec's philanthropic focus areas, the company also believes it is important to allow employees to pursue those causes most important to them, and to receive corporate support for those activities. Its Matching Gift, Dollars for Doers, and Nonprofit Board Service Programs do just this by allowing employees to gain corporate support for any activity with a registered nonprofit organization.

"I think every business today has to build trust with customers and communities at large, and volunteering is an important aspect of this goal," says Joseph. "Committing to programs like the ones that Symantec is supporting but also CSR in general demonstrates that the company is dedicated to doing something positive and making the world a better place. These programs do help companies for lots of reasons, and employees feeling more connected is at the top of that list. If can we can demonstrate how these efforts help business, that's absolutely a win win."