06/03/2011 05:39 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2011

Volunteering With Spreadsheets, Not Screwdrivers

During this period here in the U.S. between Memorial Day and Independence Day, it's not hard to think about expressing appreciation to those who have worked to protect and preserve our society. Many also think about ways they, too, can render vital community service to make the world a better place. But it can be a challenge to match one's experiences and skills with the right need or cause, particularly if you're better with calculators than you are with, say, a hammer.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had cerebral types in mind when it developed a program, announced this past week, to help professionals volunteer abroad. The program assumes that volunteers want to not only help others, but do so in the places where it will do the most good. Volunteers want to take full advantage of their own unique professional talents, such as finance, marketing, law, human resources and project management.

USAID has asked IBM to collaborate with CDC Development Solutions, a nonprofit NGO with deep experience in international development, to create what are essentially corporate versions of the Peace Corps. The agency wants to increase the number of skilled employee-volunteers at U.S.-based corporations by providing meaningful assistance to local governments, small businesses and civic groups in emerging markets abroad.

Employees in these programs will become highly valued "citizen-diplomats." They will provide vitally need skilled service and valuable, practical advice to societies worldwide that are looking to improve local economic opportunities through their health and education systems, technology infrastructure and urban planning and development. The program will help corporations of all sizes looking to start, grow or refine international volunteerism make their efforts more effective.

As part of the alliance -- a prime example of a public/private partnership -- a self-sustaining virtual "Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism" will be established. The virtual center's website will function as a forum where companies can exchange best practices, success stories and timely issues to improve the quality of their services.

Until now, corporations that might have had an interest in such efforts had to spend excessive time arranging and designing these programs on a custom basis through trial and error, making it hard to replicate. While IBM's program is quite large, with over 1,000 skilled participants over three years, many other companies -- especially those mid-sized and smaller -- could only muster small numbers of skilled volunteers. Formalizing the planning process is expected to make the initiatives more robust, strategic, efficient and useful.

There is little doubt that interest in overseas corporate volunteerism is growing. According to CDC Development Solutions, U.S. companies plan to dispatch nearly 2,000 employee volunteers to 58 nations this year, up from just 280 in 2006. That's a fairly dramatic increase, probably because companies are realizing that such programs are a real boon in so many ways.

Aside from helping local governments and citizens looking to improve societal, civic and free market institutions, employees that render service to these places come back with renewed cultural sensitivity, leadership skills, professional acumen and improved collaboration savvy. They tend to feel more fulfilled and develop deeper loyalty to their employer. And, of course, these folks can give valuable insight to the company about new commercial opportunities.

Programs such as these are becoming better appreciated because of changes to public policy. For instance, the U.S. State Department has championed the notion of citizens traveling or conducting business abroad as unofficial, de facto U.S. diplomats that show others how creative, collaborative and progressive this country's citizens are. And in April, the Department announced that it was putting together a new, "civil society" advisory committee to foster civilian diplomacy.

USAID's new program asks IBM to provide technology and services to help other companies replicate our international volunteerism program. We already help others do this, but until now, it has been on a custom basis. The IBM Corporate Service Corps, launched in 2008, deploys teams of skilled professionals who take on issues that improve local economic conditions, support entrepreneurship, as well as enhance transportation, education and basic government services such as health care. The company has dispatched more than 1,100 of its top employees on over 100 engagements in over two-dozen countries in the developing world.

Even though many of the program participants are based outside the U.S., the teams bring a uniquely American, can-do attitude to the projects they tackle.

The CEO of InterAction, a coalition of 190 U.S.-based international NGOs, has been quoted as saying that "you are in essence getting a private Peace Corps, and the technical expertise that comes with it, and increased mutual understanding between two countries. The new face of America overseas, often privately funded, can be very positive."

At this time of year, when we pay tribute to so many selfless individuals who made a difference, this timely, new program offers the rest of us an opportunity to do our part, with our own unique skills.